The fifth anniversary of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was met last week with a plethora of national and local stories, many of which examined the health of the Gulf, the legal ramifications of the disaster and other worthy topics. For those of us who live in Louisiana, the real story is that of the people whose lives were, and continue to be, forever changed by the negligence of the oil giant.
As it was after the federal flood in 2005, language continues to remain important in discussing the BP disaster. Just as the flooding of New Orleans was the result of shoddy levee engineering, not "Hurricane Katrina," the BP disaster wasn't a "spill" but rather the result of "gross negligence" on the part of BP — according to a ruling last September by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
BP has paid out billions in claims — and billions to its defense lawyers — but the company balks at taking full financial responsibility for the disaster. The court is expected to award upwards of $13 billion for the oil company's negligence. Those billions will be divvied up among Gulf Coast states via a complex formula. After five years, many of the people most affected by the disaster are still waiting.
Meanwhile, industry apologists insist that BP has done its share. Some even suggest that the company is a victim in all this. A letter published last week by Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, called BP "a good corporate citizen," bemoaned "400 unnecessary lawsuits" and suggested Louisianans affected by the spill "leave behind this entitled mentality." Such arrogance.
Briggs and his ilk should meet some of those who saw the disaster firsthand. They could start in lower Plaquemines Parish, where last week WWL-TV's David Hammer talked to the few oystermen and fishermen who are left. George Barisich, head of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, told Hammer that state oyster grounds are "95 percent off" where they were before the BP blowout and warned, correctly, "The oysters are like the canary in the coal mine."
Then there are the people profiled by the Community Voices Project, which was created by Linda Usdin and Gambit contributor Deborah Cotton. They interviewed 10 people along the Gulf Coast — fishermen, a doctor, a scientist and others — and put their stories on YouTube. They talk about ongoing pollution, decimation of beaches and sea life, health concerns, longtime residents forced to leave the homes of their parents and grandparents because they can't make a living or fear their health is at risk. (For more information and links to the videos, visit Community Voices Project's Facebook page, or follow the Twitter account @CommVoicesProj.) "Their words are powerful, truthful and factual counters to the messages produced by the companies responsible for the devastation," Cotton says. We agree.
On the fifth anniversary of the BP disaster, much national and international attention rightly turned to the Gulf Coast, as it surely will this summer for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As we learned after both disasters, public interest tends to wane over time. That's why residents of the Gulf Coast must continue to tell their own stories.