The Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of the Mary Queen of Vietnam church, waited patiently through hours of talk from BP, Coast Guard, state and federal representatives, and questions from his congregation before finally raising his own question: “Of the fishers BP has hired, are over 50 percent of them Vietnamese?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Hugh Depland, who BP sent to meet with the Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans. “My guess is probably not.”
“That was a rhetorical question,” Nguyen shot back. “I already knew the answer. My point is, is BP prepared now to do something about that?”
More than half of the fishers hurt by the oil spill are Vietnamese, said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who’s represented Vietnamese residents here before on environmental issues. He explained their legal rights at the townhall-like meeting.Behind the priest were almost 200 Vietnamese fishers, boaters, restaurant owners and concerned citizens gathered Friday to hear from BP and government officials about what dangers were posed to their food supply and professions. They also came to hear about opportunities to participate in the BP oil spill clean up. Oil was steadily making its way into estuaries and lakes just outside St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Terrebonne parishes – areas where many of these fishers make their living.
Depland, who BP brought out of retirement to do community outreach, told the fishers that the risks are high and the opportunities low in terms of working for the oil company responsible for putting them out of business. Over 900 fishers have made themselves and their boats available, Depland said, but fewer than 100 had been hired by BP, as of Friday.
“We have more people wanting to work than we can accommodate,” he told the fishers, many of whom were wearing small translating devices. “There is no guarantee you will be employed in that regard because we have a lot more people volunteering for work than we have jobs.”
The language barrier was a challenge, easily turning a meeting that might normally have taken an hour or two, into more than four hours. Depland explained that four-hour training sessions for those wishing to help contain the oil are being held, despite low hiring, and pointed out an upcoming session that will be held in Houma.
Nguyen asked whether BP could have a training “in a place where Vietnamese people are already gathered,” spreading his arms to suggest his own church, or at least the eastern New Orleans community. Depland said it was possible, and that he knew of one Vietnamese person on staff they were using, though he wasn’t “sure if he’s a translator or deliverer of the trainings.”
Right now, the fishers don’t have to be hired by BP in order to be compensated for their losses. Those who file claims can get one month’s compensation, if verified, at a maximum of $5,000 – not a legal settlement, Depland assured –a which is renewable the following month. Fishers and crew would get an expedited payment upon verification of the claim, meaning BP’s intent is to have them paid within 48 hours. Other workers who don’t fish, but will be hurt by the spill, such as restaurant owners and fish market managers, will also be able to make claims, but they won’t get the expedited payments.
Waltzer told the crowd that there would be language problems with their claims process. The Delaware company, ESIS, handling BP’s claims, does not have Vietnamese translators, Waltzer told them, which was “inappropriate” given that so many affected fishers speak this language.
“If Katrina taught us nothing it’s that we need to document everything that we do,” Waltzer said, “but BP has posted no documents or forms for you to follow and there’s no way for you to know if you satisfied your claims requirements, and those requirements are not in writing.”
Depland said he’d look into any problems with the claims process, but by the end of the meeting he had announced that a training would be taking place in the Mary Queen of Vietnam community. There still is no guarantee that actual jobs will come out of that training though.
Asked why so few jobs were being handed out, Depland said in an interview afterward that a lack of funding “has absolutely nothing to do” with it. “It’s a safety concern. We don’t want to have too many boats in one space. It’s not efficient for one, and for two, it increases risk for danger. We look at the amount of work we need to do and we are applying sufficient resources to that. You have too many resources in a limited space, and you’ll create a safety risk.”
Depland has no actual title, he said, but once was head of public relations for BP’s Gulf of Mexico affairs division.