By Shannon Dosemagen, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
Ten months after the Deepwater Horizon sank into the Gulf of Mexico, the long-term impacts of the oil spill continue to surface in coastal communities, and the developing picture is not a pretty one.
Since 2000, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) has trained communities affected by industrial pollution to test their own air quality and advocate for public health. Concerned by the potential impacts of the oil spill, LABB initiated several projects to help coastal residents document the spill’s impacts. With the Oil Spill Crisis Map (oilspill.labucketbrigade.org) and aerial mapping of the spill (grassrootsmapping.org), LABB was able to mobilize volunteers on outreach teams across Southeast Louisiana. In June, our long-time donor, Patagonia Clothing Company, provided 70 employees as volunteers, and LABB was able to launch the first post-oil spill door-to-door survey in Southeast Louisiana.
From the last week in July to the first week in October, volunteers collected 954 surveys in and around Grand Isle, Port Sulphur, Venice, Phoenix, Dulac, Cocodrie, Chauvin and Lafitte. The communities of Nairn, Empire, Buras, Triumph, Shell Beach, Delacroix, Yscloskey, Hopedale and Toca were included. The survey, also conducted at grocery stories and marinas, achieved a household response rate of 80.1%. Beyond numerical data on health and financial impacts, volunteers collected stories about the ordeal of residents, a perspective too often missing from the national dialogue and politicians’ talking points.
In Plaquemines Parish, a currently unemployed commercial fisherman told LABB surveyors, “I’m waiting for money from BP. I don’t have any work. I’m cutting grass to make ends meet. I’ve got two little girls; one needs a bone marrow transplant. Haven’t gotten a check since July; nothing for August or September. My girl turned 17 this month and I couldn’t give her anything. I’m hurting, and I need help.”
LABB’s report of the survey findings, to be released tomorrow , includes recommendations drawn from community members and suggests ways the data can be used in advocacy work on their behalf.
Key findings were all too typical of communities exposed to environmental toxic chemicals. Nearly three-quarters of those who believed they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant reported symptoms – typically coughing, skin and eye irritation and headaches. To treat these symptoms, almost a third of respondents used over-the-counter medication “more often that usual.”
Although more than half of survey participants had health insurance, relatively few sought treatment for symptoms (31%) or exposures (14.8%). Almost half the respondents said their livelihoods had been impacted. In three communities where a majority of people worked in the seafood industry, 64% were concerned with seafood contamination. Additionally, nearly a quarter of respondents said they needed disaster assistance, but weren’t getting it.
Based on the survey, LABB makes several recommendations:
Officials should increase access to long-term health care for exposure-related illnesses and mental health problems – services in short supply in most coastal communities. As larger studies are launched across the Gulf Coast, agencies should couple research with provision of treatment options for the illnesses they identify.
With Louisiana’s seafood industry in a state of flux, coastal residents need training for employment options, including environmental monitoring projects and barrier island and oyster reef reconstruction. Finally, as residents muddle through claims filing and come to understand that Kenneth Feinberg is effectively a BP contractor, it’s important to install an appeals panel with local representatives.
The final report not only catalogs the self-reported impacts on spill victims, but points the way down the rough road ahead in developing policy that will appropriately protect their rights.
To see the report, visit labucketbrigade.org.
Shannon Dosemagen is a member of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade