Long-term challenges face the Gulf region

For more than four months, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated headlines. The spill adversely affected tourism, jobs and the health of the people of the Gulf region, and its effects continue even after the leak has been stopped.

Robert Gorman, director of Catholic Charities in the Houma-Thibodaux diocese in south Louisiana, told NCR, “We are still assisting residents in our area with utility bills, prescriptions, rent or mortgage payments and food coupons at local grocery stores. It’s the end of the beginning, and we’re now in a middle phase, then we move into long term.”

Some families are still one paycheck away from crisis, Gorman said. “They are behind and then everything gets behind and it’s like dominos starting to fall. So if we can come in and help out with one or more of these bills, it makes a big difference.”

He added that BP, the oil company whose Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April, had recently put up $15 million for mental health counseling for the next six months. “We have a proposal into them for $10 million for continuing direct service assistance on behalf of 23 different nonprofits that are part of Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing.”

Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing leads the effort in helping individuals and communities cope, Gorman said. It is made of up of about half Catholic and half Protestant churches, black, white, and some Vietnamese, and all socioeconomic strata, and was formed in part as a practical way to coordinate rebuilding and relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Gorman said the coalition is looking at long-term solutions to prevent similar disasters in the future. “How can people monitor the health of the Gulf for the next decades? We’re looking at the Alaska citizens’ councils that sprang up after the Exxon Valdez disaster as models for us. How effective were they? How can we modify them to suit our needs? ...

“Folks here are resilient but in last five years we’ve been hit by four large hurricanes and the spill. If we come into a worse-than-average storm season this fall and get hit by double storms again, people are really going to be breaking down.”

In mid-August, shrimpers returned to the waters off Louisiana for their first season since the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Shrimpers are concerned about how many shrimp they will get and how good they will be. But the shrimpers and others whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf have another worry: that the Louisiana seafood brand in general has been sullied by oil.

Two new scientific reports released in mid-August raised fresh fears about the environmental fallout from the offshore oil spill and questioned government assurances that most of the oil from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico was already gone.

In one of the reports, researchers at the University of Georgia said almost three-quarters of the oil from BP’s blown-out well was still lurking below the surface of the Gulf and may pose a threat to the ecosystem.

Charles Hopkinson, who helped lead the investigation, said some 70 percent of the 4.1 million barrels of oil that gushed from the broken well and were not captured directly at the wellhead remained in the Gulf.

There is ongoing concern about wildlife in the Gulf region.

Devin Martin works for the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club. He told NCR: “There have been over 5,000 documented oiled birds, with the vast majority dead from the oiling. There are probably many more that have not been documented since birds are not the easiest creatures to capture or document, as any birdwatcher learns early.”

Martin said that larger animals, including birds and mammals, have the ability to metabolize a certain amount of hydrocarbon pollution. “Crustaceans, bivalves, and other invertebrates do not enjoy this ability, and there is a possibility that even small amounts of oil will eventually bio-accumulate into larger species and badly disrupt the ecosystem.

“This is all speculation at this point, but there are organizations, including the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, that are actively monitoring for oil in certain fishing areas.”

Martin has seen the fishers in the area being particularly hard hit in the fallout from the spill. “Many of our fishermen, especially in this age of free trade and competition with cheap overseas imports, are always on the brink of bankruptcy. Many of them also had to begin again from scratch or reinvest considerably in their boats, homes, etc., after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav. This has helped to spur a mental health crisis in some areas.

“There is also a 25 percent increase in need for food among some Louisiana Gulf Coast communities. Our Sierra Club chapter is organizing a food drive next month to help raise awareness about the needs of our neighbors.

“Their desire is just to make a modest living providing us with food.”

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org]

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