No Mere Oil Spill

I am but one of many front-line community members and NGO representatives who consider the Obama administration's response to the oil disaster to be slow, fickle and grossly under-scaled -- as well as alarmingly deferential to BP's science, math and broad self-regulation as the so-called responsible party.

To begin with, this is no mere "oil spill," but rather a catastrophic discharge of toxic crude oil and chemical dispersant into the United States' most productive fishery and fragile coastal ecosystem. It is yet another socio-economic and public health blow to low-income coastal families and communities in our nation's poorest and least healthy states -- many of  which have not recovered from the lingering devastation of Hurricanes Wilma, Cindy, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. It is also just the beginning of what could become the farthest reaching environmental, cultural and social catastrophe in United States history.

As such, this is not the time for BP -- a privately owned, foreign corporation -- to be running the show. Having experienced Blackwater, Halliburton and other private contractors wrongly handed federal functions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we have eagerly anticipated something fundamentally different from  President Obama's reform-minded administration.  BP is paying the bill, yes, but  should not be controlling or directing the flow of critical information, setting public safety standards, or independently developing a private disaster work force that lacks adequate training, safety equipment, fairness in hiring, protection from additional losses, and even free speech.

Desperate to feed their families and to pay their bills, thousands of coastal fisherman have effectively been reduced to oil spill sharecroppers on a BP cleanup plantation that has been euphemistically christened "Vessels of Opportunity." In Mississippi, millions of BP dollars have been spent by government to promote local tourism while nothing has been spent to address coastal citizens' urgent and well-known public health and safety concerns. It is volunteers who have been recruited to lay boom and clean oiled beaches and wildlife, and hundreds of citizen phone calls, emails and public comments suggesting technical methods for containing the oil have remained unanswered for weeks.

 While federal officials have indeed been visible and available in numerous press conferences, community meetings and conference calls, the prevailing message and tone remain consistent with BP's daily spin. With governors and congressmen from several gulf states intentionally downplaying the disaster and openly snubbing visits to the region by you, Lisa Jackson and others, local people are legitimately and increasingly angered by the administration's sweepingly soft stance and lofty rhetoric. We believe that neither federal abdication nor BP's ascension to super-state status is sanctioned under law, and we desperately await real federal leadership.

 While I believe President Obama is genuinely concerned and indeed angered by much of what has gone wrong since this disaster began, his administration has nonetheless fallen short of the accountability standards and high mindedness reflected in recurring verbal chastisements of BP and in past critiques of the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. The only explanation I can imagine is that Obama remains uninformed and in urgent need of quicker, broader and more truthful information from the ground - such as that which front-line NGOs can offer. Meeting with a precursor to a Regional Community Advisory Boards similar to those established in Alaska following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill would perhaps be an appropriate model to  follow.

 In the meantime, self-praising rhetoric by Obama in the midst of such failure, heartbreak, and escalating harm is no more accurate, comforting or useful than the current or past platitudes spun by those whose response to  Gulf  Coast disasters have consistently -- and perhaps deliberately -- lacked efficacy, transparency and accountability. I trust that this is not the company that Obama wishes to keep for much longer.

Finally, as my friend Mike Roberts, a third-generation shrimper from Bayou Barataria, Louisiana, told me with tears in his eyes: Osama bin Laden himself could not have fathomed, planned or carried out a more devastating blow to the American people and homeland.

Mike and I, like so many people across the gulf coast, are earnestly hoping that President Obama will soon discover and embrace the humility, wisdom and courage required to understand and respond accordingly to this most urgent truth.

DERRICK EVANS is the director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives and an advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. Since 2001 he has worked to help protect and revitalize his coastal Mississippi community and sister communities throughout the region. Prior to that he taught civil rights history at Boston College and social studies in the Boston Public Schools.

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