On Thanksgiving, Oil Disaster Victims Hope for the Truth

Update: On Nov. 24, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed 4200 square miles of federal Gulf waters to fishing for royal red shrimp after oily tar balls were discovered in the nets of a commercial fisherman trawling for shrimp.

On Thursday, families of the Gulf coast will gather together to celebrate the holiday. But for many, it will be a bittersweet occasion. This is the first Thanksgiving since the BP oil disaster destroyed their coast and many of their businesses. Some will find it difficult to afford a turkey or ham to celebrate.

“We’ve heard from many people that they need food and supplies for their families,” says Marylee Orr of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “We are doing what we can but it’s different from Katrina. People around the country don’t know how bad it is.”

Marylee is doing what she can. Last weekend, while Louisiana fishermen, business owners and coastal residents gathered for a public rally in Grand Isle, Marylee was out shopping to send baskets of food and hams to the hard hit coastal town of Buras, LA. Since April when 200 million gallons of oil gushed from the BP blowout, many fishermen and families here have been unable to fish because the low prices are not worth the gas. And they have no idea when things will return to normal.

JJ Creppel, a Native American fisherman we featured in a StoryCorps video recently, says he knows dozens of families who are desperate for food and basic medical care. He himself has a hard time getting money for rent and gas. And though he now has a boat to get out on the water and fish, the season is nearly done.

“The people are really hurting here,” he says. “I try to keep my sense of humor, but when I watch those BP commercials about making it right I don’t see any of it happening here in my community.”

[You can see more StoryCorps videos of residents and fishermen from the Gulf here.]

Last weekend, JJ traveled to the “Rally for Truth,” an event that drew people from all over the state to raise their voices and vow never to be forgotten. Residents complained of lingering health issues, fishermen and distributors worried about seafood they are catching that may not be safe, and politicians described the economic destruction caused by the oil tsunami.

Dean Blanchard, the largest shrimp distributor in the state, told the crowd they were finding shrimp with black gills that public officials had dismissed as black gill disease. “We’ve never had shrimp with black gill like these," he told the crowd. "If the oil was blue, then they would tell us it was blue gill disease.”



Photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The mayor of Grand Isle, David Camardelle, said that 75 percent of people in the community who had filed claims with BP have yet to see anything. He told me he has no idea when his popular beach community will ever be the same. “We’ve got tar ball washing in here on our beaches. They keep coming in as fast as they can clean them up. BP needs to compensate people here for the damage they’ve done.”

Indeed, a quick trip to the broad sandy beach that makes this town famous shows work cleanup work is still underway. Vehicles had created a roadway of tracks along the beach, with signs and iron poles showing where huge sand cleaning machines had dug.

But a close look at the beach shows small dime sized tar balls littered through the sand. Oiled bird feathers were scattered about. Clean up workers say the battle is a Sisyphean task. They dig and shovel bags of tar balls off one area of beach only to see them reappear the next day with the tides.


Photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC 

That’s true in many area of the Gulf, according to cleanup workers and residents. Mississippi residents near Biloxi have told me they still see oily water and tar balls roll in frequently. And off the barrier islands near Barataria Bay, workers are in a constant battle with what one former cleanup worker calls “reefs of oil” that lay on the sandy ocean bottom near the coast.

“There’s still plenty of oil out there,” says one former cleanup worker. “It all depends on the tides and the winds. When it’s right, it just keeps coming in. It will be years before it’s all gone.”

Some of those tar balls are ending up in the nets of commercial fishermen. The Huffington Post today posted this unsettling story of an Alabama shimp boat that was trawling in coastal waters and pulled up a load of oily tar balls along with thousands of pounds of shrimp. NOAA told Fox News it was investigating, but the area remained open to fishing.



For the time being, science is unable to determine what the damage is. So far, seafood tests and water and soil samples have shown little evidence of a major ecological disaster. Some scientists are saying privately that the coast may have dodged a bullet due to rapid degradation of the oil.

But everyone knows it’s way too early to call. There’s never been an underwater oil blowout of this magnitude or at at this depth. Exactly what the consequences are will likely not be known for years. Meanwhile the residents of the Gulf are still desperate for help after their economic livelihoods have been crushed by the oil and its aftermath.

On Thursday, they all will give thanks to the blessings they have and to the natural beauty of the bayou. It’s up to us to help them celebrate the years ahead by making sure this kind of oil disaster never happens again.