Gulf Rig Fire is Deja Vu for Fishermen Still Reeling from BP Disaster

coast guard photo.jpgWhen the Hercules Offshore Inc. gas well  blew and caught fire  last week, spewing natural gas and flames into the air 50 miles off the Gulf coast, many in the nearby fishing communities had another sickening feeling of déjà vu. feeling its devastating impacts. No one was hurt in this latest rig accident, unlike a Black Elk Energy oil rig that exploded in the Gulf last fall killing three men, but it was another stark reminder of the potential dangers posed by the growing numbers of offshore oil and gas drilling operations that push further and deeper into the blue waters of the Gulf. 

Photo: Hercules Offshore rig on fire/U.S. Coast Guard photo

Important questions  are being raised about why the rig’s blowout preventers—safety devices that failed during BP’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion—were unsuccessful in stopping the Hercules gas leak last week. Stricter standards for these critical safety devices still have not been issued by the federal agency that oversees the industry and more oversight is desperately needed, as NRDC's Frances Beinecke—a member of the commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon—blogged recently.

That worries some local residents, who say their families still suffer health effects from the nearly five million barrels of oil and two million gallons of chemical dispersants that mixed into Gulf waters. “They never fixed the blowout preventers like they said they would,” says Buras-based Kindra Arnesen, who says fishing continues to be poor after the BP disaster upended her family’s life more than three years ago.  “We still run though oil in the water almost every day. The bait balls have disappeared…. The oil industry is destroying this estuary. And they are destroying the Gulf with it.”

Kindra Arnesen at oil-damaged Bay Jimmy in 2011, still closed to fishing. Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The massive oil disaster continues to leave its dirty footprints along the coast across the area, washing tar balls and oily residue in with the tides. In June, a 40,000 pound oily tar mat was discovered on a barrier island near the fishing community of Grand Isle, forcing state officials to close nearby fishing grounds.  And while BP’s slick ad campaigns claim life is back the way it used to be in the Gulf, many who make their living off the fisheries say it’s far from normal, not by a long shot.

“Boats are still catching oil in their nets in some areas, and we’re. not seeing much of anything when comes to catching big shrimp,” says Dean Blanchard, who reports his Grand Isle shrimp buying business continues to be decimated by reduced catches since the disastrous BP oil spill. “The shrimp just aren’t in the places they used to be.” Blanchard says his large shrimp landings plummeted from 950,000 pounds in 2009, the year before the spill, to just 38,000 pounds in 2012. He doesn’t expect it to get any better this year, and already he says fishermen have moved out of the area because they can’t make a living.

Like other fishermen, Blanchard says he’s still waiting on BP to compensate him for his losses, and he’s expects a long fight in court. “I’ve got three fishing areas still closed within 10 miles of me because of the spill, yet BP sent me a letter and said they don’t owe me anything because I’m in an unaffected area….the oil industry just wants to drill. They don’t care about the environment.”

Dean Blanchard at his shrimp dock in Grand Isle   Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Across Barataria Bay—once one of the most productive fisheries in the nation—Venice based shrimper Acy Cooper says catches have remained unusually low since the spill and that fishing families are still struggling. Cooper says the brown shrimp season this spring and summer was down about 25-50 percent for most shrimpers in his area, about what it was last year. Now fishermen are pinning their hopes on the white shrimp season which extends into the fall. “We’re hoping it will be better, but we just don’t know. The past season has been real hard on everybody.”

Cooper echoes fishermen who complain they have seen little in fair compensation from BP, and he worries that complex deals being cut in the massive legal settlement winding through the courts will leave them out in the cold if the fishing doesn’t return to normal in the future. “What happens six to eight years from now if the fish don’t come back? Then we’re dead in the water, and there will be nothing for us.”

While fishermen wait on payments, the massive oil giant is complaining about its own money problems. Last week, BP took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times claiming it’s been a victim of fraudulent claims and trial lawyer abuse. “What’s happening to BP is bad for American business,” the ad reads. That sticks in the craw of fishermen still fighting to get payments for damages to their businesses—damages that could continue indefinitely.  

Acy Cooper heads out on his shrimp boat, 2010        Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC 

“BP came in here and pushed people around,” Cooper says. “A lot of people took an early settlement and BP said this is what you’re going to get. They shoved it down our throats….there’s a lot more to come, and I’m worried about what’s going to happen to families if they can’t pay the bills.”

Buras recreational fishing and hunting guide Ryan Lambert says he still owed  money that shut his business down during the spill, although he’s seen some improvement in speckled trout fishing this season. But what worries him are the long term oil impacts to the marsh that nourishes the fisheries—and his business. Oil kicked up from storms has damaged sensitive marsh areas, destroying fish habitats and adding to higher rates of land loss in one of the fastest-disappearing land areas of the world. Already the state has Gulf waters have swallowed up coastal land the size of Delaware since the 1930s.

Lambert is working with state and federal authorities to increase fresh water diversions from the Mississippi River, allowing land-building sediment to replenish the area. The push for more diversions has caused friction with other fishermen who worry the fresh water inflow will kill off essential habitat for shrimp and oysters. But Lambert argues they don't have much choice. “We have to do this,” Lambert says, “or otherwise this place will continue to disappear and we won’t have a place to live.”

Ryan Lambert at his fishing/hunting lodge in Buras, 2010  Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Others are trying more innovative ways to get the oil and gas industry to pay for the damages done. In a ground-breaking lawsuit filed last week against the oil industry, the Southeast Flood Protection Authority-East is seeking to recover damages from decades of oil drilling and canal-digging that have destroyed essential marshes areas that protect against storms and coastal flooding. Lt. Gen. Russell Honore (U.S. Army Ret.), who commanded the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, wrote about it in a recent Times-Picayune op-ed;

The industry has a duty to repair the damage it did to these wetlands, under the provisions of dredging permits and laws dating back more than a century. They also had a moral obligation to leave the land in as good a condition as they received it. Unfortunately, their obligations have not been met.

No one doubts that it will be a long fight to get the industry to meet those obligations, even as more companies are caught up in the massive criminal and civil investigation surrounding the 2010 oil disaster—Halliburton recently agreed to plead guilty to destroying evidence after the BP spill. But many here say stronger oil industry regulations and greater accountability for their destructive practices is the only way to save the marsh, the fish and wildlife of the Gulf, and the people who make their living in these vanishing wetlands of the bayou. The cost of inaction, they say, is simply too great a price to bear.