Ex-oil rig worker on BP spill: ‘An opportunity’ for African-Americans

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The BP oil spill’s impact on the Gulf Coast is clearly broad and extensive – but will likely disproportionately affect impoverished communities and those of color, says the former chairman of the National Wildlife Federation.

Jerome Ringo, 55, who worked in the petrochemical industry for more than 20 years before becoming the first African-American to lead a national conservation advocacy organization, spoke to theGrio.com about why African-Americans should pay special attention to the environmental, economic and legislative implications of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The Louisiana native is now a senior executive for Green Port Corp., a company working to make ports more sustainable.

theGrio: What do you see as the most significant impact and consequence of the Gulf oil spill?

Ringo: The implications of this environmental disaster and this economic disaster are very far reaching. This oil spill will have an impact that affects generations for many years. The overall cleanup effort is something that unfortunately we will experience for many years. And it’s a challenge. There’s a ripple effect. It’s going to affect, economically, many lives throughout Louisiana, the Gulf Coast and the United States.

But it’s also a game changer. It’s going to drive new federal policies around how we harvest our energy, and also drives policy on energy as a whole — whether we reduce our dependence or foreign oil, whether we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, whether we promote the research and development of alternative energy.

Do you believe African-Americans are going to be especially affected by the spill?

African-Americans have been disproportionately impacted by poor environmental practices for decades. Two out of three African-Americans live in the same zip code as a landfill. Where you find a railroad track, you find a black community. 70 percent of us live in counties that are in violation of the Clean Water or the Clean Air Act. So this impact will be no different. Probably more than 70 percent of African-Americans, especially in the south, live within 100 miles of the coast. Many African-Americans from communities that work the coastline —whether it be in the fishing industry, or the hotel, tourism and hospitality industry — will be will be impacted, because oil will diminish the value of the fishing areas, the marshes, the hotels, the beaches, and thus, it’s going to impact the poorest.

Again, those people who have suffered the greatest in the past will suffer the greatest impact in the future.

Is environmental racism playing a role here?

Environmental racism in Louisiana as well as throughout the country has been a very real issue, but I think it [the BP oil spill] goes beyond the race issue. Of course more people who are impacted by poor environmental practices are people of color because we live in close proximity to landfills, petrochemical plants [and] sewage treatment plants. But I think it’s more than just a race issue, I think it’s an economic issue. You’ve got poor whites that are affected. I think poor people suffer the greatest impact.

If you go into urban America, poor communities, south-central LA, south side Chicago, even in the Anacostia area of Washington D.C., the people that suffer the greatest impact of poor environmental practices, are poor and black. If you head out to West Virginia, in coal mining country, the people who are impacted are poor and white. The common issue is that they’re poor.”

How to you think the Obama Administration is handling the crisis in the Gulf?

I give President Obama high marks. When you are suffering an impact like this, you want instantaneous results. I think when you compare the response of the Obama administration to the response of the Bush administration in Katrina, the difference is quite clear.

I think if the Obama Administration made a mistake, they made a mistake of putting such a level of trust in BP to clean up and fix what they have broken. BP is operating with the air of distrust, with the air of dishonesty, and with the air of public relations. And so now the Obama Administration is saying, “We’re going to take control of the situation,” and I think they’re doing the right thing. But they were slow in doing it. And unfortunately those that oppose the administration are going to take full advantage of that to discredit the administration. But I give them high marks.

At a very early stage, I think that the president has put the right kind of pressure on BP as they have committed $20 billion toward resolving claims and another $100 million to help those that may suffer from the moratorium on deepwater drilling. The president is doing a lot of the right things, but critics are going to be critics, and whether he does the right thing or not, they’re going to be critical.

Do you believe the oil spill will become a catalyst for changing U.S. energy policy? And if so, how?

The Kerry-Lieberman bill (which would call for reductions greenhouse gas emissions, among other things) was revived before the spill and the Obama administration had made commitments toward alternative energy before the spill as well. The Obama administration also said, “Lets increase drilling,” in an effort to help us declare our energy dependence, and of course, that, I believe, was a mistake. But his heart was in the right place; he wanted us to get off the oil barrel we’re being held over by foreign governments.

Surely, this oil spill is going to be a game changer.

It’s going to accelerate the effort toward an energy bill, accelerate an effort toward a climate change bill and it’s going to accelerate the need for the administration to take a leadership position for carbon dioxide reduction in this country. This whole oil spill is going to have everlasting effect. We should take a lemon and make lemonade out of it.

We should use this an opportunity to raise the awareness of the American people, the need for us to diversify our energy portfolio, to where we aren’t solely dependent on fossil fuel as an energy source. We need to promote wind energy and solar power, but at the same time, use it as a mechanism to create jobs and stimulate the American economy.”

What inspired you to begin your work in environmental advocacy?

I worked in the petrochemical industry. I worked for some companies that were polluting companies and reaped the monetary benefits of working in those plants. They are the largest employer in the state of Louisiana; you’ve got 40,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico. One third of our oil supply comes from that gulf. So I made money. I fed my family as a result of working in the oil industry. But I also saw firsthand the impact of the industry on poor people and especially people who look like me. And that bothered me. And I really felt compelled to go out and educate people in the communities and across the fence lines of the industry to how they could minimize the impact of those industries so close to them. So much so that I began to migrate closer and closer to engaging and helping to empower communities around issues of environmental justice.

Eventually, I transferred totally into the environmental movement. I saw it as an opportunity to build some bridges, to help empower communities by educating them on the impact and what they could do to be part of the process to fix the problems of environmental justice that we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

What are some of the environmental justice issues you’ve encountered?

When you live next to a petrochemical plant that’s discharging known carcinogens and cancer causing agents, the impact is going to be far greater on those who live closest to the facility than not. The cancer rates are higher; asthma rates are higher. And in more cases than not, people of color and poor people live closest to the facility. The land is cheaper, and of course, industry needs large tracts of land.

But oftentimes, industry will locate in communities where there are less resources to fight them. And where are the resources less? In poor communities. And you add to the fact that poor people have a list of priorities that consist more of quality of life issues. Environmental concerns are not always a top priority in our community because we’re more concerned about the next month’s rent. But people of color also now realize that quality of life and a healthy environment are just as important as next month’s rent.

Why should African-Americans be paying attention to the oil spill and the cleanup in the future?

I think that the African-American community in particular needs to look at his oil spill as we looked at the impact of Hurricane Katrina — as a wake-up call. It is so important that we as a community get involved in the policy processes of what we can do to fix what has been broken. It was the voice of African-Americans in this country, and seeing African-Americans suffer in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, that has led to policy changes that are going to demand greater response in catastrophic disasters to communities all over this country. And it is the same outcry and involvement of the African-American community through this oil spill, and it’s impact along the coast, that can drive federal policy that can ultimately change how we harvest our energy, how we distribute our energy, and who is truly going to be the beneficiary of this green economy that we’re developing.

I think it’s an opportunity for the African-American community that we simply cannot miss. We’ve always been the victims of the problem; we’ve got to be the beneficiary of the solution.