Minorities still in the muck one year after BP spill

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Byron Encalade, 57, is a fourth generation oysterman. He remembers helping his grandfather fix boats in the Gulf Coast waters as the child. He learned how to fish for oysters with his family, and eventually owned five boats of his own. Encalade’s brother was his fleet captain; his cousins and nephews worked for him.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Encalade was left with just two boats. Now, one year after the BP oil spill, his family members are unemployed, the boats are docked, and Encalade can no longer run his business.

“When I look at all that I have invested and put back into my business, and my boats, it seems like its all been for nothing,” said Encalade, who is African-American. “It’s just not a good situation to be in right now. It’s very trying times we’re going through.”

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Before the oil spill happened, Encalade would transport seafood across the Gulf states. Now, he is president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, which represents more than 75 families. Encalade’s story is representative of the hardships that many families in the Gulf are experiencing.

The NAACP released a report today, that explores how minorities have been affected by the Gulf oil spill.

“For many in the Gulf, circumstances are far worse now than they were on April 20, 2010, when the oil [leak] began. Many others just haven’t experienced an easing of their challenges. Yet, for others, the worst is yet to come, if matters continue unabated,” reported the NAACP.

Unemployment among workers in Gulf has become a grim consequence after the spill. The NAACP reports that the unemployment in some fishing communities is 80 percent.

Some Gulf workers took jobs with BP contractors after they lost their fishing-related jobs – because they could still earn a living, they knew the marshes well and they believed they would make a positive difference.

“They were promised jobs for two or three years,” said Jacqui Patterson, NAACP’s climate justice director. “But the jobs only ended up lasting a few months.”

Losing their BP jobs wasn’t the only side effect some locals faced. Many Gulf residents have also encountered medical problems from cleaning up the oil spill or living close to the coastline.

Cardiovascular problems, respiratory, leukemia, depression and decreased lung function are some of the health problems that Dr. Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based scientist, has seen in her patients.

“There are thousands workers from along the coastal areas with no insurance, and no way of earning a living,” said Dr. Subra. “They’ve lost their houses because they don’t have the money to make the payments and doctors won’t treat them for their chemical exposure because the medical community doesn’t want to get involved in the litigation.”

The lack of medical help and money are two major barriers people in Gulf communities are struggling with.

“What’s not focused on a lot is the fact that we are fishing village,” said Encalade. “We were feeding the citizens in our community who have very little income. They relied on our business just as bad. Now their grocery bills are extremely high. Our community boats didn’t charge them for food, it was just given to them, and there are no records of that. But, the claims process doesn’t seem to understand that.”
Shaena Johnson, 26, is a community organizer at the Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI) and echoes Encalade’s frustration with the claims process. She has worked with many fishermen who are struggling financially because they still have not received compensation from their businesses that closed due to the oil spill.

“The claims process doesn’t make any sense,” said Johnson. “A lot of these fisher folk don’t have the money to seek legal advice, and only a few organizations can provide pro bono services. There is a gap in education for some of these men, and there is a lack of jobs for them.”

The NAACP reports that the Gulf Coast Claim Facility became operational in August 2010, and 187,000 individual claims have been paid, totaling 3.2 billion dollars.

“Missing from the analysis is the extent to which those thousands of people have been underpaid and the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of claims are going unpaid for months, reportedly due to lack of proper documentation,” stated the NAACP.

Tung Ma, a Vietnamese American oyster shucker is documented in the report. Ma’s situation is representative of other gulf families of all ethnicities. Ma has a wife and two kids. “Initially for the first two months, he received $1,000 per month. Then in September he received $2500, after which he received nothing more.” Due to a bankrupt company he worked for, Ma doesn’t know if his family will make be able to make payments on his home anymore.

The devastation that has hit many families across the Gulf region has motivated several people to advocate for change.

Telley Madina, 30, is Encalade’s son in law. He is executive director of the Oystermen’s Association, and before the spill he was a consultant. Now, he works with Encalade to advocate for the fishermen in their community. Madina says the future is what worries the men the most.

“They are thinking about how they survive right now, to take care of their families and how are they going to be able to participate in the oyster industry in the future,” said Madina. “Compensation is a problem. You have other people- like maybe restaurants that weren’t affected, or hotel workers or people in retail, getting compensated first. And we can’t pit people against people, but we can point the finger at toward the culprit. BP has to be fair, and figure out how to expedite this process so all lives aren’t loss again.”

Madina has traveled to DC with Encalade to attempt to work with legislators on coming up with solutions. He is hopeful for the future, and believes that working alongside congress will bring positive change for the coastal communities in need.

And listening to community voices like Encalade and Madina may be the solution people need to hear.

Monique Harden is co-director and attorney of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. The obstacles black people face in the gulf is troubling, and responses since Katrina have been arguably inadequate. And while the government may play a major role, Harden says getting past political bickering is critical.

“It is important to understand that BP is a part of an industrial web that has done a lot of destructive things to predominantly African-American communities and poor white people and indigenous people along the coast,” said Harden. “What’s missing is seeing how this affects the daily lives of people in the coastal communities. You’ve got a major coming together of African-Americans, Vietnamese, white people all with environmental justice communities.”

The oil spill was the fifth disaster to strike gulf communities since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. With many gulf residents still affected by these damaging events, rebuilding one year after the oil spill remains challenging.

“Disasters have wiped out entire communities, do we want to be a shrinking America? Or do we want to be an America that holds a promise for everyone? These problems don’t go away, they get bigger,” said Harden.

The NAACP had a list of recommendations, including reforming the claims process, having BP finance physical and mental health care systems, urging the FDA to conduct a thorough seafood safety evaluation and allowing the affected communities to govern their own solutions.

“I’m a grandfather now,” said Encalade. “I’d love to be able to give my grandchildren the same knowledge that I learned, and that was passed on through third and fourth generations. Our family has been down there since God knows when. Our family has been on these waters, and we have a lot of heritage.”