Heroic Activists in Louisiana Fight Back Against Corporate Greed
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Last week’s settlement between BP and 120,000 affected Gulf residents is but the latest chapter in Louisiana’s desperate recovery from the twin tragedies of Katrina and the oil spill. One is a crisis induced by natural disaster, the other by human negligence. Both stories have been driven by corporate malfeasance and greed. The devastation wrought by Katrina opened the door to an unprecedented wave of looting and pillaging of the city’s public resources. In the months after the storm, a majority of the city’s public schools, roughly half of its public housing, and its main public hospital were demolished or turned over to private operators.
Meanwhile, the oil spill worked in reverse: the corporate behemoth precipitated, rather than merely exploited, the crisis. It has been widely established that BP was aware of structural deficiencies at the Macondo Well before the 2010 blowout occurred, but failed to adequately respond. This isn’t to insinuate that BP intentionally caused the disaster, but that safety was seen as being just as expendable as public housing in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Profits Over People
These crises are the product of the perverse logic of profit above people. The stark social implications of such backward logic tragically plays out in a city with a murder rate that is 10 times the national average. Despite this, the privately run public hospital, administered by LSU’s medical school, has recently enacted far-reaching cuts to its local psychiatric services, including the elimination of the detox unit and the halving of the emergency mental health department. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents report continued health issues stemming from the destruction of their environment. The ecosystem stands in peril, the fishing industry has been thoroughly decimated, and the economic livelihood of thousands of people entirely ruined. From the Gulf Coast to the streets of New Orleans, corporate interests have laid waste to the population of the state. Meanwhile, cries for justice have begun to amplify as the afflicted population carries on its fight against the power elite.
On an unseasonably warm Leap Day in New Orleans, dozens of activists assembled in front of BP’s local headquarters as part of the Occupy movement’s “Day of Action Against Corporate Greed.” Gulf Coast residents testified to the ongoing ecological and health crises precipitated by the spill. They then marched down Poydras Street to the site of the federal courthouse where the class action case against the company was scheduled to have commenced two days prior. Instead, the trial had been delayed as the two sides negotiated a settlement, much to the chagrin of activists in attendance.
Gulf Coast resident Kimberly McCuiston said, "If there is no trial in this courthouse, we have to get the answer no matter what. We demand transparency. We demand the truth. We deserve it. Our government, in collusion with BP, has put us all at risk. And I don’t care what it takes, how long it takes, but I want the truth."
The settlement, announced two days later, evoked a mixed response from the community. On the one hand, the agreement deprived plaintiffs their desired day in court. Furthermore, the estimated $7.8 billion liability has already been budgeted and placed in a trust used to administer the notorious Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF): an arbitration mechanism paid for by the company to meet its obligations under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). Last year, federal judge Carl Barbier found that the claims process was not “completely neutral from BP,” and that the presiding arbiter, Kenneth Feinberg, was wrong in advising claimants that they did not require counsel in seeking compensation. The company originally placed $20 billion in the trust in 2010, and has only allocated around $6.1 billion since. As such, the added $7.8 billion penalty, which is a company estimate and not a defined cap, will invoke no additional financial burden on BP. It will probably face additional fines for violation of the Clean Water Act, though, in a statement last week, the company says it will probably not incur costs exceeding that which are already budgeted: “This proposed settlement is not expected to result in any increase in the $37.2 billion charge [which included the $20bn charge taken in respect of the Trust] previously recorded in BP's financial statements.”