Heroic Activists in Louisiana Fight Back Against Corporate Greed


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.”

Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. Kenneth Feinberg is now out as the administrator of the claims process. He had become a local symbol of the confluence of corporation and state, while also drawing ire for overseeing a process that has been widely perceived as overly burdensome and time-consuming. Lynn Greer, whose firm BrownGreer LLC has helped with the Feinberg claims, will assume the role of interim facilitator, pending the approval of Patrick Juneau by the presiding judge, Carl Barbier. While the retention of Greer in the short-term is somewhat worrisome, she probably stays primarily for her familiarity with the existent process; she is someone who can ensure a seamless transition to the new system. Meanwhile, structuring the settlement as a class action suit should serve to streamline the claims process for a population that has expressed frustration with the convoluted nature of the Feinberg process. The deadline for filing a claim will be moved to April 2014, and all affected parties, even those who had not issued a claim under the previous system, will be automatically included.

The new process finally recognizes the medical impact of the spill. Feinberg stubbornly refused to acknowledge any medical claims, ultimately refusing all 200 health-related cases he received. This new process reverses course in finally submitting to claims addressing short-term health impacts related to the spill and the subsequent use of dispersants. In addition, a mechanism has been established to address potential long-term health effects, in the form of a "medical consultation" program that will endure 21 years. Nonetheless, the burden of proof remains on the plaintiffs, who are going to have to demonstrate a definite connection between their symptoms and the toxic chemicals they have been exposed to. As with other elements to the settlement, community members remain guardedly optimistic. Gulf Coast activist Christine Breault told me: “It expresses the concerns of the people of the Gulf, particularly when it comes to medical care. It is clear that although there may be problems with the terms, there will be some remedy available and medical and health care will be an issue. This wasn’t clear before.”

The government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the medical consequences of the oil spill are part of a larger effort to minimize the catastrophe, as well as the broader risk associated with extracting oil from below the seabed. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the Interior Department has been particularly active in this endeavor. In a 2007 environmental impact statement regarding oil well leases for the following five years, the agency found that “blowouts are rare events and of short duration, potential impacts to marine water quality are not expected to be significant," and that “These negative, short-term social and economic consequences of an oil spill are expected to be modest in terms of projected cleanup expenditures and the number of people employed in cleanup and remediation activities." 

Interior Department official Sylvia Baca played a particularly malicious role in the eventual approval of the Deepwater Horizon lease on April 6, 2009. A former senior management official at BP’s American headquarters in Houston, Baca later passed through the revolving door into the federal bureaucracy at the bequest of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. In a November 2010 investigative report, environmental journalist Jeffrey St. Clair said, “According to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Baca recused herself from all leasing decisions regarding BP. However, sources inside the Interior Department tell me that Baca played a key role in a procedural decision in the early days of the Obama administration that allowed the Deepwater Horizon project and Big Oil operations on federal lands to move forward with scant environmental review.”

Ultimately, the government culture of low-balling translated into repeated episodes of underestimating the impact of the spill and its effects on the health of residents of the Gulf. The drama rapidly unveiled the confluence of corporate interests and government, as the Obama administration was shown to have prevented efforts by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to report the worst-case spill estimates. Initial government reports stated that oil was leaking at a rate of 1,000 barrels per day, when the actual rate was proven to be about 60,000 barrels per day. The motivation in fudging the figures, aside from understating the impact of oil extraction, was to negate claims of medical harm. Meanwhile, the company began using a toxic dispersant, Corexit, to cloak the extent of the spill, while adding an additional poison into the already battered ecosystem. This is why the inclusion of a health remedy in the new claims process is so vital.

A Movement for Justice

The recognition of these health impacts comes on the heels of nearly two years of advocacy by committed Gulf activists, most of which have been personally impacted by the disaster. Given the diffuse population of the Gulf region and its historically conservative nature, the movement for justice is not particularly big. Miami-based Gulf advocate Yvonne Gougelet told me, “It’s the biggest man-made disaster with the smallest number of people fighting for justice.”

One woman who has traveled the country sharing the story of the Gulf is Kindra Arnesen, a Plaquemines Parish resident who spoke at the February 29 Occupy rally. She typically brings visual aids to demonstrate the ongoing effects of the spill: “In my hand, I am holding a photograph taken five weeks ago off of Breton Isle of a (dead) baby humpback whale. This is five weeks ago....The sea life has been washing up on the northern Gulf for over a year now in record numbers.” She provided a sampling of some of the human afflictions: “This is a picture of a 56-year-old woman’s eye. She continues to get blisters on her eye, but she’s not the only one....This is a seven-year-old little boy who, over the last six to eight months, his hair has started to fall off of his head in bald spots. Over the last few months, he started having nosebleeds.”

John Gooding is another Gulf activist who has been personally stricken by the toxicity of his environment. At the Leap Day rally, he strongly encouraged people to seek out a detoxification program if they showed symptoms. He also emphasized that there is only a certain window of time to address the issue: “Don’t wait. Get it done before it’s too late. Once it becomes neurological damage, such as my case, it’s all over with. I was told just yesterday: I will not get better. Seventy percent of your brain is fat, and Corexit eats oils and fats. Once it’s in your brain it’s all over with. I have grand mal seizures, petit mal seizures...my life is a living hell. You do not want to live my life.”

As BP and the federal government have together been unwilling to admit the medical impacts of the disaster, it has been up to activists and non-profits to provide the necessary care. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network has collaborated with the Gulf Coast Detox Project to help afflicted residents purge their systems of toxins. One of the first people to undergo the program was Jory Danos, who says he lost 50 lbs and was practically near death before commencing the program. He described the methodology as involving long periods in a sauna where one literally sweats the toxins out of the body. He now has regained his vitality, and has become an advocate for the procedure.

The most visible Gulf Coast activist has probably been Cherri Foytlin, an area resident, journalist and blogger who drew attention to the plight of the region by walking from New Orleans to Washington, DC last year. In her piece reacting to news of the settlement, she reflects the broader public frustration over the futility of lobbying our corporate governance for redress, while maintaining a steadfast posture:

“Although we fully support a complete trial, most of us have come to understand that we have few representatives within our government who have spirit enough, heart enough, integrity enough, courage enough, to stand before a corporation and demand justice on our behalf.

Therefore, we must, at the very least, have a full and open understanding of damages and truth. All information collected from the Spring of 2010 until now must be made available to the public -- how else will we ever stand a chance at true recovery?

How else will we learn from mistakes made?

In addition, we must have a Regional Citizen's Oversight Committee, so that we may do what the bureaucracy cannot or will not -- protect our children from those who would put their profit over our babies' lives.

Eighty percent of all fines collected must come back to the Gulf for restoration through the NRDA process and our fishermen must have first consideration of those jobs.”

As the serious health concerns of thousands of Gulf residents have gone unrecognized for two years, so too are there millions of Americans without medical care of any sort. As thousands of Gulf residents have lost their jobs and livelihoods, so too have millions of Americans been thrown into a permanent state of un- and under-employment. Meanwhile, Katrina has served as a precursor of the things that came, as the savage process of privatization of vital public assets has taken hold throughout the country, with the economic recession providing the cover the hurricane provided in New Orleans. The latest hospital cuts here will serve to further decimate an already ailing society, severing an essential lifeline for the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized people. 

In the face of all this, Cherri Foytlin is right to judge that the powerful cannot be expected to show signs of altruism. However, she is also right to recognize that persistent direct action is all that will change this system. The Gulf activists have proven this by finally gaining legal acknowledgement of the medical plight of afflicted residents, whilst ridding themselves of the scourge of Kenneth Feinberg. The small and committed group of activists can now broaden their focus and continue the long fight toward a just restitution of their ecosystem and livelihood.

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