Environmental Injustice: How the BP Spill Impacted Poor Gulf Communities


The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from BP Blowout: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster by Daniel Jacobs (Brookings Institution Press, 2016)

Minority and poor communities are commonplace in the Gulf Coast region. There is evidence that a relatively high percentage of the [BP disaster] cleanup workers came from these vulnerable populations. The disproportionate impact of the disaster on the poor and minorities raises important issues at the core of what is known as environmental justice. Gulf communities are all too familiar with these issues.

As a movement, environmental justice is often first tied to major protests in 1982 against the dumping of toxic soil in a landfill in a black community in Warren County, North Carolina, and a 1983 General Accounting Office study that revealed that three-quarters of hazardous waste sites in eight southeastern states were situated in poor and black communities. (Now known as the Government Accountability Office, the GAO is an investigative arm of Congress.) The expression “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) epitomizes the disparity between the powerful and the powerless in controlling environmental impacts in their communities.

The Gulf region historically has been linked to environmental justice issues. In 1990 Robert D. Bullard, considered by some to be the father of the environmental justice movement, wrote in his seminal book Dumping in Dixie:

The entire Gulf Coast region, especially Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, has been ravaged by “lax regulations and unbridled production.” Polluting industries exploit the pro-growth and pro-jobs sentiment exhibited among the poor, working-class, and minority communities. Industries such as paper mills, waste disposal and treatment facilities, and chemical plants, searching for operation space, found these communities to be a logical choice for their expansion.

A poignant example is “Cancer Alley,” an 80-mile stretch of land that lies between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It is home to oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities; poor and minority residents; and illness. All in disproportionate numbers.

The federal government first officially recognized the need to take action on environmental justice when President Clinton issued an Executive Order on Environmental Justice on February 11, 1994. Clinton ordered federal agencies with environmental responsibilities to take account of environmental justice issues in decisionmaking and established an interagency federal task force to address them. According to EPA, environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Did the BP disaster have more of an impact on minority and low-income populations than on others? There is evidence that these vulnerable populations did indeed serve disproportionately as the “boots on the ground” (or the water) in the months after the blowout. CNN reported that some 4,500 of the onshore workers had been recruited though unemployment programs. Others were homeless (although it is difficult to know how many since homeless shelters in the Gulf received an influx of patrons from transients seeking work in the cleanup). Some reportedly came from a parish jail work release program (and wore BP T-shirts) as well as a Louisiana state prison.

These populations bore the brunt of the exposure to the oil and chemical dispersants, just as vulnerable populations historically have been overexposed to the nation’s pollution. Given that vulnerable populations also generally have poorer-than-average health and access to health care, they may have been at higher- than-average risk of not receiving treatment for any adverse health effects they suffered.

Just as low-income populations with few employment options might welcome jobs in Cancer Alley, many of the BP cleanup workers likely did not have the luxury to turn down the work. CNN reported that some onshore workers were paid as much as $18 per hour, and supervisors as much as $32 per hour (although workers subcontracted to BP were said to make less).

BP’s selection of the disposal sites for the voluminous amount of waste generated during the BP cleanup also raised questions (much of it was the containment boom of questionable effectiveness). Bullard wrote:

Given the sad history of waste disposal in the southern United States, it should be no surprise to anyone that the BP disposal plan looks a lot like “Dumping in Dixie,” and has become a core environmental justice concern, especially among low-income and people of color communities in the Gulf coast—communities whose residents have historically borne more than their fair share of solid waste land lls and hazardous waste facilities before and after natural and man- made disasters.

Would BP have done a better job preventing, preparing for, or responding to the disaster had the backyards of more influential people been at stake? This broad question is difficult to answer. The evidence of disproportionate impact during the response was to some all too reminiscent of the effects of Hurricane Katrina not quite five years earlier. This time, however, the Gulf was struck not by a natural disaster, but by a manmade one.

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