New Iberia, Louisiana — Traveling around southern Louisiana with Wilma Subra can be both enlightening and depressing. A chemist by training and environmental activist by choice, on every corner, at every railroad crossing, each empty lot and even in the air she sees – rightfully! – either a toxic wasteland or one on the verge. Better than anyone in the state she understands the long-term effects of putting chemicals into air and water.
During the past five-plus weeks her limits as both environmentalist and human have been tested on a variety of fronts. She’s appeared before dozens of community groups trying to explain the health risks of the spill, been interviewed by journalists from around the world, participated in high-level talks with government officials, all with the goal of trying to help them understand just how bad the ongoing spill is for both the environment and human health.
When I find her at home on a Sunday she is clearly happy to see an old friend, but exhausted from more than 35 long days and sleepless nights. Sixty-six years old, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant a decade ago for her work on community environmental fights.
“You never get used to this level of emergency. When you come home at night you can’t separate the science from the social impact on these communities.
“But you take it day to day. You get up in the morning and start again, no matter how many hours of sleep you get. Because so much of what I can do helps those communities … so I need to be there when they need me. And right now they desperately need me.”
When the Deepwater first exploded she was as caught by surprise as most in Louisiana. “We always suspected something like this could happen, but assumed there would be enough preventive measures that it wouldn’t turn into something this major . We could never have predicted something this huge.
%Gallery-95432%”When the rig sank, on Earth Day, it quickly became clear the spill was going to wreak havoc all along the coast. How bad is it? It’s just unbelievably bad. Decisions are being made now – the burning of oil off the surface, the spreading of chemical dispersements – that will have huge, long-term impacts. And not just on the marine environment.
According to Wilma a combination of heavy winds and high seas whip the floating oil into an aerosol of hydrocarbons, which when blown ashore are making people as far inland as New Orleans very sick, complaining of headaches, vomiting, rashes and burning eyes.
Her immediate concern post-spill was the health of the fishermen being hired to help with the clean up. “At first BP tried to get them to sign an agreement which basically took away all their rights to protection of human health, their rights to sue, their rights to get damages. They were basically saying ‘If you are going to apply for damages then you can’t apply for this job.’ So we took them to court and got all of those clauses thrown out. The following day we took them to court again because they weren’t providing the fishermen with protective gear. We’d taken it upon ourselves to give the fishermen respirators with replaceable, organic cartridges, goggles, gloves and rubber sleeves protectors because when you pick up a boom covered with oil you get it on your skin. But we wanted BP to provide it to all their workers out there.
“We don’t want the fishers, glad to get the job, to go out there and get poisoned and for the rest of their lives have human health issues because they desperately needed this job to take the place of the fishing jobs they lost because of the spill.” She likens it to the workers who helped clean up after the World Trade Center collapsed and later got sick from the toxins in the air.
I ask who she blames for the mess. “You have to start by looking at who’s in charge. And apparently BP is in charge. The MMS, EPA, Department of Interior are all saying ‘We are at the command center, we’re making decisions,’ but the truth is if BP wants to try something or not try something no one can tell them no. BP is running the show and the people along the coast are the ones suffering. Right now the oil industry is clearly winning, not the communities.
“You understand, this is the end of the fishing communities in south Louisiana, for many, many decades to come.”