From the shores of Louisiana – SoLa premiere

Baton Rouge, Louisiana –
Last weekend I premiered my new documentary film about water and man in Louisiana – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – in the belly of the beast, in the heart of the state’s capitol.
The showing was at the beautiful Manship Theater and drew a crowd of Louisiana’s environmental cognoscenti, from activists to lawyers, politicians to fishermen. After the screening I was joined on stage by several of the characters interviewed in the film. I hadn’t been to Louisiana in a couple months – certainly not since the BP gusher had been finally capped – and was curious to gauge their take, emotional and statistical, on the status of the mess in the Gulf.
Former head of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, Paul Templet, admitted he hadn’t seen signs of change in the state level, or even yet at the federal agency level in regard to oversight of the offshore oil business. “My only sense of optimism,” he said, “lies with the courts. I think if BP is ultimately held to its promises it will be because of judges not politicians.”
There was worry among the crowd that BP may not live up to its promises of restitution – the $20 billion promised and currently being administered by Kenneth Feinberg, which many believe could grow to $100 billion, which could bankrupt the company.
Attorney Danny Becnel, Louisiana’s answer to F. Lee Bailey, from Reserve, Louisiana, filed the first suit in federal court against BP just 10 days after the spill, has since filed dozens more on behalf of fishermen, oil workers, restaurant and hotel owners and more. “The legal fights are going to go on as long as there is oil in the Gulf, which will be a long time,” he tells the crowd.

Dean Wilson, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, who watches over the environmental health of the most biodiverse swamp in the country, says while there is no oil in the basin …yet … his biggest concern post-spill is the continued lack of political will in the state. “We’ve been able to stop a lot of local environmental problems, like the cutting of the cypress swamps, but without the support of government and legislators. I think what we saw throughout the BP spill was the same thing … a lack of political will necessary to stop big pollution.”

“I don’t think (Governor Bobby) Jindal has ever even said the word ‘environment’ out loud,” quipped Templet. Prompting a shout-out from the audience, “But we know he can say ‘berm,’ ” reference to the governor’s fervent efforts during the spill to get a too-little-too-late $400 million berm built at the mouth of the Mississippi.

“Where has Mr. Jindal gone,” someone else asked from the audience. “He was all over the TV during the spill, calling for federal help. Now he’s nowhere to be seen.” Apparently his efforts these days are focused on getting the November 30 moratorium on new drilling lifted early.

Marylee Orr, the executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, reminded a crowd that is impacted by Louisiana’s disasters first hand, whether hurricanes, oil spills or Saint’s losses, reminded that local time is now told “pre-spill and post-spill.” She guesses she did more than 400 radio, television and print interviews at the height of the spill and worked 20-hour days for more than 3 months. Is she optimistic now that the well has been capped?

“Only time will tell if we can afford optimism. The notion that is now being spread around the world that the spill is over, that the problem is over, that everything’s back to normal … is not okay. Nothing is back to normal.”

Supporting her was chemist Wilma Subra, who has literally been on the ground since day one of the BP gusher, measuring toxins in the air, water and fish. She is not impressed by any of the numbers and is most angered by the “spin” being put on the issue of whether Gulf seafood is good to go … or not.

“The director of NOAA stood in front of a group of fishermen last week and said, repeatedly, ‘Seafood from the Gulf is not contaminated.’ Well, I don’t think we know that for sure yet.” Her biggest concern is that the government has changed the “allowable percentages” of certain chemicals found in fish, to ensure the fisheries reopen, choosing economic incentive over environmental cautions.

“It will still be many years before we know for sure how these coastal communities are going to fare,” said Subra. “Anything else you hear is a rush to judgment.”