When Marylee Orr started what has become Louisiana’s most effective environmental organization she thought it would be a six-month commitment. “I realized how dirty our air and water were at that time and felt it was my civic duty to try and raise awareness of the problems. But I didn’t realize that it would become my life.” That was twenty-four years ago.
I’ve known Marylee for the past 15 years; we worked together initially on stories about how the big petrochemical plants lining the Mississippi were poisoning local aquifers … and not telling anyone once they learned. Standing in her Baton Rouge driveway two weeks into the spill she rests her arm on a 35-foot-long rowboat that was delivered to her last summer, rowed the length of the Mississippi from its source in Minnesota. Among the many hats she wears as executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, she is also the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. The rowboat was gifted to her as a way for her local team to get out onto the river they help protect.
But since the Gulf oil spill, she’s been far too busy to do anything but man the telephones, 12, 13 hours a day. “We are all suffering from disaster fatigue,” she admits, “from sleeping just four and five hours a night for weeks now.
“We are responding just as we did after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Documenting everything that’s going on, trying to keep people informed, especially our fishermen. Being a conduit for information, like about what’s going on with the dispersants that BP is putting in the water and claiming are not harmful. We went to court on a Sunday to force BP to forego the contracts they were trying to get the fishermen who were going to help with the cleanup to sign. They basically said if they got hurt their own insurance would have to cover them, that BP wouldn’t cover their boats if they were damaged and that they wouldn’t be able to speak about what was happening out there, essentially giving away all their rights. We got that stopped in with a lawsuit.
“But we are also working on getting food to the fishermen because many of them are not going to be making any money for awhile and will have lots of needs.”
“You have to understand that the fishing communities love the sea like they love a child. Part of our duty is to make sure whatever they are doing to try and help save and protect that ‘child’ is safe and fair for them.”
I ask what she considers the worst-case scenario. She doesn’t have to think long: “That this way of life, that these Gulf Coast communities may not exist anymore, that this life as we know it … is finished.
“My own sons, who are now young men, are really concerned about their own future. I mean, Is Baton Rouge going to be lakefront property in their lifetimes? Is the seafood going to be healthy? Are there even going to be any fishermen left in Louisiana? We smile, but it is a little bit like whistling through a graveyard here. If you don’t have a little sense of humor, you’re never going to survive. “