From the shores of Louisiana – Gulf Fisheries

In Baton Rouge last week I met for the first time a very vocal third-generation shrimper, George Barisich, who has been working the Gulf his entire life, initially for the fun of it – crabbing as a kid – and ever since as a fulltime commercial fisherman, since 1966.
He inherited his 50-foot shrimp, the “FJG,” which his father named after his three sons: Frances, Jefferson and George.
Today he’s president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, which represents 139 shrimpers who are still all every disappointed by both the BP spill and its follow-up.
While the fisheries have largely been opened, and Barisich and his peers are out there every day catching shrimp, the market for them has mostly disappeared.
“There’s no one to buy the shrimp we’re bringing in, because they’re having a hard time selling it. The result is I’m getting 85 cents for a pound a shrimp, which used to bring me at least two dollars,” he says. “I’m not sure how long I can keep that kind of business going.”
The week before he’d had to drive his shrimp all the way into Mississippi before he could find a processor who would buy his shrimp, for $1.40.

“Back home my dealer don’t want it and his processors don’t want it. I’m going to have to go to make some money, but it’s going to be at depressed price, which means somebody’s going to have to give me free fuel or something. It’s complicated and not many fishermen understand what to do now.”

For the moment he vouches for the safety of the shrimp, despite some local scientist’s concerns that the allowable chemicals in the seafood have been altered by federal testers, making them seem safe when maybe they are not.

“We should be concerned about the reputation of Louisiana shrimp and seafood, so yes it needs to be tested. But for right now, I’m going to stay out there, fishing.”

“As for the oysters … I’m scared to death.” Due to all the freshwater from the Mississippi that was released into the mouth of the Gulf, most of the oyster beds are dead and may take three years or longer to revive.
A physically robust 54-year-old, George garnered good attention at the height of the spill, by appearing on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show wearing one of his own designed t-shirts.

On the front it had a mock-BP logo and the words, “Bringing Oil to Your Shores in All New Ways.” (Watch video)

“We sold 893 of them the first day after the program,” he says, “which was the best money I made all summer.” The day after I met him last week he was headed to a Gulf Coast concert in Houston armed with t-shirts to sell.

(His knack for producing timely t-shirts had previously gotten him in hot water with Homeland Security, when he handed some out free near a FEMA office soon after Hurricane Katrina. Those read “Flooded by Katrina! Forgotten by FEMA! What’s Next, Mr. Bush?”)

Like many Gulf Coast fishermen, Barisich is wrestling with proposed buy-outs from BP.

“Helping with the clean-up was the first time I ever worked for someone else in my life, so I’m more than a little confused,” he admits.

Thousands of business owners, fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast are confronting a similar conundrum. Those who accept a one-time payoff check for their long-term losses from the victims’ compensation fund will have to give up their right to sue BP. So George could accept a piece of BP’s $20 billion claims fund – relatively fast, easy money – or sue the oil giant for a bigger payday, which could require waiting years and risking ending up with nothing.

“One lump settlement – should I take it if it’s decent? Should I wait it out? It’s on the back of everyone’s minds right now,” says George. “It’s another one of the unknowns that’s driving everyone sleepless right now.

“The only silver lining that is going to come out of this is that the government and the country are going to understand the importance of the Gulf.”

[Flickr image via leunix]

From the Shores of Louisiana – Is gulf seafood safe?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: It’s rare for me to see 67-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist, MacArthur Grant ‘genius,’ grandmother of six – so worked up. But when I asked last week how things were going in the Gulf, where she’s been measuring levels of toxicity in air, water and fish long before the BP gusher began she was adamant that things are still bad out there.
“My biggest concern is that the message is ‘The oil is all gone.’ We are planning on being out in the field monitoring the wetlands, estuaries and beach areas for the impacts of the oil over the next several years,” she says, insisting that only then will we truly know about the impact on marine life, the environment and human health created by the BP mess.
But Subra’s biggest immediate concern is that the seafood coming from the Gulf may not be safe and that the federal agencies, specifically the FDA and NOAA, have cooked the books by adjusting the amount of some of the chemicals allowed in the fish they are testing… as a way to get fishermen back onto the Gulf and to restore confidence in the seafood market.
She forwarded me the criteria NOAA is using for testing, which makes it clear that its first test is smell and second for chemicals. Subra’s main concern is Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, of which the BP crude had large percentages.
In June, says Subra, while the spill was still unfolding “the FDA, in association with NOAA, raised the acceptable levels of PAH, without providing a rationale for why.”

“Here’s part of its statement in the Protocol for Interpretation and Use of Sensory Testing and Analytical Chemistry Results for re-opening oil-impacted areas closed to seafood harvesting by the FDA, published June 18, 2010: ‘The new numbers were developed specifically for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon Oil spill event and will not necessarily be applicable after all fisheries closed due to oil contamination are re-opened for safe harvest. Levels of concern and other factors for any subsequent oil spill event would be independently evaluated based on case-specific information.”

In other words, according to Subra and other scientists, the acceptable levels of PAH in the Gulf’s marine life were raised simply to address the impacts of the BP spill. It smacks less of concern for long-term human health, and more about getting the economy going again.

Subra’s complaints go bigger: “There is no testing for dispersants. In addition the calculations of the meal size used to calculate the consumption quantity is based on things like four shrimp per meal.” Who in Louisiana, or elsewhere, eats just four shrimp at a meal? Which begs another issue, which is that by allowing more chemicals to be in the seafood that is being taken from the Gulf it most-powerfully impacts those who eat it most often … which are the residents of the Gulf.

The bottom line, says Subra, is that “the concentrations of PAHs in seafood, based on the FDA acceptable levels, are inadequate to protect the health of seafood consumers.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, has defended both her agency and the FDA’s approach and that they are doing “comprehensive testing,” which includes a two-part test: A team of sensory experts tastes and smells the seafood and if it” passes muster,” is sent to a lab and tested for 12 types of hazardous compounds. “

Subra is not alone in not buying the agency’s modus operandi.

Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples, said seafood safety could not be guaranteed using those tests. “Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.”Senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina Solomon, concurs, and on September 21 urged federal officials to undertake “more rigorous” testing. She claims “NOAA only used data from 12 samples of shrimp, consisting of 73 individual shrimp for its evaluation. That’s just too small, she said, for an area the size of Connecticut.”Lubchenco, NOAA and the FDA continue to defend the testing and claim “the Gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat” and the reopening of Gulf fishing waters “is another signal to tourists the northern Gulf is open for business.”

[flickr photo via Ms. Gail M Tang]

From the shores of Louisiana: What fuels energy change?

Born in the Natal province of South Africa, Ivor van Heerden has been an adopted Louisianan for more than thirty years. During his years here he’s been head of the state’s coastal restoration program, on the staff at LSU, co-director of the state’s hurricane center and a head of Team Louisiana, which investigated the hows and whys of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

Also along the way he’s been branded everything from an expert to a gadfly, an egomaniac to a Cassandra. While he predicted the damage a Katrina-like storm would have on New Orleans several years before it happened – thus his charge to investigate after the hurricane – when he came out very publicly pointing fingers at the Army Corps of Engineers for “shoddy engineering” his job at LSU was suddenly eliminated (“budget cuts” said university officials; he’s still suing to get his job back).

He’s stayed in Louisiana since he was let go from LSU more than a year ago because he’s invested so much time studying its coastline and because he truly loves the state and its wildernesses. Since the Gulf spill he’s been up and down the coastline and in the air above it, consulting with clean-up efforts.

When I find him in his gravel drive in a small town outside Baton Rouge he’s packing his car for Houma, home of one of the spill’s command centers. Despite a reputation as a nature lover he’s no fuzzy romantic and is calmly outspoken on everything from big hurricanes to big oil. He’d spent the day before on two flights over the Chandleur Islands, where oil had just come ashore.

%Gallery-95432%”This is absolutely the last thing we need, being the most important part of the year in Louisiana ecologically. Our wetlands are already in such sad shape and now we’ve got hurricane season approaching. It’s the growing season for the grasses and wetland plants that suck energy out of the surge, which help protect us from storms. And of course this is the time of year when the birds are breeding and the fish larvae are starting to enter the bays and estuaries.”

How bad was the view from the air? “It was truly impressive. Some of the slicks are huge – one we looked at was 10 miles by 2 miles, about a mile off the coast. If something like that came ashore it would be devastating.

“A worst case scenario would be that a tropical storm spins out next week and we have five, six, ten feet of surge and it drives that oil in and totally fouls a huge part of coastal Louisiana. In some ways we’re lucky it’s happening now rather than during the height of hurricane season, which is when we expected such a catastrophe to happen because a drill rig had been knocked over.”

Given his ongoing fight with LSU over his job – his request for a trial was turned down just a week ago, though he is appealing – I wonder if he might temper his outspokenness regarding assigning blame for the spill.

“Obviously BP, or Transocean are at fault since it’s their equipment that failed. Whether it was malfunction of equipment or human error, they are ultimately responsible. But we Americans share a fair amount of the blame. Most of us are in denial about the whole energy situation in this country so it is our fault as much as anyone else’s.

“But BP or Exxon or whoever else is not going to go drill in one-mile deep water if they can’t make money. It costs them billions of dollars to sink just one well. But they can make money because of our energy policy. If we could suddenly change it so that we all had solar panels on our roofs, use solar heating and so on, we would reduce the demand for this oil and it would become uneconomical to go into these deep waters and we could eliminate some of these problems. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, I honestly don’t. I think we’re just going to continue down this road until we have a major energy catastrophe when we are all of a sudden forced to change.”

From the shores of Louisiana: through the eyes of an environmental chemist

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.”