A Day on the Bayou

June 21, 2010

On June 7, a group of seven people representing the United Church of Christ, Mennonite Disaster Services, Lutheran Disaster Response and Church World Service had the opportunity to travel to Grand Bayou, Venice and other areas along the lower Mississippi River affected by the oil spill. UCC participants included Florence Coppola and Alan Coe of UCC Disaster Ministries and Loey Powell of Justice and Witness Ministries.


Note:  The photos and the video on the Gulf oil spill web page include many of the people named in this article.

We travelled to see the affects of the oil spill and to listen to some people affected by the spill.  Our day included a boat ride through the marshes, conversations with a group of local church pastors, fisher people and a Plaquemines Parish representative.  Words spoken are emphasized by the pain you can hear in their voices.

Maurice Phillips, a commercial shrimper of Plaquemines Parish, LA, took the group  out on a small boat to "see the oil."  This is the best way to witness the destruction of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, members of the Grand Bayou told Paul Unruh of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). Unruh led the group as part of a listening tour.

After a 30-minute boat ride from homes along the edge of the marsh in the Grand Bayou, the group came to where shiny brown oil covers the banks of the marsh and Bay Baptiste. The Gulf of Mexico surrounds Plaquemines Parish, and the Mississippi River runs through it.  The quiet of the marsh disturbed only by the sound of our boat motor…there was little wildlife to see in the area except a few mullet leaping in the water.

At places, the group detected the oil's odor, and they could make out a sheen on the water as well as orange residue on the top of the two- to three-feet-deep water.

Booms set up along portions of the bank absorbed some of the oil. But according to Phillips, this action came too late to prevent the oil from devastating the seafood industry and the livelihood of individuals in the Parish. Just five years ago these same families lost their homes because of Hurricane Katrina.

Since the spill on April 20, the Environmental Protection Agency gradually closed the waters for fishing and shrimping, and now almost all waters are closed to fishers.

In a visit to the Plaquemines Parish government office, Benny Puckett, grant administrator for the Parish and chairman of Committee of Plaquemines Recovery, told the group that what is sadder than the waters closed to fishing is the threatened reputation of seafood from Louisiana.

"Overcoming that will probably be a more difficult task," Puckett said. He also described what he calls "human collateral damage." For example, the deck hands who cannot prove to BP that they have a legitimate claim since they lack the required documentation.

"They're not able to show they're impacted," he said. This may offer the place for faith-based organizations to step in, he said, as opposed to volunteering on site.

"We appreciate [volunteers'] passion and desire, but we have people that are unemployed that we want to keep employed as long as possible. … Let's find something else."

Puckett also described the lack of control the local parish government has in the clean-up process.

Voices from Plaquemines Parish follow…

"Usually this time of the year," Maurice Phillips (commercial shrimper) said, "there would be 100 shrimping boats out."  That morning, the boat for the listening tour was the only one.

The previous night, at Paul Sylve's home on the Bayou, Phillips described a pelican he found covered in oil—as thick as syrup—in the water. He took the bird into his boat and delivered it to the pelican rescue at Fort Jackson, LA.

Sylve, another fisher and an assistant pastor, said a friend of his went outside federal waters—that are unsprayed by dispersants—put his arm in the water and into at least a foot of oil that felt like Jello.

Phillips said the dispersants used by BP only "[sink] the oil," and it still damages the marsh and wildlife.

As of June 7, the homes in the Bayou remain unaffected by the oil.

"When you have wind and high tides, banks will be covered," Phillips said. "I think they should have more people picking up the oil."

According to Phillips and other fishers, BP has no shortage of people who know the waters and are willing to do the work.

James Trabeau, a fisher, finished eight hours of training with BP and is ready at any time, but he has yet to receive a call.

"I'm just sitting and waiting until my turn," he said. "I really need to work bad."

Trabeau did receive a $5,000 check for his losses for the month from BP. But that amount falls dramatically short of what he usually makes during a month of shrimping season—five or six times that amount.

Thuong Nguyen, who has fished the waters for 20 years, was also waiting for a call from BP on June 7. While the money may not be as good as shrimping, he said, BP pays $2,000 a day to a large boat captain like himself. Smaller boats were able to shrimp closer to the shore, where the oil has yet to reach. His larger boat must go out farther, and those waters are restricted. On June 8, Nguyen received a call from BP. He will start his first day of clean-up on June 14.

The listening tour group also met with a group of 11 pastors from the area who described their concerns with the spill as well as expressed their faith in God.

Reverend Ted Turner, from a church in Boothville, La., said many young people in the Grand Bayou and Venice, LA, learned to fish from their parents, who learned from their parents and on back.

"This is all we've ever done and we don't want to do anything else," Turner said. The last thing these families want—post-Katrina—is to have to leave the parish, find a new job and a new way of life that does not let them eat much of what they catch.

Paul Sylve's wife, Carolyn, said she buys few groceries because they eat so much of what they fish.  "We live off the land," she said.   Referring to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, she said, "In Alaska, people committed suicides, families broke up. … Where does that leave the children?"

Carolyn and Paul's 11-year-old daughter Jeanne said she will cry if she goes out to see the oil in the marsh.  "This Bayou is a great place, and God created it for us," she said with tears. "Hopefully they'll find a way to stop this oil."

Another member of the Bayou community, Rosina Philippe, described the spill as a "product of greed."  "This is something we haven't faced before," she said. "It's a new enemy."

This article was initially written by Anna Groff, The Mennonite; and subsequently edited by Florence Coppola and Lois Powell.



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