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Oily problem

Christina Bergmann, Louisiana, USA / sc
February 25, 2013

Oil giant BP says the clean-up following the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been a success, but many fishers disagree. As the trial to resolve the remaining civil litigation opens, DW visits communities affected.

A sign in the area of Plaquemines, south of New Orleans, shows a resident's anger at BP. (Copyright: Photo: DW / Christina Bergmann)
Image: DW/C.Bergmann

58 year-old fisherman Byron Encalade stands in one of his two boats. He hasn't used either of them in almost three years. The boats are just rusting here in Pointe à la Hache, a little town just south of New Orleans where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill here almost three years ago brought an end to his way of life.

"Our oysters are all dead, we can't go into the Bayou, we haven't fished," he says. "Our community is being desecrated and you can't speak about an economy, we don't even know what that is anymore."

It has been almost three years since the explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in a leaking oil well and a spill that polluted 7000 kilometers of coastline, from Texas all the way to Florida. The brunt of the oil washed ashore in the area east and west of the Mississippi, close to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Byron Encalade has been an oyster fisherman all his life, just like his father. His family has been living in the area south of New Orleans for generations. He says this region "is the largest, richest oyster estuary probably in the world. This is the heart of Louisiana's oyster seaground."

But Enclade says the oysters here were were destroyed in April 2010. "The oysters are not reproducing since the oil spill," he says.

Why have the oysters stopped reproducing?

It wasn't the oil that killed the oysters, it was the freshwater from upstream. The area was intentionally flooded in an attempt to stop the oil from reaching the shoreline. But oysters can only survive if the salinity of the water stays within a certain range.

Ed Cake is a marine biologist and oyster specialist with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. He told DW how freshwater can kill an oyster. "Their osmotic mechanisms fail, " he said. "They swell up with freshwater and burst and their systems and organs fail." That explains why the oysters died in 2010, but Louisiana's oyster beds still haven't recovered.

Discarded oyster shells in Pointe à la Hache show the successes of times passed. (Copyright: DW / Christina Bergmann)
Empty oyster shells in Pointe à la Hache harbour are a memorial to the region's former heydayImage: DW/C.Bergmann

Thomas Soniat, a biologist at the University of New Orleans, believes this is part of the normal cycle. "Even before the spill the number of oysters was fairly low." he said, adding that 2000 was the last good season for oysters.

But Ed Cake has a different theory. He explained that an oyster larva needs a solid substrate to attach itself to in order to begin growing and forming a shell. They then usually attach to other oyster shells on an oyster bar.

"All it takes is a very, very, very thin film of sediment on those shells to prevent the new spat from attaching," Cake said. The freshwater intended to beat back oil the oil spill may have flushed sediment into these waters.

Louisiana fisher wants BP to pay damages

According to Cake, the entire area has been exposed to oil and dispersing agents, which may also be why the baby oysters are failing to to attach to the levees. These waters, the biologist explained, also feed on micro-particles in the water. But this water is still contaminated with oil and dispersing agents released in the spill. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says at least one million barrels that spewed from BP's well blowout are still missing.

"Oil goes into their digestive gland and forms lesions," Cake explained. "Those lesions result in the death of the animal."

Oyster fisher Encalade, who is also the President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, said he can understand that the government was trying to prevent the oil from washing ashore when it flushed freshwater through this area.

"We knew it was for the better good for the long run," he said. "But the crime now is BP failing to take care of its responsibilities in these smaller fishing communities."

Other than the original emergency payment of about 80,000 dollars (60,130 euro) Encalade said he hasn't seen a check from BP since. Replacing his two fishing boats, now rusting in the marina, would cost 200,000 dollars (150,330 euro) each. He had to sell his trucking company in order to survive.

BP did not respond to DW's request for an interview.

Government holding back oyster study results

Joel Waltzer is a lawyer who represents fishers affected by the BP spill. He says that the compensation packages awarded shortly after the disaster have benefitted some of the people in this community. The payout was based on a forecasted 30 percent drop in catch yields. For those who lost less than 30 percent of their regular haul, like the oyster fishers on the west side of the Mississippi River, the compensation package was a deal.

But Byron Encalade and the other oyster fishers in Pointe à la Hache lost everything. They say the original compensation package hasn't been nearly enough to keep them going. "We want to get people's compensation tied more closely to their losses," Waltzer explained. "So they will have enough money to weather out the storm."

Pointe à la Hache harbour in Louisiana (Copyright: DW / Christina Bergmann)
Pointe à la Hache harbour in Louisiana is doing little trade, according to localsImage: DW/C.Bergmann

It is difficult for anyone to say when or if the oyster beds will fully recover, which Waltzer says presents an enormous challenge when establishing how much compensation each person is entitled to. "Fishermen are being asked to decide whether to accept a settlement or not and sign away their rights, before they really know what the long-term damage is going to be," Waltzer said.

Anyone who accepted the early settlement package is no longer eligble to apply for more. Waltzer is hoping for a decision in favor of the victims, but explained that a lack of information will make it difficult to establish the extent of the damage. An official investigation of the oil spill's impact has been opened but the results haven't released. Waltzer believes the government wants keep the study under wraps in order to have at least one trump card they can play in the trial against BP.

But, he doesn't think this is the right decision.

"Government should take the position 'our case may be weakened a bit if we release all this data when we get it, but that the public has a right to know'."

Uncertainty wearing down locals

For now, the fishing communities here in Pointe à la Hache are still in the dark. "That's the worst part: the unknown factor," said Don Beshel, the owner of the boat launch at Point à la Hache's marina. "If we could see a light at the end of the tunnel it would be nice. But right now, we don't see anything positive going on."

He added that up until two years ago, his business was profitable. Commercial and sports fishermen and oil companies alike would get ice, fuel and supplies from him and have their crabs, shrimp and fish unloaded. But he's lost almost 65 percent of his sales since 2010. Beshel doesn't know how long he'll be able to stay in business.

Billy Nungesser from Plaquemins Parish talks on his mobile phone. (Copyright: Plaquemines Parish Government)
Billy Nungesser from Plaquemines Parish is demanding BP pay locals more moneyImage: Plaquemines Parish Government

He and his family of five live 30 kilometers to the north of the marina, and recently lost their house in Hurricane Isaac. The furniture factory he once owned had to close, too – they couldn't compete with the Chinese, he says.

"I've been beat so many times, that I don't see anything but bleakness," the 55-year-old said. "A lot of people down here don't know what their future is going to be."

Outlook still looks grim

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says there has been an increase in reports of abnormalities in fish, crabs and shrimp from Louisiana and offshore waters. Experts say the failure of the oysters to regenerate is a clear sign that the spill is still harming the fragile marine ecosystems in this region. Despite this, the seafood from the area has been declared safe to eat.

That won't be enough to revive local economies around the marina says Billy Nungesser, from Plaquemines Parish.  "I think it's going to be a 10 or 20 year recovery," he told DW, adding that failure to locate the missing oil would continue to impact on sales, even if the fish caught were declared healthy. He believes BP has an obligation to pay for the damage the oil spill has done, and that it would best be left to the parish to decide what to do with it.

In the meantime, the people of Pointe à la Hache are struggling. For Byron Encalade, who has four daughters and nine grandchildren, this means living with his father. "My dad is paying the light bills," he said. "I can't afford to pay. He is buying the groceries and everything else. I am totally honest with you, the senior citizens are taking care of this community with their social security and their retirement checks."

About a hundred fishermen still live in this community, Encalade explained, and he has lost track of who is staying and who is leaving. But if the oysters are not coming back people will have no other choice but to leave the area where they have been fishing for generations.