Seeking Environmental Justice in the Gulf

Those in disadvantaged areas, already hard hit by poverty and illness, say their concerns are not being addressed.

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Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In President Obama's address to the nation Tuesday, he pledged to create a "Gulf Coast restoration plan" for families and workers whose lives have been negatively affected by the BP oil spill. "The plan," said the president, "will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents."

For that to happen, he'd be best served by consulting with the community-based organizations throughout the Gulf region that are fully engaged in "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." Otherwise, the most vulnerable communities might not get the recovery resources from the federal government that they need, as happened after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. There's no reason this needs to happen.

Gulf Coast communities are often environmental justice communities, overburdened by sickness and poverty, and located in places that federal safety nets don't reach, or where state safety nets don't exist. They are also in areas where polluting industries operate with impunity even though their emissions, leaks and spills have a disproportionate impact on already disadvantaged families.

The federal government is bound by Executive Order 12898, a 1994 order signed by Bill Clinton that compels federal departments and agencies to consider any environmental justice implications before implementing an action. The Environmental Protection Agency is the guardian of that order, and Administrator Lisa Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, has honored environmental justice policy like no administrator before her.

But community organizations along the Gulf feel that many of their concerns still aren't being heard and are dissatisfied with the federal government's response. After the 2005 storms and floods, there was an enormous effort to bring together dozens of social and environmental justice organizations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The hundreds of nonprofit organizations that came online after Katrina were added into the mix. Birthed from that effort were coalitions such as STEPS and the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, which clustered small, local organizations into unified fronts, spurred by resources from the Gulf Coast Fund, Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, Oxfam America and many others.

But there is still a huge responsibility that belongs not just to BP but also to the federal government, especially for ensuring that the most vulnerable of these communities will recover fully. A major concern in these Gulf communities has been jobs. Unemployment was already high before the spill, and what work did exist often came from the fishing areas now closed by the slick, as well as from tourism industries. What few jobs are available now are in oil cleanup.

Much like the dispersants, those jobs come with a trade-off. With the former, shorelines and marshes are protected (although not all), but at the expense of the added toxicity from dispersant chemicals. With the latter, a certain level of income is protected (though not even close to normal income), but at the expense of the health of workers exposed to hazardous chemicals -- chemicals often in dispersant mixtures.

Many workers are not getting proper safety training, and this is the wrong area to try to get over on that. Since the early 1990s, the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has worked with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to train people in the region in hazardous-material mitigation. So it was clear to these communities that BP was being slick when it staged trainings that lasted only a few hours and offered minimal safety equipment.

Oil spill workers and coastal communities have reported sickness from exposure to the oil. In a letter sent to the EPA on June 15, several organizations told the agency: "Oil spill impacted communities have been experiencing odors and health complaints consistent with exposure to oil spill chemicals. At the same time, EPA is reporting 'typical' air quality for the areas monitored. This disconnect reflects gaps in the current monitoring and communication plans employed by EPA that must be remedied."

African-American fishermen, a dwindling community, also issued a statement, really a list of demands to President Obama and Congress, asking for more oversight of BP and just compensation for those put out of work by the spill. Another letter issued June 10 on behalf of vulnerable families across the Gulf also asks that the federal government protect workers' provisions and health.