Ever since the BP oil spill disaster began, a glut of contracts and jobs has surfaced. But who is benefiting? If you got an oil spill contract from the federal government, more than likely you are white. If you’re not white, and you’re fortunate enough to be working in the oil cleanup, then you’re likely to be involved in the more hazardous jobs, according to organizations monitoring the situation on the ground.
An NAACP investigation by staff who toured the Gulf of Mexico and interviewed residents and workers concluded that, “Community members and business owners [of color] have been locked out of access to contracts for cleanup and other opportunities related to addressing this disaster.” In a letter from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous to BP CEO Tony Hayward, the civil rights organization noted that “contractors of color are not receiving equal consideration for opportunities to participate in mitigation efforts.”
If information from the Federal Procurement Data System about oil spill contracts from the federal government is any indication, the NAACP is right. According to the latest data set, dated July 9 (though the agency warns its report lags “the work that has been awarded to date”), $2.2 million of $53 million in federal contracts — 4.8 percent — has gone to small, disadvantaged businesses. Women-owned businesses have landed 4.2 percent of contracts. Of 212 vendors with contracts, just two are African American, 18 are minority-owned, none are historically black colleges or universities — despite the three in New Orleans alone: Xavier University, Dillard University and Southern University at New Orleans.
And while BP is supposed to take full financial responsibility for the oil spill, Congress is looking for ways to make victims of the Katrina floods pay for it. A bill passed by the House last week would grab $400 million from Louisiana’s Road Home program — created after Katrina for people to rebuild homes lost in the floods — to use for BP’s spill and the Afghanistan War. That bill is currently pending in the U.S. Senate. New Orleans residents weren’t responsible for the 2005 disasters that took their homes — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to build protective levees — but now they’ll be paying for another disaster not of their making.
But if minorities haven’t been benefiting from the millions in contracts, they can’t be happy either with the kind of jobs made available by BP. As The Root first reported back in May, African Americans are among the most affected by the spill. The bays around Plaquemines Parish — where black fishers from the communities of Pointe a la Hache, Phoenix and Davent have trawled for shrimp and oysters for decades — have been closing, putting an abrupt end to the livelihood of hundreds.
For those fishers who’ve been put out of work, BP has offered a limited number of jobs through its Vessels of Opportunity program to allow boat owners to help skim oil and deploy boom. These jobs have proven to include high levels of risk and hazard and have led to illnesses and injuries — even suicide — among already despondent workers. The exposure to fumes from the oil and dispersant mixtures has created cases in which workers have suffered nausea, headaches and other more serious health problems.