Gulf Coast Is Still Hurting
On the anniversary of the BP oil spill, an NAACP investigation reveals major holes in the recovery process.
On the one-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, President Obama released a statement marking the occasion. Noting his administration's efforts to hold BP accountable for the catastrophic damage wreaked on the Gulf Coast, he admitted that the job is far from done.
"Today we remember the 11 lives lost as a result of this tragic event and thank the thousands of responders who worked to mitigate this disaster," Obama said. "But we also keep a watchful eye on the continuing and important work required to ensure that the Gulf Coast recovers stronger than before."
According to a newly released NAACP investigation, the Gulf is not on track to being "stronger than before" but is only getting worse. And much of that "important work required" is not up to par. In the report "My Name is 6508799" –- a reference to many Gulf residents' feeling as if their lives have been reduced to a claims form number –- the NAACP Climate Justice Department details the problems confronting people of color on numerous fronts, including:
Jobs and housing: For the thousands of Gulf residents who made their living in the fishing, shrimping and tourism industries, their way of life has been wiped out -- a loss that has resulted in rising unemployment, foreclosures and evictions. Homes along the leak's immediate path are forecast to decline at least 30 percent in value.
Health: The respiratory and nausea symptoms of oil exposure are affecting more than just cleanup workers. Other residents, even those who don't live right on the coast, have shown high levels of toxic chemicals in their bloodstreams, some in excess of the 95th percentile. It's a problem exacerbated by the fact that many coastal residents don't have health insurance, and many of these communities have long faced a shortage of health care facilities.
"Individual doctors and toxicologists have gone in and done blood sampling, but there has been no testing done to scale," Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Department, told The Root. "It continues to be a challenge to even properly assess the extent of the health impacts."
Claims backlog: The Obama administration and BP charged an independent organization, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, to process hundreds of thousands of claims from businesses and workers who suffered losses, but poor execution has shut out thousands of workers. While the organization has paid 187,000 individual claims for a total of $3.2 billion, more than 100,000 have been denied because of supposed lack of documentation.
"An individual will get a letter saying that they've been denied due to lack of proper documentation, even if they've sent in their W2, their 1040 and all the things that were asked for," said Patterson. "But the letter back doesn't explain the piece that's missing. That's a lot of the problem right there, that people don't know what else they should be sending in."
Seafood safety: The FDA says that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, and the White House has even featured it on the menu, but consumer confidence is way down. Meanwhile, some public health officials and toxicologists have raised concerns about adverse effects of oil compounds and chemicals building up in the seafood supply.
"Another issue is the standard which FDA has used to judge safety. For example, they tested based on an understanding that people devein their shrimp, and people in the Gulf tend not to," said Patterson. "They also based it on level of ‘average level of consumption.' The average nationwide is different than the average in the Gulf, where many people eat shrimp every day. So the amount that is deemed safe becomes multiplied, and there are questions about whether that level is still safe."
The NAACP investigation also lists recommendations, including 1) the creation of community advisory committees to participate in the design and implementation of the claims process; 2) a requirement for BP to finance both physical and mental health care systems for people impacted by toxic exposure; and 3) a requirement for FDA to conduct a thorough evaluation of food safety. The organization plans to present its findings to BP and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, and continue conversations with various federal agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security.
Last year, when President Obama talked tough about holding BP accountable, some accused him of orchestrating a $20 billion "shakedown" that was apparently beyond the pale. But with all the holes in the system -- an inefficient claims process and zero accountability for the cost to human health -- the administration doesn't seem to be shaking the company enough. As the White House continues to keep a watchful eye on the process 12 months later, follow-up action steps for burdened Gulf Coast families are also in order.
In the words of Nancy McCall, a 66-year-old African-American resident of coastal Alabama featured in the NAACP study, "It breaks your heart to know the water is not healed yet. It's real scary. Will it go up the food chain? It's not over. It's not over at all."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.