Grand Isle, Louisiana. When I returned to Cordova, Alaska, in December 2010 after my first six-month stint in the Gulf coast communities impacted by the BP oil disaster, fishermen greeted me wryly. "See you found your way home."
Fishermen were interested in stories because even then, twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was still no sense of closure. Exxon never "made it right." How could Exxon "make right" family lives shattered by divorce, suicide, or strange illnesses stemming from the "cleanup" work? Or the sense of betrayal by the Supreme Court to hold Exxon to its promise to "pay all reasonable claims"?
As fishermen listened to the Gulf stories, one asked, "Do they know how f—ed they are yet?" No, I explained, they've only lost one fishing season and they just now are filing claims for the first deadline.
When I returned to the Gulf in early January 2011, I heard the same story from Louisiana to Florida. "Everything you warned us about is coming true." During the next four months, I witnessed "oil-sick" people from grandbabies to elders, people distraught from claims denied, shellfish fisheries collapsing, baby and adult dolphins dying in unusually high numbers, continued dispersant spraying, and the early stages of Gulf ecosystem collapse — all while nationwide ads claimed BP is "making it right."
Two years after the BP oil disaster, I ask for people to help make it right — in the Gulf and across the country. We have the power to stop BP and the federal government from doing more harm. It is time to exercise our power in our communities.
Stop the false ad campaign.
When you hear one of BP's "making it right" ads, call your local media station. Tell them to pull the greenwashing ads and get the real story. The Gulf is sick and so are its coastal residents. Money, even heaps of it, will never make it right. Airing the misleading ads only makes things worse, especially in the Gulf where people despise BP's bid to brainwash other Americans.
Stop spraying chemical dispersants.
Chemical dispersants are the oil industry's preferred method of marine spill response in the United States. Dispersants drive the oil out of sight, out of mind, while dispersant production companies like Nalco profit handsomely and the spiller writes off the expense as a cost of doing business. Big oil companies often make their own dispersants — and profits from sales — but hide connections through subsidiaries. Small wonder that spillers prefer dispersants.
The problem with dispersants is exactly what is occurring in the Gulf. The federal government uses outdated and minimal testing procedures for dispersants, which hugely underestimate the chemicals' impacts to marine — and human — life. Some of the reported chemicals in dispersants are known human health hazards; many of the proprietary chemicals are as well as we learned from Gulf disclosures. Dispersants are now linked, or heavily implicated, with the widespread occurrences of lesions and maladies in fish and shellfish, dolphin deaths, and dramatic decline in populations of some Gulf species such as shrimps and killifish.
Yet people have a say in dispersant use. For example, dispersants were sprayed in the Gulf in coastal seas and nearshore areas in direct contradiction to reports from the US Coast Guard and EPA because the coastal states have signed pre-approval letters to allow dispersant use anywhere, anytime. But people in coastal communities of America could pass local ordinances banning dispersant use in state waters after marine oil spills; people could make sure their state had a signed no-approval letter as part of their Regional Response Team's spill contingency plan. Changing the National Contingency Plan would take more effort, so let's start locally by banning these deadly chemicals in our coastal seas.
Stop pretending that people in the Gulf coastal communities aren't "oil-sick" and that BP isn't responsible and liable.
It's not only the dolphins that are sick and dying. For two years, BP and the state and federal governments denied the epidemic of respiratory problems, dizziness and headaches, horrific skin lesions, and blood problems was linked with the oil and chemical disaster — despite the fact that medical literature identifies these identical symptoms as characteristic of oil spill exposure. Now under the BP-Plaintiffs' Settlement, BP has agreed to pay literally billions of dollars for medical claims, medical monitoring for twenty-one years, medical services, and community health clinics for underserved populations staffed with specialists in chemical illness treatment — but with no admission of liability.
Get educated and educate others about what is happening in the Gulf. Tell your local film festivals to screen the award-winning Gulf documentary, Dirty Energy, in which local residents talk about being "oil-sick." Many of the same chemicals in dispersants are in drilling muds, used in both onshore and offshore oil drilling, and in injection fluids, used in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in drilling for natural gas. Not surprisingly, the "oil-sick" symptoms are not limited to the Gulf.
Stop pretending that people in other oil sacrifice communities aren't "oil-sick" and that the oil companies aren't responsible and liable.
Independent films such as Gas Land and Split Estate are amplifying voices of residents from shale gas sites who are suing over fracking side-effects including earthquakes, exploding tap water, and mysterious debilitating illnesses. In Pennsylvania, residents are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about their contaminated well water in trade for a supply of clean fresh water from the very companies that caused the problem — while the same companies then claim there is no documented evidence of well contamination.
Independent filmmakers and videographers have amplified the voices of people sickened from the tars sands drilling operations in Alberta, Canada, and the 2010 tar sands oil spill in Battle Creek, Michigan. Already eleven people have died in one small trailer court near the Kalamazoo River from illnesses that they and their doctors believe were triggered or worsened by the tar sands that flowed past their homes and soiled the river banks.
Start taking responsibility for what is happening in your backyard.
The oil companies are polluting our air, poisoning our drinking water and land, poisoning people and communities across the country, collapsing ocean ecosystems from Alaska's Prince William Sound to the Gulf of Mexico, and even altering our climate in pursuit of profit, while leaving people and communities with the costs. The federal government clearly has no exit strategy off fossil fuels, so is beholden to — actually partnered with — this industry. When the industry and its supporters chant drill, baby, drill, politicians enable oil activities and help maximize profit by drilling loopholes and exemptions into the very laws and regulations designed to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment.
It is the ordinary people, not the bureaucrats and oil cats, who have the power to alter our collective future — and make it right for everyone. We all matter.
We start with town meetings to recognize what we value collectively in our community, determine a shared vision, then prioritize the actions to achieve that vision. We move our money and resources to encourage businesses that match our values. Towns across America are doing this now as people strive to become more self-reliant from the corporate-driven government policies that disconnect our jobs from what we love and value.
We need to insist on energy sources that do not create, then sacrifice, communities. We need an energy policy that leaves no Americans behind — not in the mountains of Appalachia, not in the Gulf of Mexico or along the North Slope of Alaska, not in the western Rockies or over the eastern Marcellus shale deposits, not in northern tar sands oil pits or pipeline corridors, not on foreign soil in wars over oil.
Making it right in the Gulf starts with diversifying our energy portfolio in our own backyards. A federal energy policy for the sake of energy alone will "make it wrong" for many people because all jobs not created equal. Jobs that simultaneously support healthy people, thriving communities, and environmental quality are worth more than jobs that pollute and poison the biosphere for profit.
What government of, for, and by the people puts corporate profit above the wellbeing of millions of people and the very survival of the youngest generations? Governments are instituted to secure the safety, health, and wellbeing of the people. Laws and policies that fail to safeguard these rights and protect the environment are illegitimate and unjust in a democratic society. Writing laws to protect our backyards starts in our backyards with local ordinances. The community-based movement builds to constitutional reform to assert that only real humans are sovereign and entitled to human rights.
The transformation starts when we believe that we have the power to act. When enough of us prove another way is possible and demand change, the politicians will have no choice but to follow the people's lead and make things right in America.
Riki Ott is a co-founder of Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute. Her latest book is Not One Drop (Chelsea Green) and an original essay, "They have no ears," will appear in Arctic Voices (Seven Stories Press, May).