On the longest day of the year, topping out at 95 degrees with a heat index well over 100 degrees, a team from Global Green made their way to the Louisana coast at Grand Isle. "One Tree Hill" actors Sophia Bush and Austin Nichols joined the group, which included Global Green CEO Matt Petersen, Global Green New Orleans Director Beth Galante, Global Green "Build It Back Green" Program Manager Camille Lopez, Global Green AmeriCorps VISTA Becki Chall, local fisherwoman and activist Margaret Curole, writer Justine Musk, and other guests.
The actors' commitment to environmentalism and passion for saving the coast brought them on this journey with Global Green, and they wanted to see with their own eyes what the oil spill was doing to communities in Louisiana, in order to learn how they could help.
To get the the island, we passsed through St. Charles and Lafourche Parishes, through towns with names like Paradis, Des Allemands (the Germans), Valentine, Larose, Belle Amie, and Galliano, reflecting the multiethnic heritage of the region. Driving on Highway 1 past Bayou Lafourche, the seafood and oil culture blend together, with small boat repair companies servicing both industries, seafood restaurants serving the oil men, shrimping profits dependent upon low fuel prices, and local tax bases buoyed by oil and seafood alike. An inordinately expensive-looking, immense new bridge carried cars high over vast shipping canals and eroding wetlands, with a few hurricane battered houses and gas stations dotting the landscape. It was easy from that vantage point to see how the oil companies had dredged shipping lanes through the wetlands to bring their product to America, thus depleting the nation's essential wetlands, which act as a hurricane barrier and natural habitat for so many species.
Some fishermen were still out there on the lakes and bayous and bay trying to make a living , but most knew that time was running out for them, and their next catch might be their last for a while. Social service agencies and churches were stepping in to fill the void, since most people couldn't count on getting immediate relief from BP. Not only were the fish a source of the families' incomes, but they served as a nature's bounty that would supplement their dinner table on a daily basis, providing a basis for a way of life and economic viability.
The first part of the day was spent on Barataria Bay, being ferried around by knowledgeable local fishermen and boaters, who showed us the signs that told them their world was changing: A quiet bay was an unhealthy bay. Normally, the waters would be covered with boats pulling their catches from the seas, but today there were neither boat enginges nor jumping fish nor diving birds. Oil coated rocks along the edges of a protected birdlife sanctuary, and the birds nesting there were sure to lose their hatchlings.
A few oil boom deployment booms roamed the water, but the booms themselves are futile protection against the oil, with most of the oil either washing over or under the booms. And the placement of the booms was neither strategic nor secure. It might have done some good if they had "boomed" off the area of the spill within the days or weeks of the disaster, when it was easier to contain. Seems like it would have made more sense to deploy every available tool as early as possible, since the spreading oil is much costlier to deal with than any earlier effort might have been.
The largest contingent of traffic on the water (and in the air) are journalists, monitoring groups and nonprofits like Global Green, Coast Guard, National Guard, Marines, Navy, and local police. Local fishermen claim that they are monitored from a distance by the authorities while they are on the water nowadays - since they couldn't be there fishing, they must have some nefarious purpose like gathering intelligence, goes the assumed logic. The counterpoint to the oil leak is the absolute shutdown of information flow from BP (and the government) regarding the realities on the ground. It's hard to get straight answers about the cleanup or the spill, and much of the information that's being pushed out is outright falsehoods.
Kevin, a self-made man, spoke fondly of his days living on his boat during shrimping season: His daughter grew up without TV because she had nature, they cooked and ate what they caught each day, they paid their workers up to $700 per day while the harvest was good, and they depended on no one for their livelihood. He knows those days are gone. He can still tell you the best spots in the bay to catch brown shrimp during a thunder storm, which captains made the most last year, and the tastiest way to prepare a barbeque sauce for grilled shrimp. Kevin's grandmother was a French-speaking Cajun who quit school when Louisiana banned French in schools. He proudly calls himself a "coonass", once an ethnic slur to describe Cajuns, that many no take as a self-empowering term of endearment.
Actors Sophia Bush and Austin Nichols of "One Tree Hill", who have spent a lot of time in Louisiana on previous projects, wanted to bring media attention to the oil spill disaster and send forth a call to action. Throughout the day, as they saw the oil in the water and on the rocks, as they spoke with locals who grew emotional about the loss of the environment and the economy, as they asked questions of officials to find out why the cleanup was being cordoned off from the public, they grew more focused on their mission and their commitment grew. In Twitter and Facebook posts, in interviews with E! News and other media outlets, they sought to educate their fans and the public about the environmental crisis, directing people to donate to Global Green and to advocate for climate change and alternative energy development.
For locals, the mental stress grows by the day. Proud family men who have always provided for their families now have to turn to others for assistance, as they watch their waterways get fouled every day and the animals die. We made this trip a few days before the first (reported) oil-related suicide of a fisherman in Alabama (http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/06/25/gulf.oil.disaster.suicide/index.html), who told his family before he took his life, "The Gulf's dead." The psychological and emotional toll after such a disaster is well documented, as in the case of the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, where suicide, domestic violence, and depression skyrocketed in local communities. Global Green is working with local nonprofit organizations to develop programs that will deal with the mental health effects of this disaster, with the aim of healing families cope with the overwhelming sense of despair and helplessness.
Members of the Coast Guard were cautiously friendly with our group, not asking us to leave the area, but not answering any of our questions about the cleanup effort or the resources being deployed. The group we encountered were a young group of men who had been stationed in the area before the spill, and were obviously disturbed by the destruction of what had been their play sanctuary as well, but had just returned from being off-duty and didn't have any real information about the current situation. Their mission that day was simply search and rescue, although the number of potential rescuees was limited by the small number of boats on the water.
There in the Barataria Pass, where the water of the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay, we encountered a rainbow colored shiny wave of oil on top of the water, shining the sun's rays back to the sky in sparkling colors. It would have been beautiful if it weren't so horrifying. The smell wasn't strong, but it was distinct. The captain recommended we not stay in the area too long, lest the burning sensation in our eyes (combined with the high heat index) cause us to become ill.
The images from TV showing oil washing up on powdery white sand beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi give an idea of what raw crude looks like when it touches an absorbent substance. Floating in the Barataria Bay and Gulf of Mexico, however, the orange rust colored crude appears in lava-lamp-like shapes oozing past boats, up and down waves, and ultimately towards the shore. The globs we saw ranged anywhere from the size of a quarter to the size of a large dog, with the consistency of taffy. Most was destined to eventually elude the haphazardly-laid booms and stick to rocks, birds, turtles, crabs, nesting grounds, or sandy beaches.
There was a frustrating sense among the locals that not every means was being deployed to clean up the oil. Hay, for example, was a known absorbent of oil, and brushing it up against the floating crude picked up the oil while allowing the water to pass through it. Highly effective and cost-efficient, hay would help as an added tool in the repertoire of cleanup technologies. This method, however, was not approved by the Powers That Be for the cleanup efforts. With an abundant supply of hay available from the rich farmlands nearby, and ample local workers and boaters, it seemed like a natural fit. But somehow the locals were not being listened to - again - and more expensive, less effective means were being deployed.
We rounded the mouth of the Pass, going past Fort Livingston, a relic of the Andrew Jackson administration which was never completed. Before the fort's construction, the island (Grand Terre) served in the early 1800's as the base for the Pirate Jean Lafitte, who ran contraband up the Bay, through the bayous and wetlands, and up to New Orleans.
The dolphins that should have been plentiful in Bayou Fifi were scarce, though they were curious about us and not shy. One has to wonder what these intelligent animals were thinking as they searched their usual roaming grounds for food, only to find a foul stench, discolored water and "dead zones" with no fish. For months and years to come, it's projected, their food will be scarce and their environment spoiled. Where will they go? Will they survive? Even the published tallies of live animals rescued or animals found dead are only a small percentage of the animals that will be killed or sickened from the spill, not to mention the eggs that won't hatch or the spawning that won't happen.
By early afternoon, the passionate missives that Sophia Bush and Austin Nichols had been firing into cyberspace in response to the horrors they'd witnessed had inspired their fans to get involved. Public education and engagement is a vital tool to keeping the government on task in the cleanup efforts, making sure BP pays for the damages, ensuring that there are enough resources to assist the communities' recovery, and lobbying for new investments in renewable, clean energies. A simple photograph or Blackberry can be used as a tool to shine the spotlight on this national disaster - the worst environmental catastrophe in our nation's history - and these actors chose to use their fame and access to media to support this cause and to bring resources to Global Green.
The leaders of Global Green have made multiple trips to the area, talked with government leaders, scientists, journalists, and oil industry experts, and developed partnerships with local nonprofits that have been established in the area for years, and are trusted by community members to provide assistance in times of need. By working at both the grassroots, legislative, and national media levels, Global Green can help the Gulf recover and use this moment as a catalyst to change the nation's thinking about how cheap and clean our energy really is.
See Matt Petersen's summary of Global Green's attempts to walk onto a public beach and help with the cleanup.