Don't believe the hype. It isn't over. For many residents of the Gulf Coast it won't be over for a very long time. According to Krissah Thompson and David A. Fahrenthold of the Washington Post:
Work was drying up, people heard. Claims seemed harder to win. The massive cleanup effort, which helped replace lost livings with BP paychecks, seemed certain to be dismantled soon.
People here also fretted about losing the country's attention, long before anybody makes good on President Obama's promise "to restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the long-troubled gulf.
The new fear for many people here is that the only thing worse than the oil spill will be the end of it.
BP wants everyone to forget and move on. So, apparently, do some government officials. Independent scientists continue to be shut out. And Thompson and Fahrenthold say the response already has begun to downsize. This despite the fact that no one knows what has happened to the oil, and no one knows how badly damaged are the region's ecosystems from both the oil and the toxic dispersants. The number of boats chartered for cleanup has been nearly halved. Many of those boats belonged to local fisherman who don't know when they'll again be able to fish. Some of the damaged tourist businesses were at least making some money off cleanup crews, but now they will lose even that. And, of course, BP is doing what BP does. An Alabama mayor says BP already is finding ways to reduce reimbursement payments.
When disaster strikes, the most vulnerable often suffer the most. It's one of those obvious facts of life. It's one of those facts of life that are so obvious that we tend not to notice them. But the most vulnerable suffer most even from normal everyday abuses of the environment. As explained by Angela Harris, who teaches environmental justice law at UC Berkeley Law School's Boalt Hall:
For people who don’t know, the environmental justice movement is about recognizing that environmental hazards, like pollution, pesticides, toxic waste, and natural disasters, affect everyone . . . but they don’t affect everyone equally. Because of the way our society is structured, poor people and people of color suffer the most, whether it’s farmworkers in the Central Valley dealing with toxic plumes of pesticides blowing off the fields into their homes or little villages in Alaska having their hunting and fishing livelihoods destroyed by oil extraction, pollution and climate change.
When there is an environmental catastrophe, everyone suffers. But the most vulnerable suffer the most. The poor and minorities often are the most vulnerable. It should be no surprise that poor minority communities are suffering from the BP oil disaster. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) and Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-LA) explain that the cleanup is only the beginning:
This is not only the worst single-incident environmental disaster in our country’s history, but it also is the world’s worst accidental marine oil spill.
What is equally disastrous, but less frequently reported, is the impact to the physical health, economy and livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the Gulf Coast. Among these communities, perhaps the most vulnerable are thousands of Southeast Asian and African-American families. The adverse effects experienced by this population are potent and unique.
A third of the Gulf Coast's registered fishing vessels are thought to be owned by Southeast Asians, and twenty percent of the region's Southeast Asians work in the seafood processing industry. Some eighty percent of the region's Southeast Asians will be directly impacted by the BP disaster.
This threat to livelihood has serious implications for a community already struggling economically, having arrived in America as political refugees, resettled in unsatisfactory camp conditions, remaining largely invisible and silent in the South.
And the problems are exacerbated by factors explained in June, by Leigh Coleman of the Biloxi Sun-Herald, who was reporting from a town meeting in Pass Christian, Mississippi:
Asian-American fishermen in attendance told officials they are without work now because of the BP oil spill, and some of them are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina. There is also the language barrier.
"The Asian-American community does not understand the federal process and help for them is not clear, because they do not understand. There needs to be help breaking down this language barrier," said Kaitlin Truong, chairman for the Asian Americans for Change.
In July, Phoebe Judge of Mississippi Public Broadcasting reported that language difficulties were hindering some from being able to file claims. And BP was doing what BP does:
Community members are often asked by BP to sign documents they do not understand or cannot read, many of whom do not receive a copy of what they signed, only to find out later, for example, that they unknowingly hired a lawyer.
Honda and Cao offer what should be an easily enacted answer: keep people informed, in languages they can understand. And then, because many of these workers have lost jobs that won't come back and have no other obvious employable skills, provide them appropriate financial assistance and job training. And ensure that an appropriate percentage of the boats hired for cleanup are operated by Southeast Asians.
And then there's the only-in-America problem of health care:
Lastly, we need to address the public health concerns resulting from the spill. Lacking health insurance, and with even less access to medical care due to loss of income, many Southeast Asian Gulf communities are particularly vulnerable.
This is not a story that will have a happy ending. The best-case scenarios involve attempting to minimize the damage of a disaster that is redefining destructive maximums. There will be measures on which to keep our eyes. One of them will be how well the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed. Honda and Cao are focusing on the most vulnerable. We need to keep our focus on ensuring that their efforts are successful.
And please rec the BP Catastrophe Liveblog Mothership.