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Oil to Spoil: Culture in Ruin

by Guest Blogger

May 20, 2010

Jo Billups is a friend and supporter of Greenpeace who lives in the Gulf region.

I was born in New Orleans and grew up on the Bayou. I spent my childhood looking at alligators and being on the river. I used to go fishing on these waters, and my dad had a camp at South Pass.

The Gulf is such a big part of my life. That’s why the oil spill has been so hard.

I feel betrayed. BP should never have been allowed to put our communities and our ecosystem at risk like this. Eleven people are no longer with us because of offshore drilling. All our fishermen, shrimpers and oystersmen are out of work. Our culture is in ruins.

The fishing community

Most people in the fishing community live paycheck to paycheck. They’ve been working on their boats all year and investing everything they have into them. Now, as soon as fishing and oyster season opens, they can’t fish. The spill has stopped the fishing industry. The fish are starting to wash up dead.

Our community is centered around the beach life and the Gulf. So many people make their living off it and they’ve done it for generations. The fishermen are fishermen because their fathers and grandfathers were fishermen. It’s the same for the shrimpers and the oystermen. Who knows if they’ll ever be able to return to life as they knew it on the Gulf. An entire way of life has been devastated.

The impacts

Over this last month I’ve gone from walking the beaches for pleasure to walking the beaches in search of dead animals and animals in need. There is a split reality here. You’ve got people lying on the beach in bathing suits, and 60 feet away there are dead sea turtles and people in hazmat suits. You’ve got people who know it’s dangerous and won’t get near the water, and you’ve got people coming down for vacation.

There’s a lot of denial. BP just paid the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce $500,000 for a campaign that says “Come on down, the water’s fine.” But the reality is there’s a lot of fear and anxiety. The tourist industry is beginning to suffer. Memorial Day is coming up and a lot of the hotels are not booked.

I don’t think I’ll ever swim in the Gulf of Mexico again, or eat fish from the Gulf. Some people are still at the beaches and the seafood is still being served at the restaurants, but I haven’t seen any tests being done. They’re going to need to do a lot of testing to ensure that fish is safe to eat.

Everybody will tell you that it smells like kerosene. People are coughing and complaining of headaches, dizziness, and nausea. The air is toxic, and we’re being told that we’re not smelling anything.

From the minute the leak began BP said it wasn’t leaking. From the very first day BP has been lying about this. We need to constantly combat the misinformation. BP has people cleaning the beaches of dead animals, like it didn’t happen. Our beaches have never been cleaner. They won’t give us the information. They won’t give us a true animal count. They’re doing such a huge campaign to make it seem like it’s not as bad as it is.

Hurricane season

But this is happening. The Bayou Region is being destroyed, and now we are approaching hurricane season. People aren’t even talking about this yet, and it could be bigger than anything we’ve seen. It won’t take a big hurricane to push this oil inland. It won’t take much to push this up to drinking water sources, up the Mississippi.

Everyone down here is just coming back from Katrina, and a hurricane would be devastating. If we get a 30 foot tidal wave of oil there’s no way to tell the damage it will do. We saw the damage water alone that was done after Katrina, and now we’re adding oil and dispersants to the mix. No one knows how bad that could be because it has never happened. We’re truly in unchartered waters.

The government can prevent this

I hope people realize that fossil fuels are dirty, nasty and dangerous to people and ecosystems.

To be dependent on fossil fuels is like being in the dinosaur age. We have to more forward. We have got to harness the sun, the water, and the wind. We need to embrace clean energies. I do not trust energies that put people and ecosystems at risk. Alternative fuels are the only answer.

I hope people learn to question and not become complacent about dirty energy operating in their backyards. Those rigs have been there all my life. When something is there that long you get lulled into a false sense of security. Every single rig has the potential to cause this kind of damage. I hope that people learn to speak out and not allow this to happen in their community. It can ruin everything.

I’ve been teaching others about recycling, biodiversity, and conservation for 20 years, but that doesn’t touch what’s happened here. This goes beyond the lesson I was teaching. You can teach those concepts, but if you’ve got BP in your backyard it doesn’t matter how much you recycle or conserve.

Our government can stop this. I’d like to know the plan so that this never happens to another community like it did to mine. I’d like to hear the government’s plan to spare any other communities from having to deal with a disaster like this one.

– Jo Billups

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