Truth is a Casualty of the Gulf Disaster

by Shaker Mouthyb

[Trigger Warning: The following video contains testimony describing the damage to the homes of fishers in the Gulf, illnesses of the residents, including children, and damage to the gulf as seen from a personal boat. The woman speaking in the video also uses a very objectionable term to describe herself and her ethnicity, which is Cajun. While this is a local term to Southern Louisiana near the Texas border, it is a highly objectionable one with an associated history of racial violence. I am aware of the term and in no way whatsoever do I wish to condone its use.]

[The video is subtitled, but if you cannot view the video, here is a paraphrase by Liss of its content: Kindra Arnesen, a woman who lives on the Gulf—and was, after speaking out at a townhall meeting, given security clearance and thus access to BP's coordination meetings, clean-up efforts, and meetings with safety officers—gives a speech about what she has observed. 1. BP is using a "ponies and balloons" strategy, deploying all assets to hardest-hit areas when officials visit, and then dispersing people once the official is gone, satisfied the clean-up is all-hands-on-deck, all the time. 2. No one is wearing a respirator to clean, because BP refuses to let anyone wear a respirator for clean-up until they've had training, but are claiming that OSHA and the EPA say that the air is fine, so the training isn't necessary. 3. Seven men were taken for medical treatment, one by helicopter and six by ambulance; she inquired what was wrong and was first told it was food poisoning, then told heat exhaustion, and was then told by OSHA that the boats the men had been on were sprayed with Pine Sol, and the men had breathed in Pine Sol fumes and had chemical poisoning from that. 4. Her children have broken out in rashes; her daughter has upper respiratory problems. She and other residents are being told there are "bad air days," during which they should close up their houses and put the air conditioning on recirculation, but "everything's fine." 5. There's a media blackout on the significant and extensive environmental damage.]

Yesterday afternoon, a friend of mine posted this video to her facebook account. I've been paying attention to this issue for two reasons: first, I plan on using it as a staple issue in next semester's 101 courses. And second, because I'm from South Louisiana.

The people I know in my Mawmaw's (grandmother's) town have a cynical, pessimistic view of politics and history. Often with good reason—my grandmother's town contains an Olin Petrochemical processing plant, a CITGO processing plant, Lyondell Chemicals, American International Refinery Co and a Conoco processing plant and drilling operation.

We grew up with the ever-present waste torches staining the clouds orange, the air thick and faintly sulfurous. With the torches came stories of people who fell in, people who lost hands or feet, people covered in chemical burns or with cancer, or whose kids were sick. But my relatives, like many of the people I knew, were fanatically loyal to the companies which paid them, for fear of losing one of the only jobs with regular raises in town.

Even before Katrina and Rita, the prevailing attitude is best summed up by a political cartoon I saw as a teenager, featuring a man in a nightshirt, labeled 'voter,' standing between two beds filled with gators.

The gators, of course, were labeled after the two then-current gubernatorial candidates.

I asked my Mawmaw how she felt about it, and with a very French Cajun shrug, or at least one typical to my experience of them, she said that this was just as it was. I'm not going to even try to capture her liquid, rolling accent.

And the uncles and aunts agreed: That's life. It just goes on without you.

Even after being evacuated to Alabama just before Katrina, and finding out she had lost the house my Pawpaw build for her, the same sort of stoicism governed my Mawmaw's responses. She told us not to make a big deal out of it, just a hurricane and some water. They could always rebuild.

Perhaps because I have a soft, gooey center, visiting the family always bothered me: The environment made by those plants was killing them by inches, but nothing ever seemed to be done about it. They were determined not to complain, or too afraid to be retaliated against. And, since your family worked at the plants, the retaliation was never isolated to you. Your whole family could lose their job.

This video was a little more shocking to me because I know that the people I know in Southern Louisiana do not complain. They shrug off injuries, make do with a steadily more poisonous environment, keep trying to go on as things fall apart. They weather illnesses and deaths with the same sort of refusal to admit that it troubles them, holding out that last concession of defeat because in the end, they have their pride.

And, increasingly, not much else.

As Kindra Arnesen talks about her children in this video, their mysterious rashes and trouble breathing, I find myself picturing the people I know, and how hard it would be to say something, even with your children. The long term health gamble is more feasible than watching your children go without.

What Arnesen has to say is damning, as if there were ever any doubt.

"Ponies and balloons," a phrase she overhears from BP officials, discussing the visit of inspectors—ponies and balloons like a circus has come to town, a show for the people who trek out to those small, forgotten places in rural Louisiana, to tour the destruction. The local fishers, who are quite typically poor and working class, are asked to participate in the circus for a paycheck.

Their livelihoods are gone, as Arnesen points out.

Where, she says, where can I go? Point me where I can go to get back to work.

The fishers get to be a part of this macabre show, which happens until the inspectors leave. But, and I suppose this comes as no surprise, only on BP's terms.

For those of you who do not know, to this date, nine fishermen have been hospitalized for working on the crude oil clotting the beaches and marshes of Louisiana without respirators or safety equipment. Arnesen addresses this: She was told first that they all had food poisoning. Then that they had heat stroke, and finally that they had covered their boats in Pinesol and then, inexplicably, sat in the fumes all day.

The fishermen aren't talking. Clint Guidry, the President of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, told Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now that the workers feared to lose the only paycheck they were getting.

Guidry, like Arnesen, confirms that BP would not allow the fishermen to use respirators. According to the discussion during Guidry's interview, the transcript for which is here, it is to prevent lawsuits over safety. To allow use of the respirators is to admit the severity of the problem. During Arnesen's testimony, she states that she was told the EPA found the air fine, and that until the EPA certifies it, there is no need for BP to provide and train the fishermen on how to use the respirators. They cannot use their own; according to BP, it creates liability.

Are we expendable, she asks. Are the people I care for expendable?

And that is the million dollar question: When all there is to measure value is profit, is there any value to people?

I love Louisiana, and I miss it sometimes, but I grew up seeing the answer to that. It was in the plodding death of inheriting your parents' jobs, when they die of cancer. And in the brown night sky, and the howl of chemical spill sirens telling you to stay indoors, in your house, the way Arnesen was told to just stay indoors on 'bad air days.'

I think we are all seeing the answer to that question, over and over and over again, in the news. And, like Arnesen, I think many of us are blazing pissed when we aren't feeling hopeless at the enormity of the problem.

Arnesen ends the video asking where people are. Where, she asks, is the government as the crude surrounds her house on three sides? Where is the government when she has to send her children away because they are falling ill?

There is no simple answer to that question, because it is as enormous now as it was after Katrina. The best I can come up with is to go about my day looking for those ways, small and large, to teach, live, support and constantly remind the people around me that we are actually in it together. And it, that complex mass of society, environmental policy and technology, is not working for most of us. For all the people saying it's not that bad, and that not all the seafood is ruined, and all the other ways in which the problem is made to seem not as serious, thanks to the internet and the possibility of citizen journalists, we get these kinds of guerrilla videos popping up, as people who are sick of it try to get the truth out and mobilize people.

This video and the ongoing reports on the subject make me all the more determined to do what I can to fix it. Those things are many. I can write my senators about this video, I can talk to people about this video, I can lobby in groups in front of my government buildings and express my disgust with the collusion of regulatory agencies and BP in an environmental disaster which is, as we've discussed on this site, un-fucking-precedented.

I'll also be exploring this topic with 45 first year students this fall, because showing people that they are a part of the world around them is an essential part of understanding who they are. And because I want them to not accept, as many of my family members and the people I know in Louisiana do, that they are expendable and that life just passes them by.

Dear deity, I do not want those first year students to go through college accepting that they are a passive part of the process. One student at a time, in the little power any individual has, I want to make a difference for them.

I want to be a part of using citizen journalism to restore the fourth estate, and to make it clear that there are times when the internet can be used to expose the horrific incompetence and apathy of a corporation.

This is what I love about this site, and why I keep coming back as I view videos like these, when I read the most heart-rending news.

When I can't find anyone else to wield a teaspoon, I know I can come here.

Because I know we have teaspoons.

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