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Democracy in Reverse | Non-Profit Disaster Capitalism on the Gulf Coast
July 11, 2013
by Elizabeth Cook
The most recent public meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, held in Belle Chase on June 12, was an exercise in democracy in reverse.(1)
It is an undemocratic process that is largely for political theater, in my view, so I used it as such. I was as dramatic as possible in presenting the most important points, in my view, of the reality on the Gulf. People have only three minutes to speak. The funding is a long way off, so why not have round table discussions, that can go on all day, where people wander in and out depending on their schedule? No, in three minutes, you have to state all of your concerns about the gulf, BP, oil, the Corexit (2), bioremediation or the lack thereof in the marshes, the dying marshes (3), the culpability of the government in the use of Corexit (4), the fact that the Feds want to expand drilling to Florida (5) and the Corexit is being stockpiled all up and down the Gulf coast (6). If there another major oil well blowout in the Gulf and the Corexit is used in massive quantities again, then this restoration process will have to start all over. Common sense folks (yes, I did say that).
I should note who comprises the Council as per their web site:
“The RESTORE Act established a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (the Council), which is comprised of governors from the five affected Gulf States’, the Secretaries from the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security as well as the Secretary of the Army and the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Gulf States recommended and President Obama appointed the Secretary of Commerce as the Council’s Chair.” (7)
No Secretaries of Departments were present at this particular meeting, but they did send representatives, and Garret Graves, Director of Coastal Protection and Restoration was the Louisiana governor’s representative.
For background, it was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus whose report (8), submitted the week of October 2nd, 2010 to President Obama, first publicly floated the idea to pass legislation that would allow that a portion of the Clean Water Act (CWA) civil penalty funds be dedicated to the restoration of the coast and communities, rather than the civil penalty funds from the CWA just going to the oil spill liability trust fund for cleaning up of oil spills. The legislation was passed in 2012, called the Restore Act (9), dedicating 80% of the civil penalties under the CWA for this disaster to the Gulf coast communities for restoration, and signed into law on July 7, 2012, by President Obama. (10)
The Restore Act has five goals: “Restore and Conserve Habitat”; “Restore Water Quality”; “Replenish and Protect Living and Coastal Marine Resources”; “Enhance Community Resilience”; “Restore and Revitalize the Gulf Coast Economy”.(11) These funds could be in the range of $800,000,000, so it’s no small change we’re talking about.
In my three minutes, I brought up the fact that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, in his report titled “America’s Gulf Coast: A Long-Term Recovery Plan After the Deepwater Horizon Spill” (12), recommended that Congress “authorize a Gulf Coast Recovery Council”, after numerous public meetings across the Gulf coast during the summer of the BP oil disaster in 2010. After listening to numerous fisher folk and residents of the Gulf coast speaking about how sick they are and of friends and family members becoming ill (you’d be hard pressed to find these quotes in local media that applied their own blackouts on this information), Mabus urged the inclusion of health impacts and the timely access to health care and reimbursement of costs for health care in his report. Now public health is nowhere to be found in the Restore Act.
A little history of this process: President Obama in response to Mabus’ report, created the Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force in an executive order on October 5th, 2010 (13), which began holding public meetings, chaired by Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. I attended two of the public meetings.
Photo: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson with Pres. Obama, January, 2012 | Getty Images
In the Restoration Task Force Meetings, we brought up the Corexit and health impacts, and I disrupted one of Lisa Jackson’s speeches to do so, and Lisa Jackson worked hard to either shut us down or minimize the health impacts to invisibility. At one point, as my colleague and member of the Committee to Ban Corexit, Les Evenchick reminded me, she stated as a fact that the Gulf has long had environmental issues, as though the BP disaster were just one in a long string of events in the Gulf. This is manipulative psychology, and I was there at the task force meeting in New Orleans where she made this claim, and heard her say it. She isn’t the only government official that has used this technique to downplay the BP disaster as though the Gulf was a sewer before BP’s “accident”. I’ve heard several lower level federal flunkies using that verbage as a form of distraction from the very real issues left behind by BP and the Corexit.
Yes, enormous problems with fertilizer runoff and dead zones in the Gulf. But the Barataria Bay was one of the most productive in the world before the BP oil disaster, and is now home to dying and diseased dolphins. (14) And this is just a part of the ecological picture on the Gulf coast.
Lisa Jackson succeeded in downplaying the health effects. Read that final report from the task force. (15) Page 43 through 47 deal the with goals of “resiliency” and “education”, leaving out health impacts entirely. Consequently, in my view because of this task force report’s influence, the health impacts from the oil and Corexit were completely left out of the Restore Act as a result. Instead, we get something about making coastal communities “more resilient”. In the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council’s report, a glance at their “goals” and “objectives” is revealing. (16) Restoration included? Yes. Economic impacts? Yes. Resiliency Projects and “education”? Yes. Might as well call it “re-education”. Get used to the new reality on the Gulf coast: constant exposure to toxicity due to the remaining oil, continued spraying of Corexit according to many local fisher folk, and a badly damaged if not dying Northern Gulf ecosystem (17).
I brought up the fact that LSU has studied bioremediation for decades. Makes sense given that Louisiana produces and refines a healthy portion of all oil and gas produced in the country. Yet no bioremediation attempts are being made to help the dying marshes; I spoke to two professors who have studied the issue extensively, but both are fearful of exposure on this issue. The marshes are in crisis as per LSU Professor Linda Bui’s report (18), one of the few professors willing to speak out. Her report chronicles the dying insects, the receding, oiled marshes, whether heavily oiled or less heavily oiled, and increased toxicity and increased presence of two oil compounds, naphthalene and methylnaphthalene, rather than the natural biodegradation process occurring as Federal and state officials hoped for. I consider this situation of increased toxicity in marshes and oil that is not degrading related to the massive use of Corexit that has hurt the ability of the natural microbes to do their job, but I didn’t have time to say that during the meeting, given our three minute limit.
There has been at least one scientists who looked at the long term effects of Corexit: the news is not good. (19) Terry Hazen leads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Ecology Department. Hazen says during the well blowout in 1978 off the coast of Normandy, the Amoco Cadiz spill, the recovery of the areas where the Corexit was used has been slowed down for decades, and these areas have still not fully recovered. In areas where the Corexit was not used, the areas are “fine now”, according to Hazen.
A recent study (20) showed that the use of Corexit made the oil potentially 52 times more toxic, but I didn’t have time to say that during my three minutes, or question whether because of this increased toxicity of the oil due to the Corexit, was impeding the microbes that should be making the marshes more oil free at this point, rather than the marshes showing damages that aren’t slowing down (21).
Granted, written comments can be made in this process and submitted to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, within the time frame for public comment. This entire process though is undemocratic as while the comment period ends, the effects of the BP oil disaster have no “time frame” and continue to unfold and do it’s damage to lives and the northern Gulf ecosystem. Ongoing townhall meetings run by residents themselves, with constant discussion of these issues and what to do about them, is what ought to be taking place. Folks are tired, broke, brokenhearted, demoralized, and so far, the leadership needed to get a process like that started has not emerged.
Another study by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (22), talked about in their press release on January 26th, 2011, suggested the Corexit was deeply embedded in deep water oil and gas plumes after the BP disaster, and had not significantly biodegraded “some three months after it was applied”. There was no time during this meeting though, with the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council, to bring up concerns over lingering effects of Corexit on the marshes and estuaries of Louisiana or any where along the Gulf, with the way these meetings are structured. In addition, as noted above, the “goals” of the Council do not include the concern over the continued Federal and apparently state acceptance of the use of Corexit to combat oil spills.
To the credit of other folks there, there were a few that suggested the public comment period be extended beyond the current deadline of June 24, 2013 for this Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Plan (23), since the funding itself is a long way off. How can anyone really explore a subject and comment adequately with three minutes, one minute more than the New Orleans City Council allows you to comment. Yes, there have been a series of a few meetings along the Gulf coast, all run the same way: a rushed power point to explain the whole process, time for politicians to speak of their pet projects, and then to the public comments limited to three minutes. No consideration for folks who drove from sometimes quite far to speak, no consideration that many folks work odd hours. Utter and completely undemocratic. And no final say for the public, the “stakeholders”, as they like to call us, as to which projects will be chosen and how implemented.
It was suggested that folks comment on whether or not there should be the creation of a Citizen’s Advisory Council, but I didn’t get a chance to approach that subject, cause the guy holding up the signs telling us how much time we had to speak held up the one that said “STOP” when I was speaking after my three minutes were up. I would have asked, how can you guarantee a democratic process in the selection of such a citizen’s advisory council, without town hall meetings in all communities impacted and the opportunity to vote for representatives?
What was really disappointing is that I was the only person to bring up the toxic dispersant Corexit and health and environmental impacts of its use. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser got in his two cents saying the oil is still in the marshes, and “BP ain’t making it right”. Well, neither is the EPA or NOAA or the White House for that matter, but it drew popular applause from the crowd. So did the virtually same words from Jefferson Parish President John Young when he said tar balls and oil mats are still showing up on Grand Isle and Elmer’s Island. Where are these two parish presidents when it comes to addressing the lack of help for folks sick from exposure to the toxicity of the oil and Corexit, the demand for bioremediation projects led by LSU, the demand to ban the Corexit? Nowhere to be found.
Enter the Non-profit Industrial Complex
This was a meeting that demonstrated the various layers of NGOs either looking for money in the restoration process, already receiving money and bragging about what they are doing and how long they’ve been doing it. The place was packed with representatives from NGOs. There were the mid-level NGOs like Gulf Restoration Network that at least called for an extended comment period. The place was literally filled with tiers of NGOs. Sierra Club, in the house. Audubon Society, in the house. Oxfam, in the house. Numerous other smaller NGOs whose names I can’t remember, big and small NGOs all introducing themselves and gearing up for grant writing or perhaps filing claims for lost donor funds during the first eight months of the spill.
Photo: Sierra Club Volunteers, Staff, Executive Director Michael Brune and President Allison Chin (Photo: Sean Sarah) | November 9, 2012
Yes, the nonprofits are being encouraged to file claims for losses related to the BP oil disaster in workshops held by the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation. (24) I attended one of their workshops on June 10 in New Orleans, and actually heard Amy Smallwood, CEO of Louisiana Cultural Economy, say that is doesn’t matter if your losses during those eight months after the beginning of the BP oil disaster on April 21, 2010, are directly connected to the disaster or not. Heard it with my own ears. Smallwood also said don’t worry as to whether or not you’re doing harm to the fisher folks directly impacted by the disaster, cause they are getting the help they need. I raised my hand and pointed out that the oil spill workers from the BP oil disaster who were made ill, and residents who lived near the coast who were made ill, if they are part of the plaintiff’s settlement and didn’t opt out, have medical damages capped at $69,000 (see http://www.bpmdl2179.com/sites/www.bpmdl2179.com/files/pdfs/Medical.pdf , although the settlement is currently under appeal). I spoke of people who have lost everything due to medical bills: mortgaged homes, boats, moved in with grandparents.
From their web site on these workshops: (25) “The BP settlement can be transformative for Louisiana’s non-profit community, as some organizations have already discovered. LCEF’s attorney, Zachary Wool, will present important information about how nonprofit organizations may qualify for funds. Wool has successfully secured funds for the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and his firm has submitted claims for non-profit funding in excess of $10,000,000. He will present the facts about the settlement and answer questions.”
The Mabus report (26), published in September 2010, anticipated and encouraged the role the nonprofits would play in Gulf coast “recovery”. On page 4 and 5 of that report, Mabus established
“five topic areas critical to the long term recovery of the Gulf coast region:
– Proposal to Congress to Dedicate Clean Water Act Civil Penalties to the Gulf Coast
– LongTerm Ecosystem Restoration
– Health and Human Services Recovery
– Economic Recovery
– Nonprofit Sector Recovery”
Plans to enlist the nonprofit sector are mentioned throughout the report, and of course, this is no accident, as the nonprofits provide an outlet for funding and energies that is not essentially threatening to the government bureaucratic processes as they laboriously work to tackle and/or avoid the worse effects of this oil disaster.
President Obama’s answer to Mabus’ report, again, was the creation of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, chaired by EPA Director Lisa Jackson. This task force published in December of 2011 its report, titled “Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy”, and demonstrates, beginning on Page 3, its commitment to including the NGOs as part of its suggested strategy for restoration. (27)
“The Strategy builds on ongoing work and priorities of each of the Gulf Coast states, local communities, federal partners, academics and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).” The task force, then lays out several goals:
“- Restore and conserve habitat
– Restore water quality
– Replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources
– Enhance community resilience”
It’s that fourth goal, largely, where the NGOs know that they are going to play an important role, and here is how the task force defines that fourth goal:
Enhance Community Resilience
– Develop and implement comprehensive, scientifically based, and stakeholder-informed coastal improvement programs.
– Provide analytical support tools to enhance community planning, risk assessment and smart growth implementation.
– Enhance environmental education and outreach.”
It’s no wonder a job ad from Oxfam began circulating in various Gulf coast email lists in the first several months of 2013, after Judge Barbier approved the plaintiff’s settlement (28) in January of 2013. The plaintiff’s settlement includes this:
“A grant of more than $100 Million will be used to establish a 5-year program to enhance access to physical and mental health care services in the Gulf Coast region—with an emphasis on integrated and sustainable community-based primary and mental health care and environmental and occupational health services. These services will benefit families in the entire region for years to come.”
Here is Oxfam’s job ad: (29)
“Oxfam Seeks Gulf Coast Senior Program Advisor – The Gulf Coast Sr Program Advisor will represent Oxfam’s Gulf Coast program with peers, partners, networks, private sector, policymakers, researchers and donors to advance the concerns of coastal communities in the region, primarily Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The representative will provide broad strategic guidance to regional program and advocacy strategies and lead on particular initiatives and grant-making relationships. For more information, please go to http://hire.jobvite.com/Jobvite/job.aspx?j=o97iXfwf&b=nxfT9kwD.”
Let’s be real clear here: recovery is a far cry from resilience. While Mabus at least suggested health care for recovery of the health of residents and timely reimbursement for costs, this is metamorphosized to resilience by the time Lisa Jackson gets through with it. The larger NGOs are posed to feed on resilience like vultures, and you can be sure the money will be spread around to some extent to smaller and mid-level NGOs in some way. Some have good intentions, and something of a network of locals they reach out to. But the larger NGOs, some private university involvement (30), talk a good game about “resilience” and even “recovery”, while people fight off symptoms of toxic exposure and chronic and serious illnesses. This language of “resiliency” is well illustrated in a coalition of large and small NGOs, called Gulf Future (31). At least Gulf Future includes the demand within their report, “A Unified Action Plan for a Healthy Gulf (32) for access to “affordable” health care and “emergency” and “community clinics”, but somewhere along the way, this coalition’s demands on that front got lost in the unfolding “recovery” process. No community clinics have opened, no “emergency” clinics, and folks are still ill, chronically ill, children also, and left to their own devices to develop detox methods for survival. This group of small, mid-sized and large NGOs, despite their funding, failed to engage the grass roots in a long term push for free health core (and didn’t propose “free” health care, because for folks who have lost everything, that is the only truly “affordable” health care.
One source from the Association of Environmental and Occupational Clinics (33) recently told me that she didn’t believe it was possible to actually detox from the chemicals associated with the BP oil disaster. Tell this to the hundreds of residents who are sharing information and keeping themselves alive with homespun detox methods and practices.
What was missing in this Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council meeting in Belle Chase was plenty of fisher folks; a few attended, and some spoke of the need for jobs, now that fishing and shrimping are dying (34) as industries in some parts of the northern Gulf, particularly in heavily oiled Louisiana. To my knowledge, no one attended or spoke who was made ill by the oil and Corexit.
A few fisher folk brought up how some of the projects that involve freshwater diversion and sediment will affect and hurt the fisheries. This demonstrated a disconnect between the reality of what is needed to rebuild the coast, those implementing the projects, and the real economic effects on fisher folk. How or when or even should fisher folks be compensated for projects that destroy fisheries in the process of rebuilding coastal land? Wasn’t even mentioned. Not on the table.
The poor turnout shows how demoralized, in my view, many folks are that they don’t even bother to come out. Or maybe they are too sick, which I can understand perfectly well. I reminded this Council that some folks have lost everything, due to the health costs, and of course, due to the fisheries impacted. The poor turnout of fisher folks speaks volumes though as to how discouraged folks are on the coast that make their living from the waters. Discouraged or not, and we all are experiencing unbelievable levels of grief and the accompanying emotions, It’s your coast, it’s my coast, it’s all of our coast, the Gulf belongs to all of us, and if we don’t defend it, we’ll lose it completely.
We should have had two hundred people or more there to shut the meeting down and run it the way we want to run it. That was my fantasy: a democratically run round table discussion meeting that would go on all day if necessary, with folks coming and going according to their work and personal schedules, with democratic proposals on what changes we want as to how things are being conducted on the coast. Certainly playing these games with the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council won’t achieve what we all want: ban the toxic dispersant Corexit, health care for all impacted by the chemicals for life, clean energy development and production, and a recovering Gulf with the utilization of bioremediation instead of dying marshes.
[Elizabeth Cook, New Orleans, Committee to Ban Corexit (No, we’re not a nonprofit).]
(1)The Draft initial plan and public meeting, public commentary schedule of the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council.
(2) Dying marshes, both less and more heavily oiled, from a report by Louisiana State University Entymologist Dr. Linda Hopper Bui:
(3) The Committee to Ban Corexit web site, containing links and info on the toxic dispersant:
(4) Mother Jones article on the culpability of the Feds in the massive use of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP oil:
(5 )One of the stated goals of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s current Environmental Impact Statement process is the expansion of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico:
“The EIS will assess the potential environmental impacts associated with G&G activities that include, but are not limited to, deep-penetration and high-resolution seismic surveys, electromagnetic surveys, magnetic surveys, gravity surveys, remote-sensing surveys and geological and geochemical sampling. These activities provide information about the location and extent of oil and gas resources, bottom conditions for oil and gas or renewable energy installations, and suitable locations of sand and gravel used for coastal protection and restoration. State-of-the-practice G&G data and information are required for business decisions in furtherance of exploring for and developing offshore OCS oil and gas resources, assessing sites for offshore renewable energy, and locating marine mineral resources.”
(6) “The Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) is a not-for-profit, U.S. Coast Guard Classified Oil Spill Removal Organization (OSRO). MSRC was formed in 1990 to offer oil spill response services and mitigate damage to the environment. The Marine Preservation Association (MPA), a separate not-for-profit membership corporation, provides the funding required by MSRC for its ongoing operations and to meet its capital needs…
…MSRC’s inventory of resources also include other tools for spill response or another emergency. These other capabilities include:
• 22,500 Feet of fire boom
• Dispersants aircraft and inventory
• 6 Dedicated dispersant spray/spotter aircraft
• 104,000 Gallons of dispersant”
(7) The federal agencies with a presence on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council:
(8) Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ report:
(9) Houma Today article on the passage of the Restore Act: