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Environmental Justice in the BP Oil Spill... History Repeating Itself

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Like all of us, I've watched the horrendous disaster in the Gulf Coast continue to unfold in these five months or so since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana. As a narrative with many threads -- the millions of dollars spent by the BP image machine, the president in shirt sleeves with furrowed brow, fishermen stifling tears on camera -- it's been a horrifying, never-ending train wreck of a disaster story. Then the oily birds, the limp fish, the oil slick -- we knew which images were coming next, thanks to a well-honed TV news narrative formula. And then, even with the leak finally plugged, we got the next wave of narrative: How will the oil dissipate? Will it just go away? How do the chemical dispersants (kind of a fancy, extreme version of Windex, from what I've read) work?

Isn't it in our cultural DNA to neatly "fight this thing" or "beat this thing" (fill in handy cliché here) -- or, in the words of BP's slick campaign, "make this right" -- and just move on as soon as the narrative has played itself out? The hole is plugged, and BP has created some lovely videos assuring us that they love the local folks and are committed to cleaning up the mess (or that it's not as bad a mess as we think).

So, what about the aftermath? What about the ecological changes that have only just begun? What about the livelihoods of people with a way of life that's largely dependent on an ecological environment full of healthy sea life? What about protection for the workers cleaning up the mess? Will these questions and answers continued to be covered by media? Can media help keep the public spotlight on BP to clean up the mess, which is a project that is many years in the making?

Not sure yet -- it's too soon to tell. But an article in the Washington Post brought back memories of my own loose connection to another oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and thoughts about the long-term aftermath. The Post's Theresa Vargas wrote a very well-crafted, sort of hopeless story about the attempt by Louisianans to learn from the experience of the Alaskans affected by the Exxon disaster in 1989. It was the first article I've read in years about the long-term aftermath of the spill -- that is, until the Gulf Coast spill ushered in all of the inevitable comparisons.

About five years ago, I worked as a producer on Sierra Club Chronicles, a documentary TV series about environmental justice. The unofficial mandate of the series (which aired on independent broadcast network, Link TV, and later on Sundance Channel), I believe, was to cover stories about environment justice that were inherently important, had an element of unrequited justice, and didn't receive much media attention.

One of our episodes, "The Day the Water Died," focused on what was happening in the present-day Alaskan community in which a drunk Exxon tanker captain spilled 11 billion gallons of oil in 1989. What we found was breathtaking -- stories of suicide, poverty, destruction of families, a total shift in the ecology of the area (herring was to Alaska what shrimp is to Louisiana, and the former is now nonexistent 21 years after the Exxon spill). And it was only a few years ago -- in 2008, 20 years after the spill -- that the company was finally ordered to pay court-ordered punitive damages (about $1 billion, not the original $5 billion awarded) in a class-action lawsuit filed against Exxon by 32,000 fishermen. The accountability was two decades in the making, and the people interviewed for our episode were acutely aware of it.

We certainly didn't see media images or find stories about that suffering all those years later. How could a story this big be untold?

I hope things will be different for Louisiana. I hope Anderson Cooper heads down there again in a year -- and then five years, and seven, and 10 -- to visit the local folks and find out what's really happening with the long-term clean-up and recovery. I hope that the de facto gag order on reporters trying to legitimately cover the real environmental destruction will lift -- or that tenacious journalists will continue to just bang their heads on the door to get in. Oprah Magazine's editor-in-chief, Susan Casey, wrote a particularly breathtaking story about the spill (and the difficulties facing reporters trying to cover it) in the September issue. She writes:

While it was hard to see a pelican struggling to lift off on oil-covered wings, or a bottlenose dolphin arcing through the murky water with its crude-soaked baby beside it, I found it even harder to stomach BP's heavy-handed attempts to control media access. And they've gotten a big assist from the U.S. government: Three weeks after my visit it became illegal for journalists to come within 65 feet of any cleanup operations. Anyone violating this new regulation can be slapped with a $40,000 fine, a felony charge, and prison time.

I'm grateful for her coverage, and I also hope that the rise in independent digital media sources and citizen journalism will keep the spotlight on the disaster, which is certainly not finished, but really only just beginning.

Or -- if I'm a cynic -- I might think that maybe the next environmental disaster in ten or more years will invite a kind of retrospective re-examination of the Gulf Coast to find out what happened to all of those folks down there.

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