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A House Divided: Creatively Funding Oil Spill Coverage

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Following the news about the Gulf of Mexico one year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster can be like reading "A Tale of Two Places." The ocean, the wetlands, the fish, and the birds are recovering, according to some. Others say the mess left at the bottom of the sea by the BP blowout threatens to wreak havoc on the ocean food web for years to come.

Which tale is true? For many Gulf residents, especially those from Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the spill, the answer might be both.

Many Louisianans express frustration at the national media's habit of showing images of oiled birds and dead dolphins; it only depresses tourist bookings and seafood sales, they complain. Other Louisianans say the pictures of destruction are necessary, a way to hold BP accountable for its actions; there's no use jumping on what environmental philanthropist Joannie Hughes dubbed "The Streetcar Named Denial."

The tough decisions about how to describe the spill reflect Louisianans' split loyalties, which are divided between the fishing culture -- the heart of the state's identity -- and the oil industry, the backbone of its economy. Since the 1930s, the two have been intimately connected: Many fishermen work the rigs in the off-season, and some of the best fishing spots are found near abandoned platforms, where sea life flourishes. In Louisiana, there's nothing odd about celebrating the annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.

The tension is exacerbated by the widespread resentment over BP's settlement process. Out of the $20 billion set aside for damage claims, only $3.4 billion has been disbursed by settlement czar Kenneth Feinberg. Some fishermen have been made whole. Others have received nothing. In New Orleans, dishwashers at restaurants unaffected by the spill have received $10,000 checks. Louisianans say the system is opaque, arbitrary and just plain unfair. There are complaints about the sudden appearance of "Spillionaires."

The swirl of rumors, the logjam of lawsuits, the annoyance with national reporters who parachuted into the area on April 20 and left the very next day -- all of it has cooked into a gumbo of cynicism. If the feelings of Louisianans a year after BP's disaster seem contradictory, that's because they are. They are contradictory just like the pain of life, the pain of a place and a people that are wounded. The stories of those wounds can be hard to convey to outsiders. Which is why it's best to let them speak for themselves.

The Philanthropist

When BP began spraying Corexit, Joannie Hughes (pictured), a single mom from Plaquemines Parish, started worrying about the rain. Could the chemical oil dispersant evaporate and return via precipitation? She had tests run, garnered some local news, then came home to see a sign on her front yard that read, "It's not the rain water that's going to kill you." Fearing for her family, she decided the best she could do was to continue working with the nonprofit she founded after the spill, Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana, to assist out-of-work families.

"I backed off, right or wrong, and continued the humanitarian part of the work, because that's where I felt I could at least make some difference.

It's been an interesting road. We knew we couldn't clean up the oil. We knew we couldn't stop people from drilling. What we could do is feed some families that were suffering who had not been paid. Because legitimate claims have been denied.

We're a bunch of moms, not a million-dollar organization. We delivered to one family and she asked if another family got a box of food. She immediately called the other family to come over and split the food, so instead of one family eating for five days, two families ate for two and a half days. That's the kind of community it is. No one can ever say people here don't help themselves, because they do. So far CHSL has given food box deliveries to over 300 families. We're very good shoppers.

We are planting seedlings of cypress trees complete with nutria-resistant wire. You can plant a tree in someone's honor, we send you a picture, GPS coordinates, and long term it helps fight erosion in our wetlands. We're doing it all the way down in the marsh. We're literally down there with our waders planting the trees and we love for volunteers to come down and help us plant them too.

I try to explain that we are part of that ecosystem. We haven't been the best stewards, but we do count at least as much as the grass shrimp."

The Sportsman

As the editor of a hunting and fishing magazine called Louisiana Sportsman, Todd Masson hears often from friends, relatives and readers who are concerned about eating Gulf seafood in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. There's no need to worry, he tells them. "Our fish, crabs and oysters are no less safe to eat today than they were two years ago," he wrote recently. As for those who might have made a killing in the BP settlement process? "If you actually came out ahead, then my hat's off to you."

"Sport fishing is an essential thread in the fabric of Louisiana's culture. We have 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands, built over millennia by the Mississippi River, and as such we are the nursery grounds for the Gulf. Our fishing is spectacular, and most weekend family gatherings involve something from our local marshes -- fried, boiled, baked or broiled. When commercial and recreational fishing was outlawed last summer in the wake of the spill, it isn't overstating things to say that people grieved. It was like a pillar of our society had been severed.

Business is certainly down. The media presented so many misleading stories during the days of the spill that everyone in the country now has the perception that the lower fringes of Louisiana's marsh are just dripping with crude oil. That's obviously not the case. I had some national writers down in October, and for three days we fished the marshes all around the mouth of the Mississippi River -- ground zero for spill impact -- and they were absolutely astounded that we didn't see one drop of oil.

The BP oil spill had absolutely no impact on the health of current-day seafood or the prospects for its progeny. Unrefined crude oil is a natural substance that is broken down, weathered and absorbed by nature remarkably quickly in a warm, dynamic system like that of the northern Gulf. To wit, there have been literally thousands of studies of Gulf seafood, and not one single sample has come back contaminated. After conducting these studies, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals determined a diner would have to consume nine pounds of fish, five pounds of oysters or 63 pounds of shrimp every day for five years to reach any level of concern."

The Activist

Linda Leavitt's Cajun roots go back to the 1700s, and though her family's tradition of news reporting may not be as long, to Leavitt, whose parents both worked for NBC News, it feels equally strong. "My mother would say, 'You go on down there, Linda, you get the story.'" Which she has, working as a citizen-journalist to gather photographs and video of the spill's consequence, coordinating campaigns on Facebook, and watchdogging BP on Twitter as WhoDat35. "You've got to get the word out," she says.

"It was so sad, when you saw the oil coming over the boom, that we were so helpless engineering-wise to keep this out. That sediment can wash up with the tide, and the sad part is they know there are submerged tar mats. Hurricane season is 45 days away. That tar mat is going to wash ashore.

You can rage against the machine all you want, but the reality is you have a corporation that is incredibly negligent from a safety perspective. I'm a great believer in the truth. I'm a great believer in giving people the information so they can make the honest judgments. The more you cover it up, hide it, and whitewash it, then you get crazy-assed conspiracy theorists, everybody out there thinking the worst. That's what happens in a closed society with closed information. That's not the America I grew up in. I grew up in an America where information should be made public for public safety.

The dynamic with a lot of people who may be afraid to come forward and talk is fear that other people's livelihoods are based on the oil companies and they don't want to rock that boat, or shrimping is their livelihood, so they don't want to rock the boat. There is a lot of that in small communities, fear of being the first one to come out and say something on the record.

Here's the crux: There's always been this unspoken acknowledgement between the oil industry and the fishermen, the Cajuns and other people who made their livelihoods on the water, that if something goes down, if something happens, we'll take care of you. And that's not happening. It's a big disappointment."

The Fisherman

Jason Adams has known only shrimping or working for the oil industry. He started fishing with his parents, he says, when "I was in diapers." When the Macondo well blew out, Adams, a native of the bayou town of Galliano, worked briefly for BP doing cleanup work, but soon became resentful of how many jobs were going to guys from Houston. Today, he's working as a tugboat captain. But, he says, "I'd rather fish."

"I worked it with my boat and let me tell you, I got into some of that oil with the Corexit. I thought I was going to die. Sick, can't breathe. And the other side effect, I'm mentally sick because there's such uncertainty. The postlarva of the white shrimp and the brown shrimp [are in danger] --once that contamination reaches the estuaries and all that, it's a done deal.

It's fine right now way up in the estuaries. But what's it going to be like five years from now? The bottom line is that they sunk the oil. I don't know how many millions of gallons of the Corexit they put in there.

I'm going to tell you what's going to make that catastrophe -- that first tropical depression. The first real southeast wind we had the other day, that's when the oil came up on the beach.

A lot of the fishermen, it messed up their livelihoods. They can't work, they're sick. Their backs are against the wall right now. They tell me, 'I won't be able to work, but yet they want to come offer me $300,000, not for my livelihood, they're offering me that for my life.' The people that were in it, that got sprayed, that worked in that oil -- they're just buying their life.

Ninety percent of the people would rather be doing what they love to do. Fishermen are resilient people. You think a fisherman wants to collect money from BP and sit in his house? He'd go stir crazy. When it's in your blood, it's in your blood. You're doing what you want to do."

Photo by Jeff Beninato.

If you're near a newsstand or can order a copy, you'll find much more environmental news
between the covers of Jason Mark's Earth Island Journal. I'm also a big fan of David Cohn's Spot.Us for news pitches. It's an intriguing combination of crowdsourcing coverage that's hard to find, and monetizing long form journalism.

In the current climate for print journalism, Spot.Us has accomplished something singular; they funded half my oil spill aftermath article through a combination of surveys and micro-donations. The other half was covered by Earth Island Journal and the article is available in this summer's issue.

The above are excerpts from my article: "A House Divided: Louisianans, One Year After the Spill."

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