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Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy

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Gulf Needs Concrete Actions That Respect Residents' Rights

Posted: 06/11/10 08:40 PM ET

CODEN, Ala. -- When Gulf Coast resident Louise Bosarge heard President Obama refer to her community as "resilient," her response was poetic: "We bounce back. We always bounce back. Bouncing hurts."

Along with my daughter Mariah and a team of human rights experts from the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, I spent the last several days in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama speaking with commercial fishermen, deck hands, restaurateurs, ecologists, farmers, service providers, marina workers, hoteliers, kids and more whose lives are directly affected by BP's toxic tsunami swamping the Gulf Coast and wiping out the fishing and tourism industries which have been the mainstays of these communities for decades. "Oil will be all that's left," lamented one long-time resident. "And with the politicians in the pockets of the oil companies, there will be more pressure than ever to drill, baby, drill."

Photographs of slime-soaked seabirds distract from the human tragedy suffocating the region. More concerned about its image than about the human beings impacted, BP has spent $50 million on an oil-slick ad campaign. Meanwhile, BP is strangling the livelihoods of the people of the gulf coast just as surely as its oil is eviscerating the ecosystems.

Eleven of us motored a small boat eight miles out from shore. Though far from shore, the water there appeared as though we had pulled up to a gargantuan gas dock, with a rainbow sheen covering the ocean, horizon to horizon. Our eyes stung, our throats closed and our heads ached despite the respirators we wore.

Our little boat came to a bird sanctuary which was surrounded by buoyant booms floating on the water to hold the oil off the island. But the oil, aided by dispersants, had slipped beneath the booms and puddled in a gooey brown ring around the once pristine land. We watched in horror as a pelican, smothered in molasses-like gunk, struggled haplessly to get a foothold on the rocky shore -- spreading its wings and falling back, spreading and falling, spreading and falling. As we docked the boat, the captain said "I'll be dreaming about that pelican tonight. I hope I'm not that pelican."

After generations spent mastering their trade, fishermen (already underwater with loans on boats that now stand idle) fear they will have to permanently pull up their nets. BP is attempting to buy them off with promises to pay their lost salaries, but in reality BP has cynically designed a system that makes it impossible for most fishermen to successfully make claims. BP forced many of those who came forward to sign forms releasing BP from future liability. Only through public pressure has BP agreed to rescind these forced agreements.

BP's public relations machine says it will protect the cleanup crews. However, workers were not only denied protective equipment but, after arriving for work wearing respirators, were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they chose to wear these "unnecessary" safety devices which serve only to "spread hysteria." Workers complaining of illnesses such as headaches and breathing difficulty were told by BP that they have "food poisoning" or "heat stroke." BP warned workers that if they wanted to be treated, they should see the BP doctors rather than county health officials.

Fishermen, residents and the American public had no say in the decision of a private company to conduct a colossal experiment of pouring billions of gallons of carcinogens into one of the most fertile fishing grounds on earth.

BP refuses to publicly disclose the litany of chemical agents so that patients and health care professionals can properly identify and treat related illnesses already being reported. Because of the virtual silence about the real health impacts of these chemicals, nothing has been done to prepare for the potential evacuation on the horizon.

Six weeks out, the economic backlash, with vast swaths of the fishable waters closed and vacation and convention cancellations rampant, is already manifesting itself in a worrisome spike in mental health concerns for persons who have lost virtually everything and fear for their future. Professionals reported significant increases in depression, which can be expected to lead to domestic violence, alcohol and drug use, and suicide.

Residents of the Gulf Coast have a clear sense of what should be done:

* Everyone send donations to the Gulf Coast Fund, which funds community organizations across the region

* BP should keep its promise and pay fair and prompt compensation to all fishermen and related business people who have suffered economic losses

* BP should immediately give a bonus to fisherman of 30 percent of the value of the catch for those who continue fishing in available waters

* The federal government should develop an evacuation plan for coastal communities which is consistent with international standards for the treatment of internally displaced people, including keeping families together, preserving voting rights and recognizing the right to return

* The federal government, through executive order, should direct a portion of the $19 billion in allocated but unspent Katrina monies to create 100,000 green and living wage jobs along the gulf coast, as called for in the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (H.R. 2269).

It may take decades for BP to make the Gulf "whole." In the aftermath of this oil tsunami, concrete actions that respect residents' rights are the next steps.