More than a year after a private company operating in public waters retched 170 million gallons of crude and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico creating an environmental catastrophe, we still lack reliable statistics on the BP oil disaster's impact on the health of residents.
I recently spent several days traveling across the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, speaking with fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, restaurant workers, and neighbors about the illnesses they have suffered in the wake of this calamity.
I couldn't help but think of the trip that my father, Robert Kennedy, made to the Mississippi Delta in 1967. That trip transformed him. He was horrified by the poverty, the children whose bellies were "swollen with hunger"; he believed we had a duty, as a nation, to relieve their suffering and soothe their pain. He returned to Washington determined to extend food stamps to the poorest Americans, despite a cash-strapped administration and an unyielding Congress. Today, the children and grandchildren of those very same families continue to suffer from systemic governmental neglect, the debilitating heritage of communities -- African-American, Vietnamese, Laotian, Native American, and poor white -- marginalized by skin color, religion, education level, income, or access to power. It is long past time for federal action.
Our delegation was hosted by RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Stephen Bradberry, Executive Director of the New Orleans-based Alliance Institute. Stephen has been a community organizer in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and across the Gulf for 25 years, empowering communities to demand what is rightfully theirs.
In Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, Mayor Tim Kerner told us that he and his son were on the water throughout the disaster. He said: "I encouraged everyone in this town to put out booms and work night and day to stop that oil from destroying our community." But now, so many of his people are ill, he's afraid his neighbors will say, "We wouldn't have listened to you and kept our jobs if we knew it would kill us."
With no access to a specialist in toxicology, Mayor Kerner is fearful that he, his son, his family, and friends will suffer long-term impacts of exposure to the toxins that will be discovered in years to come. He wants his town to be diagnosed now, so they can get the medical treatment they deserve, and avoid what might, in a few years, be a community-wide epidemic.
Our delegation met two brothers who said their families had been fishing for five generations. Both they and their family members have endured excruciating lung, skin, and digestive-tract ailments in the wake of the BP disaster. When one man's infant grandson ran a high fever, his daughter-in-law panicked and brought the child to the emergency room. Self-employed and uninsured, he faced a bill of $2,300. With shrimp yields the lowest in memory, he wonders how he will pay.
From a community east of Coden, Alabama, the closest health care facility is more than 40 miles away. Public transportation is virtually non-existent. One resident told me: "We just can't afford to take a day off of work, pay for gas, and then pay up to $120 for a doctor's appointment." So people wait for the emergency room, and that is $260 each visit.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, a fisherman named Kwan said he was on a cleanup crew for BP, and he and his fellow fishermen have had rashes across their bodies ever since, which itch until they bleed. In that city, the health care facility is so over-booked, it takes up to three months for a doctor's appointment, and the same wait for a follow-up visit.
Catfish Miller, another fisherman, also worked on the clean-up crew for BP. He was denied gloves, a respirator, eyewear, or any form of protective gear. He suffered searing headaches, ear infections, sores in his nose and throat, and bleeding from every orifice in his body for months on end. He said no doctor he went to would tie his ailments to toxic poisoning.
Many of those who sought care have been belittled when they've mentioned BP, and dismissed as delusional or depressed.
We heard dozens of people across the region talk about similar health problems and obstacles to care. There are many reasons.
The full spectrum of chemicals used in the dispersants was made public in June 2011, only after requests consistently denied led to extensive litigation.
Few doctors in the region are willing to tie ailments to BP, or even diagnose toxic poisoning. When we visited the Jefferson County health care facility in Louisiana, Executive Director Yakima Black offered her insights. She pointed out that local doctors generally lack access to the expertise, training, and equipment to diagnose toxic poisoning and they don't want to be called as an expert witness in a law suit with BP. They are afraid of malpractice suits and will not treat patients unless they have specialty training, adding to the disincentives to diagnose. And, with most patients self-employed and uninsured, few can afford the expensive tests and medicines necessary to show causation and obtain proper care. In addition, we heard an abundance of confusion about insurance coverage availability.
Last year, President Obama pledged that Gulf residents would be "made whole." To honor that pledge, Congress must ensure that health care is adequate, affordable, proximate and available; that health care workers are trained to diagnose, track, and treat toxic poisoning; and that the people of the Gulf are treated with respect, no matter what their background.
There is a solution. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy signed the first federal law providing community health care centers to people in need. Today, 23 million Americans depend on those centers for care. Under health care legislation passed last year, the centers would expand to include 40 million Americans, many of them in the Gulf Coast. If Republicans in Congress don't make real on their threat to decimate the progress that's already been made, the people of the Gulf might stand a chance.
First responders to the 9/11 tragedy did not have to prove causation in order to get treatment, they only had to show they were in the vicinity of the terrorist attack. Similarly, the 150,000-strong cleanup crew who sacrificed themselves, and their families and neighbors who live along the Gulf Coast should not have to prove that their symptoms are caused by BP's catastrophe, only that they were there.
When I joined the RFK Center delegation to the Gulf Coast a year ago, Alabaman Louise Bosarge cited President Obama's reference to the resiliency of Gulf Coast residents, who have endured four natural disasters and one man-made catastrophe in five years -- hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ivan and now, BP. "We are resilient," she said. "We always bounce back. Bouncing hurts."
It's time for us to provide the families of the Gulf Coast with the health care they deserve.
A shorter version of this post appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.