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Gulf Activists Stage Protest as BP's Cleanup Slows

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BP's gushing well was capped in mid-July of last year but that was hardly the end of the spill saga for Gulf Coast residents. Earlier this month, a non-violent protest -- organized around the theme of "The Oil's Still Here and So Are We" -- was held in front of the downtown building that houses BP's New Orleans offices.

Activists from across the Gulf said they want the post-spill cleanup to continue, and hope to keep the region's environmental, health and economic issues from sliding off the nation's radar screen.

Cherri Foytlin of Rayne, La., a founder of the community group Gulf Change, said the August 4 protest was orderly and she provided details. "At 5:00 PM, a group of about a hundred of us -- environmentalists, community organizers, fishermen, clean-up workers and college students from across the Gulf Coast--assembled in front of 1250 Poydras St.," she said. BP's New Orleans offices are on the 13th and 14th floors of that building.

Raised in Oklahoma, Foytlin is an author, the wife of an oil worker from Louisiana and the mother of six children.

"We'd been told ahead of time by the state police that if we crossed a certain line -- which was about 10 or 15 yards from the building's doors -- we'd be arrested," Foytlin said."I crossed the line, followed by about 15 other people, and gave BP's tarballs back to them -- a whole box of them that had been picked up on Gulf beaches that day."

Foytlin continued, saying "prior to our protest, the state police had called us in, and they were trying to arrange a meeting between us and a BP rep. But we said we were only interested in meeting with Ken Feinberg."

Gulf Coast Claims Facility administrator Ken Feinberg was in Washington, DC on August 4, a spokeswoman for his office said.

"After 8:00 PM on the night of the protest, the New Orleans Police Dept. and the state police, having been respectful to us all evening, gave us a chance to end it and go home before arrests were made," Foytlin said. "After we refused, NOPD quietly arrested three of us who remained seated -- for criminal trespassing." Along with Foytlin, Kyle Nugent and Noah Learned were booked.

"We were held for six hours at lockup, where we plead not guilty because we hadn't entered the Poydras St. building," Foytlin said. The three are now scheduled to appear at New Orleans Municipal Court on Broad St. on Sept. 6.

"The people of the Gulf have been unjustly dealt with by BP and also by our government's handling of the spill," Foytlin said. "We intend to keep speaking up about environmental and health issues and defending our human rights until the Gulf is made whole again."

Curtis Thomas, Louisiana-based spokesman for BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, explained some of the events surrounding the protest from his company's end. He said "our safety and security team within BP was in touch with Cherri Foytlin before the sit-in about logistics to ensure that protestors paid attention to safety. During the protest, I walked among the group, talking with people and answering questions when I could. Some of the questions were about other Gulf states."

Thomas said when asked by a woman at the demonstration why tarballs on Mississippi's West Ship Island hadn't been removed, "I explained that BP was in the process of cleaning that area when we were ordered out by the Park Service because the nesting season was getting under way. Our access, as well as that of others, was denied." When restrictions on the island are lifted, BP intends to resume its restoration and cleaning there, he said.

Thomas said last week that "BP has completed 95% to 97% of our shoreline and marsh cleaning efforts. We are still actively cleaning some areas, while other areas have now reached the point where we can monitor and respond if necessary." He also said that about $6.5 billion of BP's $20 billion trust fund had been paid out to individual and business claims as of early August.

Before the afternoon protest on August 4, a forum or teach-in with speakers was held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans in the morning. Speakers discussed how to revive the coast.

Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, commented on the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act of 2011 -- introduced on July 21 by Senators Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and co-sponsored by Senator David Vitter, R-La., and others. The bill would devote at least 80% of Clean Water Act penalties levied against BP for last year's spill to ecological and economic restoration of the Gulf.

Viles said "it's not a perfect bill, but we now have a bill that could direct billions of dollars to the Gulf. Every Gulf senator likes it."

He continued, saying "a year ago, the world's eyes were turned to the BP spill, but people have moved on. It's been 16 months since the spill started, and we really need to get something done about Gulf restoration within the next six months. We're running out of time." Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act within 18 months of the Exxon Valdez spill, he noted.

Viles said under the RESTORE the Gulf act, a large portion of Clean Water Act penalties might be spent on real restoration. "I think that Louisiana would probably use the money well," he said. "I'm enthusiastic about this bill and have a little more spring in my step since it was introduced."

He explained that BP faces Clean Water Act fines of up to $20 billion on numbers of barrels spilled. But unless Congress intervenes, that money could go to the Oil Spill Liabilities Trust Fund and be used for federal programs. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and BP disagree on barrels spilled, with the government's figure much higher than the company's assessment.

Under the RESTORE act, 35% of earmarked, BP penalty funds would be divided among five Gulf states, another 30% would be split between the five states based on a weighted average of shoreline miles oiled, 30% would go to a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, and 5% to a science and fisheries endowment.

"We also need a Gulf Coast Citizens Advisory Council as part of an offshore drilling reform package that the U.S. House approved on July 30," Viles said. More than a hundred Gulf community and environmental groups have asked lawmakers to include a citizen's oversight council within drilling reform.

As for U.S. drilling rules adopted recently, "BOEMRE has new regulations for blowout preventors on deepwater rigs but they aren't enough to make offshore drilling safer," Viles said. "Instead of taking 86 days to kill a leak, as was the case with BP's well, next time it may take a month."

BOEMRE, sometimes referred to as "BUMMER" along the coast, is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement within the U.S. Dept. of Interior.

Viles urged Gulf residents to support the RESTORE the Gulf act, by signing up at the website HealthyGulf.org. "We're losing a football field of Louisiana coastal wetlands every hour, " he noted.

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans, spoke at the early August teach-in, and said "the local oil industry clearly has an accident problem. The state's 17 oil refineries have averaged ten accidents per week since 2005, according to their own reports submitted to the state."

She said "our politicians continue to tell us that oil, fisheries and the environment have coexisted peacefully in the Gulf for years. They use that line because the American Petroleum Institute has told them what to say."

Rolfes said that some of the state's elected officials have misrepresented statistics to defend the oil industry. "Don't be afraid to call out Mary Landrieu, Steve Scalise and Jeff Landry on their spill and accident numbers when they're wrong," she said. Louisiana Republican Congressmen Steve Scalise and Jeff Landry represent Jefferson Parish and the New Iberia-Houma area, respectively.

Rolfes said in Chalmette, La., home to a refinery run by Arkansas-based Murphy Oil Corp., residents joke that the weather forecast is "cloudy with a chance of oil." Murphy Oil had one of the nation's largest spills when over 1 million gallons of oil spewed into Chalmette during Katrina, after the company didn't follow its own emergency guidelines requiring that tanks be filled. Oil escaped from those tanks in the storm, she said. Other accidents have occurred at the site since, sending oil into ditches in the community.

Rolfes said when she's on River Road, monitoring refining activity between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, she sometimes thinks how daunting the oil industry is. But she takes courage from local history, saying that the biggest slave revolt in the U.S. occurred in St. Charles Parish. That January 1811 protest involved several hundred slaves and free blacks.

At this month's teach-in, LaTosha Brown, director of the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health in New Orleans, said "BP recently made $5.6 billion in profits after destroying our ecosystem." In late July, BP reported a net profit of $5.6 billion for the second quarter ended June 30 after similar, first-quarter results.

Brown said people trying to address post-spill problems can become overwhelmed and bitter. But she said "we have to develop a collective vision of what we want the Gulf Coast to look like. We know we love the water, fishing, the feel and look of the wetlands and the food. Use the gifts you have -- your voice, writing or other talents -- to strategize and achieve that vision."

The group at the teach-in sang "This Little Light of Mine" and a spiritual, led by Brown, a gospel and soul singer.

Brown cautioned against "making sparks but not persevering enough to create a fire," and said the Gulf's recovery will take time. On July 19, Brown was recognized at the White House as a "Champion of Change" for her work in helping the Gulf region recover from the BP spill.

Also speaking at the teach-in was Dr. Mike Robichaux, a Raceland-based physician and former Louisiana state senator, who said "I'm seeing people really sick from the spill, with headaches, abdominal cramps, fatigue and memory loss." He likened those ailments to the Gulf War Syndrome, and said few veterans who suffered serious symptoms from that 1991 conflict in Iraq and Kuwait have recovered.

(This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Aug. 15, 2011 edition.)

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