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Deepwater Horizon's effects, three years later: Things are not fine

The documentary 'Can't Stop the Water' explores the history and fate of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

We just passed the third anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

stewart
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

The subsistence fishers who have inhabited Isle de Jean Charles since 1830 see things differently from BP and the mainline press.

“ 'Come to Louisiana. Everything is fine,’ say the BP ads. Well, they’re not fine. There are no oysters. There are no shrimp,” said Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, during a recent conversation in Chaska, Minn. 

Chief Naquin and Kristina Peterson were on route to Duluth for a consultation of American indigenous people focusing on the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana, the site of the vanishing traditional home of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe. 

Kristina is a professional community disaster-recovery specialist who splits her time between the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazard Assessment and Risk Technology (CHART) and the Blue Bayou Presbyterian Church in Gray, La., where she is the pastor. Kristina had come to Chaska, Minn., two years ago as speaker for First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally, a community forum of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church.

For three hours we discussed what was happening three years after the ecological tragedy America has almost forgotten.

The people of Isle de Jean Charles have been there since 1830. They settled there after fleeing the U.S. government’s forced resettlement program, leaving their native lands in search of a place where they could continue their culture and live together in hiding. 

Hidden in the bayous

The place that became home was a piece of solid land hidden deep in the bayous of the Louisiana Delta. When they settled there, the island measured 10 miles long by 5 miles wide.

From there they fished the coastal waters abundant in oysters, crabs, shrimp and fish. They grew their own vegetables and fruit trees, and used its green pasture for horses and cows. The members of the tribe in hiding shared their seafood, dairy products, chickens, and produce with each other in a barter economy. 

“My mother told me every time I went out to play, ‘If you see somebody you don’t know, hide.’ "

As Chief Albert tells the story, the accelerated erosion of the Gulf coastlands dates to the early 1940s. Big oil received a license from federal, state and local authorities to build canals through the Delta marshlands in search of oil. The new canals cut every which way, often crisscrossing, in search of liquid gold. And as they did, the marsh began to disappear. The salt water of the Gulf of Mexico seeped further and further into the Delta.

Chief Naquin and his people do not forget. They have long attention spans. They remember that oil canals were created by licensed permission under specified conditions. First, the licenses had a time limit. The time limit has long since passed. Second, the terms of the licenses required the oil companies to remediate the land at the conclusion of the license period. 

The reclamation never took place. The chief remembers. 

Isle de Jean Charles today

The island that once measured 10 miles by 5 miles has shrunk to 2 miles long and one-quarter mile wide. The island will not survive.

Chief Naquin has been working to negotiate a suitable substitute for their ancestral home. The Army Corp of Engineers offered an alternative site that would have kept the tribe together, preserved their way of life, and helped bring income to the tribe by means of a visitor center for tourists.

A condition of occupying the new land, however, was that 100 percent of the tribe’s members vote yes on the proposal. The vote was 85 percent. The 15 percent minority are mostly older people who have lived their entire lives on Isle de Jean Charles and insist they will go down with the island. 

“When’s the last time any city, any nation, any group, any organization was asked for a vote of 100 percent?”  asks Chief Naquin. “It’s impossible. We had 85 percent, but it wasn’t enough.”

No hiding place

Perhaps survival beyond hiddenness is the lesson of Isle de Jean Charles. Not just the chief’s people who once hid from hostile powers in the Louisiana Delta 183 years ago, but all of us who hide from the harsh realities of the crony capitalism that grants a permit to oil companies to cut their canals through our fragile ecosystems and then allows those same companies to disappear into hiding from the initial terms of the licenses.

They call the oil rigs “rigs” for a reason. The whole thing is rigged.

If we see a stranger on what used to be Isle de Jean Charles; if we see canals still crisscrossing through the marsh; if we’ve seen the fires of Deepwater Horizon light up the Gulf of Mexico and slick the waters and estuaries with black gold; if we’ve seen the evidence of breaking-and-entering in the house of the Gulf Coast waters, if we see empty oyster shells where once there were oysters; if we’ve heard about the oil companies hiding without anyone playing seek, we can ignore the game or we can seek and find for the sake of survival.

There is a stranger on our island. The fire of Deepwater Horizon lit up the horizon to expose his hideout. The blazing fire in the Gulf of Mexico three years lit up the world with a previously hidden truth that called us to embrace the more transparent future we share with the oysters, crabs, shrimp and shorebirds.

The oysters, crabs, shrimp and shore birds can’t hide, nor can they seek. We can do both. Will we hide or will we seek?

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He writes “Views from the Edge: Social Commentary with Gordon C. Stewart.”

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Comments (2)

Indeed, "the Love of Money is the Root of Many Evils"

When one group in a society is allowed to aggregate to itself a huge portion of the proceeds of all profitable enterprises within a society, as the dinosaur fuel companies have long done, and as Wall Street banking and investment firms have more recently done,...

then the reality that far too many of our political leaders, loving money themselves, can be bought, formerly mostly through under-the-table bribes, now right out in the open through the financing of their political campaigns (although bribery, in a thousand forms, still continues),...

the result is what we have now: government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" gradually disappears until government has been warped to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, especially those whose psychological dysfunctions make it impossible for them ever to feel satisfied that they have "enough."

Unless those who value our society, our democracy, other humans, our environment, natural beauty, and our planet begin to stand up against those who love and worship money above all else,...

those who worship money will gradually erode and degrade those things while their dysfunctions blind them to the fact that they are fouling their own (and ALL of our) nest to the point where few if any of us will survive.

First and foremost it is necessary to speak against the evil Fredmanian ideal (and "by its fruits" we can clearly see that it IS evil) that business enterprises owe nothing to anyone but their owners, their shareholders, and their executives. Indeed, if "corporations are people," then we must begin to apply ALL laws, especially torte law to corporations in the same way it is applied to all of us individuals.

In doing so, we might very well begin to make corporations responsible to ALL their stakeholders: including their workers, their communities, the natural world, and the planet we share as they make their balance sheet calculations, since we will be holding them civilly and criminally liable for the damage done to all other stakeholders, such as those who inhabit Isle de Jean Charles, as a healthy counterbalance to the idea that such damage is "free" and can be safely ignored as long as massive profits keep rolling into the pockets of the very few.

Just a note on rig, rigging...

Wherein rig comes from a Scandinavian word, rigga - which is primarily nautical by definitions as in to rig the mast, sails and ropes to control a ship, and an oil rig, like other such rigging is a complex collection of support and working apparatus that is taken apart, down, etc, and reassembled as needed. The word is also used for anything such as a fishing rig and many other uses, a Big rig being the tractor and the trailers hooked together to haul freight around, the term rigging an
election is the virtual manipulation borrowed from the original for an entirely different purpose. Back where I come from, an oil rig is composed of the derrick, and the power source (big diesel engines and the pipe rack plus the tool house., etc. Fascinating places.