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La. Labor Leaders: BP Spill Could Be Worse for Workers Than Katrina

Lindsay Beyerstein

Jimmy Labat holds his brother Michael while waiting in a line with unemployed commercial fishermen and their families for hand-outs from New Orleans Catholic Charities on May 5 in Hopedale, La. Many local fishermen who have been temporarily shut down have been hired by BP to lay oil booms in sensitive areas.

Louisiana labor leaders fear that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could be even worse for workers than Hurricane Katrina.

It’s hard to imagine how an oil spill could be worse than a cataclysm that put 80 percent of New Orleans under water, but when you consider the long-term economic, environmental, and public-health impact of a toxic spill that nobody really knows how to clean up, the comparison starts to make sense.

If the oil contaminates the wetlands, 100,000 jobs could evaporate almost over night, according to Robert Tiger” Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.

f the oil reaches those marshes, more than 100,000 people will be almost immediately out of work,” Hammond said. This, on top of Katrina, and on top of the economic depression already going on, is a lot for workers to have to handle.”

Only 63,012 people worked in the offshore drilling industry in the entire United States in 2009.

One out of every 70 jobs in Louisiana is seafood-related, according to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board; those jobs are part of the Gulf Coast’s $2.4 billion fishing industry.

Marshes are critical to the economic and biological life of the Gulf Coast, where shrimp, crabs and oysters breed. Nearly three-quarters of the shrimp and 70 percent of the oysters harvested in the U.S. come from the Gulf of Mexico.

Approximately 14,000 shrimpers, 3,300 crab fishers, 3,600 oyster industry workers ply their trade in Louisiana, according to the seafood marketing board. The wetland-dependent aligator industry employs as many people as the New Orleans Police Department. 

BP is enlisting the help of fishers and boaters to mitigate the damage, hiring them as part of a program the company calls Vessels of Opportunity.” BP has given hundreds or thousands of fishermen crash cleanup courses, but there are concerns that they are not being issued proper personal protective equipment. The company was recently forced to retract waivers it tried to get volunteers to sign, limiting the company’s liability to a mere $5,000.

It’s no longer a question of if the oil hits the marshlands. As of Monday morning, oil had already seeped 12 miles inland and contaminated 65 miles of Louisana coast. The large scale soiling of the marshes has been called the environmental worst-case scenario — like pouring crank case oil on a sponge. Microbes will eventually degrade the oil, but that will take years. Nobody knows how long it will take the ecosystem to recover.

The visible slick is only a fraction of the total spill. More oil is pooling below the water’s surface, which can deplete the oxygen in seawater to create dreaded dead zones.” Optimists talk about microbes eating the oil like it’s a good thing, and in a sense it is — but what eats the microbes? Larger creatures higher up the food chain: mollusks, fish, dolphins, humans… We can only guess how the spill will affect the health of Gulf Coast residents in the years to come.

The fishing industry isn’t the only sector in peril. Tourism is an $8.3 billion industry in Louisana alone, according to a recent report by the Hospitality Research Center at Louisiana State University. Tourists bring in billions more dollars in revenue to the Gulf states of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Visitors are attracted by pristine beaches, plentiful seafood, and sport fishing opportunities — all of which will suffer as a result of the spill.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, beleaguered residents of the Gulf Coast were beginning to recover. The BP oil disaster is a cruel setback, the full toll of which is yet to be recconned.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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