A decade after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 and spewing 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, south Louisiana resident Kindra Arnesen told me that the community was never made whole again, despite BP’s ads promising it would.
“No amount of money can replace the people we lost from the cancer explosion in our community,” Arnesen, an outspoken critic of BP and advocate for the commercial fishermen in her community, said. Many people she knew have died of cancer or other illnesses, which she believes are a result of toxic exposure to the oil spill’s aftermath.
On June 10, 2010, vessels spray water on flames caused by flares shooting off the “Discoverer Enterprise, a barge set up after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank and that was siphoning oil from the uncapped BP well.
President Trump rolled back key drilling safety protections put in place to prevent another Deepwater Horizon-scale catastrophe while proposing to radically expand offshore drilling in the Gulf. And a new report by Oceana, an environmental advocacy group, concluded that few if any lessons were learned from the BP oil spill, and that offshore drilling is no safer today than it was a decade ago. The industry, as a whole, has not embraced independent oversight or adequately improved its safety culture, according to the report.
“We are sitting here holding our breath waiting for a disaster, while in the middle of a disaster,” Arnesen, told me on April 18, where we sat at a safe distance on her front porch in Plaquemines Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by the oil spill. “Our community never recovered from [Hurricane] Katrina. We went from over sixteen thousand [residents] to around three thousand and our fishery hasn’t recovered from the BP oil spill and the shoddy-ass cleanup.”
Part of the marina in Venice, Louisiana, at the tip of Plaquemines Parish, closed due to COVID-19.
Idle shrimp boats at a marina in Buras, Louisiana.
Two factors following the spill awoke the activist in Arnesen, who runs a family fishing business: the slow cleanup response, and the realization that, despite an active offshore drilling industry, the federal, state, and local governments weren’t prepared to handle such a large spill. She wanted answers about the health impacts of the spill and to this day continues to fight to get them as well as for relevant information for her community about all things related to the state of the coast.
Arnesen’s children suffered from rashes and headaches, and her husband, who became an oil spill cleanup worker after the spill made fishing impossible, suffered from illnesses for many years after the spill.
February 29, 2012, Kindra Arnesen protesting in New Orleans against BP.
At community meetings following the April 20, 2010 spill, which lasted 87 days, she tried to get answers. “I’d ask about the exposure to oil and the dispersant Corexit but was put off,” she said. “I was being told that they would get back to me and they’d move on to the next person’s question.” She explained that she later realized when officials told her, “‘I’ll get back to you on that’ was them literally turning away and giving you their back and walking away and I’d never see them again.” Her takeaway from the experience was “if you are not always in the room pushing, you won’t get anywhere.”
She says she finally got answers from Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisher who’d lived through the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil catastrophe in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Ott visited the Gulf Coast and warned fishermen not to participate in the cleanup, especially without personal protective equipment (PPE). At community meetings along the Gulf Coast, Ott explained that the fumes from the oil and the chemical dispersants used to sink the oil from the surface down toward the seafloor are toxic to both humans and marine life.
Though scientists are still evaluating the effects of dispersants on human health, a study from Pennsylvania State University has shown that the mixture of oil and dispersants is detrimental to the health of deep-sea corals.
And now, hearing reports of healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic who can’t get the protective gear they need reminds Arnesen of the countless oil spill cleanup workers who weren’t provided the protective gear they needed during the cleanup. Back then, some of the cleanup workers were told if they used their own PPE, they would be fired. She thinks that it outrageous that essential workers, whether health professionals or oil and gas industry workers, not be provided necessary PPE.
News of mounting cases of oil rig workers testing positive for the coronavirus alarms her. She sees parallels between rig worker exposure to the coronavirus and BP’s failure to protect them before the deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Reuters reported that BP oil platform workers in the Gulf of Mexico have tested positive for coronavirus, as have some of their workers in Alaska.
Other oil companies’ workers in the Gulf are also testing positive for the virus. As of April 8, Times Picayune reported that 26 offshore workers in the Gulf of Mexico tested positive. Sandy Day, an agency spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) told NOLA.com that there are no established protocols for what companies should do when an offshore worker displays symptoms of COVID-19.
According to Bloomberg News, there are “18 drilling rigs in the Gulf along with more than 1,000 production facilities pumping oil and gas, ranging from small unmanned sites to hulking structures more than a hundred miles from shore.” And the Associated Press reported that oil and gas companies are now drilling in deeper and deeper waters, where payoffs can be huge but risks are greater than ever.
Arnesen’s commercial fishing business, which sells whole fish that haven’t been cleaned out, is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All her orders from restaurants, mostly based in New Orleans, were canceled. And like the farmers in many parts of the U.S. who have destroyed crops and milk destined for restaurants, hotels, and schools, she too finds herself unable to easily pivot to new markets.
Instead of figuring out how to retool her business, Arnesen has been trying to get the federal help that is supposed to be available to her. It took her almost three hours to file for unemployment online and by the time she worked out how to apply for a small business loan, all the money for the loans was gone.
“A lot of our people don’t have access to the internet, or a computer,” she told me, and she has heard that filling out any of the forms is “super hard” to do if on the phone.
Landscape in Venice, Louisiana, an area at risk to land loss due to sea level rise.
Arnesen has larger concerns than those about her family’s and immediate community’s need for financial assistance. She is worried about the entire food chain for the planet breaking down. “What is going to happen when we can’t produce the food?” she asked.
Her concerns about the broader food chain started shortly after the BP oil spill began, when she visited fisheries and found a peanut butter–like sludge on the ocean’s surface. In the decade since, she has witnessed massive die-offs of different animals including fish kills that have been miles long.
When the Arnesens were able to return to work after the spill, they had to throw back a large percentage of the catch due to visible oil on the fish. And in the following years, they caught fish that sported worrisome growths on the bodies. Though she sent lots of samples to different universities for study, she never received results explaining what caused the growths.
Her concerns were not unfounded. The Tampa Bay Press reported that University of South Florida researchers found traces of oil pollution in 2,500 fish spanning 91 species across the Gulf of Mexico. Their study, published this month in Nature Scientific Reports, highlighted questions about the long-term health of the fish populations, though the oil traces found were not necessarily at levels unsafe for humans to eat. Arnesen’s community in south Louisiana has been reporting a huge decline in seafood abundance since the spill, and while the fishermen are accused of depleting the stocks, she blames the spill and climate change.
An industrial site in Venice, Louisiana, one of many that line the waterways in Plaquemines Parish.
View from on top of the levy in Buras, Louisiana, protecting homes from the dangerously high-running Mississippi River.
If the COVID-19 pandemic kicks off a worldwide breakdown of the food supply, Arnesen doesn’t plan to sit by on the sidelines.
She plans to do her part to feed the nation, even if it requires her to retool her way of doing business in order to sell directly to the public. Arnesen refuses to spend all of her time focused on the bleak future facing her community, even as the threats against their way of life continue to mount, including rapidly disappearing land and an influx of polluted water from the Mississippi River inundating nearby estuaries, both in part caused by climate change.
During our interview, a hummingbird flew up to the feeder she recently put out, making her smile. “I take time to be grateful for what I have,” Arnesen told me.
“I’m grateful that I have breath in me to take care of my family and that I’m blessed that God wakes me up every day. I try to make the best out of every day. That is what you do! “
Main image: Kindra Arnesen on her porch in Buras, Louisiana on April 16, 2020. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog