Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

At ‘ground zero’ of BP spill, Louisiana community confronts new oil and gas project

Cleanup crews work on Louisiana’s Barataria Bay in September 2010. Photo by Louisiana GOHSEP/Flickr

Reverend Tyronne Edwards remembers when oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Gulf of Mexico reached the shores of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana ten years ago this week. “We were ground zero,” he said. Many of his neighbors who worked in the fishing industry had just gotten back on their feet after Hurricane Katrina when the oil rig explosion devastated them again. Many have yet to recover. 

“Some people have healed, some people got scarred, but some people still are wounded because of BP,” said Edwards, who is pastor of Zion Travelers Baptist Church in Phoenix, Louisiana. “It broke a lot of people’s spirits.”

After an explosion on BP’s rig on April 20, 2010, over 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf over 87 days. Fisheries and beaches closed for months; the regional economy and public health continue to suffer, as do wildlife and fragile coastal ecosystems. In 2015, the five Gulf states reached a $20 billion settlement with BP and the operators of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the largest environmental damage settlement in U.S. history. A huge portion is funding projects to restore and protect fisheries, wildlife habitats, and coastal wetlands.

One of the hallmark coastal restoration projects funded by the settlement is the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion in Plaquemines Parish. Still in engineering phases, the project is designed to reconnect the Mississippi River to nearby wetlands, where it will divert sediment and fresh water to build new land. Preliminary models have shown that it could create or save nearly 50 square miles of land and wetlands from erosion in its first 50 years of operation, helping to buffer the coast from hurricanes and sea level rise. 

But Plaquemines Parish residents like Edwards are having to deal with another project: a proposed massive crude oil export terminal called the Plaquemines Liquids Terminal. Spearheaded by Tallgrass Energy, the terminal would sit near where the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico meet in southeast Louisiana — right next to the coastal restoration site. 

Researchers and contractors working on the diversion have raised concerns that the oil terminal could prevent the diversion from building back land. Faye Matthews, legal policy advisor with the National Wildlife Federation, told Southerly that it could impede the passing of sediment from the river to Mid-Barataria Basin, which was among the most heavily oiled areas in the wake of the BP spill. One study revealed that the oil spill’s damage to marsh grasses in Barataria Bay significantly slowed the return of local marine life to the area. 

Cleanup crews work on the Louisiana coast after the oil spill. Photo by PJ Hahn

There’s also a risk of oil spills at the proposed site, Matthews said. Edwards is concerned about the potential toxins, and the promises made by the company. He said companies often advertise that new industrial projects will bring major employment opportunities for local people. “I’ve been hearing that for over 30 years,” he said, adding that only a handful of people usually get jobs. 

Edwards helped coordinate a community meeting in March to educate his neighbors about the risks surrounding the oil terminal, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Louisiana is a hotspot for COVID-19, and while Plaquemines has a relatively low number of cases, it borders Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, which have the state’s highest. 

As residents remain isolated in their homes and some meetings move online, community organizers and advocates are keeping a close eye on energy development plans and pollution, and staying engaged on coastal restoration projects. 

“We’re pushing state and federal agencies to hold off on comment periods until community input can be accepted in an inclusive manner,” said Dustin Renaud, communications director of Healthy Gulf. Healthy Gulf authored a letter to the Gulf State governors in March, urging them to consider keeping public comment periods open for at least 60 days after lifting pandemic-related emergency declarations. Relying only on virtual meetings and comment sessions “will disenfranchise some of the Gulf South’s most vulnerable and at-risk communities,” the organization wrote.

An aerial view of the Louisiana coast after the oil spill. Photo by Louisiana GOHSEP

The sediment diversion and the oil terminal projects are stalled in the planning phase. Gulf Coast state agencies can decide whether to hold public meetings in person, over video or telephone, or cancel them outright during the pandemic. Last month, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality — which is responsible for air permits for the oil terminal — released a statement saying all public hearings were postponed until further notice. But the state’s Department of Natural Resources — which oversees coastal use permits — continues to hold public meetings. On April 21, a public oil and gas hearing is scheduled to take place in Baton Rouge. There is no digital accommodation set up, said Lisa Kursevich, an administrative assistant with the agency.

In an email to Southerly, a Tallgrass representative said the company has “temporarily slowed” work on the oil terminal “given the health concerns related to coronavirus.” An official from Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority said that there are no foreseen delays in coastal restoration projects. Matthews doesn’t expect a public hearing on the oil terminal to be scheduled in Plaquemines until Tallgrass completes its application and presents a study on its impacts on coastal restoration, which environmental groups say is necessary. “That fight will continue,” she said. “The most important message we send now is that we remain vigilant and watchful for any agency action.”

Elsewhere along the coast, communities are watching fossil fuel companies closely and trying to keep each other informed. Recent research has linked air pollution with higher COVID-19 death rates. Meanwhile, the Trump administration recently relaxed enforcement of environmental rules, allowing companies to violate monitoring requirements without penalty.

The nonprofit Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services reported that over a dozen air monitors at facilities stopped reporting results, including one at a storage facility near Houston where a major chemical fire erupted last year. A new analysis shows pollutants in Houston’s most heavily industrialized areas have increased by as much as 62%. Just outside of New Orleans, a refinery was recently struck by lightning and released sulfur dioxide, which can have adverse effects on the respiratory system. It was the second explosion at a Louisiana refinery this month. 

Renaud said Healthy Gulf has been talking to frontline communities who say they can “no longer afford this polluting economy” in the Gulf. “It’s time for us to transition away from this energy source,” he said, “and the Gulf should be the place that leads that transition.”

Right now, though, Edwards said his community is focused on making it through the pandemic. “People are not only thinking about their health, but they thinking about how they’re going to pay their bills, how they’re going to make ends meet,” he said. But with another fossil fuel company attempting to move into the area, he sees connections to that spring ten years ago. “You have large conglomerates using their muscles and power against helping little people out,” he said. 

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast Correspondent.