36 Chasing tar balls in the Gulf of Mexico

First published in 234NEXT on September 2, 2010[1]

When I headed to the Gulf of Mexico, I had a lot of expectations. Above all, the trip to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was a quest to see the remains of oil spill that held the attention of the world right from when it erupted on April 20.

One thing that stood out is that there has been a strong wedlock between the oil and fisheries industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Apart from the strong Vietnamese community in Louisiana who work almost exclusively in fisheries, others are cyclic in working in both the oil and fisheries sectors. Many fisher folks shift into the oil sector during off seasons when fishing is not much of an option.

It was, therefore, not very strange to find them taking up jobs as clean-up agents for BP after the gusher erased any hopes of fishing in the short term and raised huge doubts as to when they will hurl their nets into the Gulf once more. Stories of health impacts are rife, with reports of respiratory and skin diseases routinely dismissed by doctors as being caused by exposure to heat while engaged in the clean-up exercises.

Groups such as the Gulf Coast Fund are said to have offered the clean-up workers breathing equipment, but BP disallowed their use and threatened to fire anyone who used the protective gears. Why would BP do that? To present a picture that the exercise of cleaning the crude was harmless and thus lessen their liability was the routine response.

This pattern has created in the minds of some of the people a conviction that they are so tied to the oil industry that they cannot live without it. This relationship, described[2] by LaTosha Brown of the Gulf Coast Fund as incestuous, is a big impediment to building a critical mass of citizens for long-term defence of their environment. Ms. Brown read this sort of perception as counting of pennies, rather than considering the value of life.

At Port Sulphur, I joined a community meeting in a local church with visiting local council officials from North Slope, Alaska, who are considering allowing oil extraction in their area. The Alaskans heard tales of how the Gulf spill decimated the livelihoods of the local people and how they could not return to fishing just yet due to the fear that their business may be permanently harmed if they introduce polluted fish and shrimps into the market.

Suspicion remains

There was strong conviction that although BP and the government swear that the coast is all clear of the spills, the chemical pollution of the Gulf will persist. The suspicion exists that BP is merely trying to avoid liability by telling the public that the Gulf is clean without convincing proof. The people believe that a lot of scientists have been bought over and that laboratory results were viewed with suspicion. They cited an example of the announcement that  percentages of the crude oil released into the Gulf had been dispersed, evaporated, or eaten up by microbes. They were referring to reports such as the one produced by US federal and independent scientists.

Who pays the piper?

‘Whoever owns the laboratory, owns the science,’ one local stated. One of the participants at the meeting was Riki Ott, a marine biologist, fisherwoman, and author of ‘Not One Drop’, who was embedded in the post Exxon Valdez oil spill struggles and who was in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after the disaster. In a recent article she wrote in the Earth Island Journal[3], she posited that BP’s clean-up is more like a cover up and holding the company accountable will require digging for the truth.

The Gulf of Mexico is said to have over 3500 abandoned oil wells and about 4,000 oil and gas platforms in the industrial archipelago. All these continue to pose threats.

Most people I spoke with said that leaving the oil in the soil is the ultimate solution to these sorts of incidents. What they could not agree on was what the economic implication would be. They also agreed that the health of the environment directly affects the health of the people.

But I was determined to see some tar balls on the beaches or on the waters somewhere in the Gulf. I was not going to be deterred, even though it was on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Katrina and it was raining heavily. With an equally determined friend, we drove from New Orleans to Gulfport and to Dauphin Island in Alabama. This island had witnessed a lot of cleaning up actions and a local fisherman assured me I would see some tar balls here.

We got there, stepped out in the heavy downpour, and walked along the beach. A couple of folks were out fishing and one offered me a catch he did not quite fancy. A few folks were enjoying a swim in the rain. We walked the beaches and searched the earth piled against private property by BP’s bulldozers. My colleague even dug a hole in the sand with driftwood to see if some crude would pop up. I must say that our search did not yield any tar ball. We drove back drenched to our boxers, but assured that we could not have stayed back from our mission for the day.

Yes, we could not spot any tar balls, but Derrick Evans of Gulfport was quick to remind me that when the hurricanes come, many things hidden beneath the surface may show up.


  1. Available at http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/oil-politics-chasing-tar-balls-gulf-mexico (accessed June 15, 2016)
  2. In a private conversation in New Orleans
  3. Riki Ott. Hide and Leak. http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/hide_and_leak/ (accessed 7 June 2016)

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