[Evan contributed this piece to an interfaith reflection series on the website, After the Spill: Religious Communities Restoring the Gulf]
One year has passed since the oil disaster began, and we still know relatively little about what the future holds. For the rest of the country, the oil spill is over. Here in Louisiana, we will be dealing with this spill for decades, and it has already begun to change our way of life. What are the long term effects on oysters, crabs and shrimp? What caused the large number of dead dolphin and sea turtles found washed ashore on Gulf Coast beaches? How much oil is at the bottom of the gulf, and will oiled marshes survive? Will people be able to fish again next year, or the year after, or the year after?
Louisiana has long been treated as an environmental sacrifice zone; a place to extract resources for the benefit of the rest of the country, with little thought and care for those who live here. Cancer rates are high, especially for communities near oil refineries and oilfield waste sites. Offshore oil workers and fishermen face some of the highest mortality rates, and the oil spill has compounded an ongoing problem linked to oil and gas activity: the erosion and subsidence of the wetlands. 10,000 miles of canals cut straight through the wetlands, bring in salt water and lead to increased erosion. The leveeing of the Mississippi and the extraction of oil and gas reserves below the wetlands leads to increased subsidence. Land is disappearing faster than mapmakers can track: nearly 25 miles of wetlands turn into open water every year, a football field every 30 minutes and over 2,300 square miles over the last 80 years.
The wetlands in Louisiana are one of the most productive and ecologically diverse regions in the world. They are also disappearing at unprecedented rates, and few outside of Louisiana are paying attention. The Gulf oil disaster has worsened a long standing fear that we are quite literally being pushed off the map; forgotten, ignored, invisible. Yet this region provides the country with much of its liquid sustenance: oil. Nearly 1/3 of all US production comes through Louisiana and the residents here not only bear many of the risks of oil extraction and production, but also work on the rigs, construct the equipment and staff the refineries. The cameras have left, and people across the country are focused on other things. Gulf Coast residents are left not only recovering, but redefining what a return to normal will really be as land loss claims childhood play areas, graveyards, pastureland, cypress forests and homes and the oil spill brings into question the ability to sustain ourselves from the natural environment.
Southeast Louisiana residents are people of place. Give people from Louisiana a local map, and many can trace their family history back hundreds of years, showing you exactly where their grandparents and great grandparents lived. And the knowledge and traditions of living in the wetlands have been passed down for generations: fishing techniques, music, food and stories. Livelihoods are intertwined with the health of the ecosystem, and it is those who are most dependent on the natural systems that are placed most at risk by reckless resource extraction. When the oil hit, many were still recovering from four major hurricanes within the past six years. Some moved north, looking to escape the constant threat of storms, and the seemingly increased frequency and the higher storm surges, but many stayed. After the oil spill, large questions remain as to what the future will look like. Will subsistence communities be compensated for their losses? Moreover, will they be able to continue to provide food for themselves without relying on outside assistance?
Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church works together with communities that are finding ways to adapt to these changing circumstances. The community of Grand Bayou has begun an innovative gardening project to provide food in case of a fisheries collapse and to restore the local habitat. They are replanting native plants that are important for birds, and will stabilize the land surrounding people’s homes. Essentially they are using heavy-duty concertainers, the same that are used often to build levees or to blockade military sites, filled with soil to keep the plant roots above the water line, and to provide less saline soil conditions. This project is serving as a pilot and other communities, such as Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-Au-Chien are interested in adapting the technique to their specific locations.
Community members recently travelled to Seattle to participate in a Traditional Foods Summit, sharing their knowledge and connecting with others working to restore their environment and maintain their food sovereignty. Upon returning, the communities of Isle de Jean Charles, Pointe-Au-Chien and Grand Bayou came together to share their knowledge of the native plants still growing within each area, and to plan for ways to restore and preserve them.
To restore the ecosystem, we need national support. Congress has the opportunity to designate funds specific for Gulf restoration from the fines collected under the Clean Water Act. They also have the ability to create a Citizen’s Advisory Council for the Gulf, where coastal residents are able to participate in oil spill response and restoration planning in a meaningful way. Bayou Blue facilitated two trips for Louisiana residents to visit with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council in Alaska, which was created by Congress through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Residents, those who know this place and have a vested interest in protecting it, need to be included in the planning process not only for responding to oil spills, but also for the restoration of the ecosystem.
As a faith community, at Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church we are called to care for creation and for our neighbors. Partnering with neighboring communities, and discussing our shared and distinct concerns, will help us all to adapt and better care for our home, and to share our story. Bayou Blue will continue to work with our neighbors across the Gulf to protect God’s creation and our shared resources.
Evan and the congregation of Bayou Blue