BP profits vs. life in the Gulf

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Faced with an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented proportions from its failed Gulf of Mexico rig, oil giant BP wasted no time shifting into damage control mode.

No, not to protect the fish, birds, and humans who inhabit the region. Instead, to protect BP’s own reputation and long-term plans to extract profits from the sea. So while the world waited on edge to hear if the Deepwater Horizon well was finally capped, BP’s concern was capping its financial liabilities.

But its cynical green logo media campaign and misnamed “Vessels of Opportunity” cleanup operation do not fool the local fishers, shrimpers, and oyster dredgers. They know their livelihoods and ways of life have been profoundly traumatized.

They know that they feel sick, and that children and pregnant women are at a higher medical risk. They know that food from the sea has been contaminated, perhaps for dec-ades.

Nor can BP put a halt to the new mood that has arisen among the area’s ordinary working people — to challenge the lies, to organize for survival in the face of government collusion with the oil industry, and to find a better way to live with the sea and land.

A rainbow of communities. The heart of the Gulf catastrophe lies in the inherent contradiction between an industry that makes profits by depleting and destroying the envi-ronment, and a local culture that needs the environment to be sustainable and healthy.

Water-based communities along the Gulf Coast were present long before the capitalist oil industry invaded. The native Mississippi Mound Builders lived in the region as far back as 900 AD. Sixteenth-century European colonization dispersed these earliest known inhabitants of the area, who survive today as Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and other peoples. The Atakapas have been a regional fishing and shrimping community for more than a century.

French-speaking Acadians from eastern Canada were exiled by the British in the late 18th century. Many settled in Louisiana and became the Cajun communities of today. Their livelihoods, too, are intimately tied to the water.

Black fishing communities have been present since the 19th century. They have passed on their fishing and dredging skills as a family way of life.

Vietnamese immigrants have been a presence in the area since 1975. Of about 40,000 today, 10 percent survive through fishing and seafood work.

The clash of oil and water. Dis-covery of oil in Louisiana in 1901 marked the start of an inevitable head-on collision. And since profit-hungry capitalists rather than local communities controlled oil extraction and transport, a few individuals became filthy rich, while the Gulf states working population remained the poorest in the nation.

Infrastructure for extraction and transport pockmarked the land with wells and scarred it with 10,000 miles of canals. Thousands of wells lie within three miles of shore.

The result: a massive influx of salty seawater. Wetlands and coastal boundaries began to erode, destroying natural protection against hurricanes.

The search for oil offshore in deep water only raised the already existing danger of a major environmental disaster. Now that it has happened, the consequences are barely imaginable — real but unknown, as an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association put it.

One of the reasons the land, sea, and air of the past were safe, clean, and healthy is that oil remained where nature put it — under the ground and the ocean floor. If human so-cieties truly need to extract this resource, those who might be hurt must be part of the decision-making.

But the capitalists have a different credo. When this tiny minority insists that it should be rewarded for the risks it takes, it has in mind only its capital investments. They lose money if they have to pay for the risks they create for the planet and its inhabitants. What they really stand for is private profit and socialized risk.

Protests gushing up. Community anger has bubbled to the surface. On May 30, more than 1,000 people braved rainy weather in the New Orleans French Quarter to demand that BP and other oil companies be ousted from the region. Also in May, Native Alaskans traveled to Louisiana to communicate what they had learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

On June 15, dozens of Vietnamese Americans rallied in Biloxi, Miss. They protested that the sudden loss of their livelihoods made it even harder to pay back government loans they had to take out to replace crab traps destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

On Aug. 3, angry fishers in Destin, Fla., confronted BP representatives about the corporation’s false claim that no oil dispersants were being used off the coast of Florida. Toxic oil dispersants used with abandon by BP threaten the health of both residents and cleanup workers.

Also in early August, a meeting of fisher families in D’Iberville, Miss., presented physical evidence that oil still contaminated their waters, despite claims to the contrary by Bill Walker, executive director of the state Department of Marine Resources. The meeting unanimously called for Walker’s firing.

All these groups, if united around their common demands for compensation and restoration, would be a force to contend with.

The next steps. Knowing that its rig was flawed, BP’s disaster in the Gulf was nothing less than criminal. Eleven workers were killed immediately from the rig explosion. An un-told number may succumb in the future to oil’s carcinogens and neurotoxins.

• BP execs must stand trial!

• BP must pay for safe cleanup at union wages and for compensation for workers’ lost incomes.

• BP must provide free lifetime medical screenings and care to all area residents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a special advisory warning to pregnant women. Because women can’t just wait to see what happens to their health and that of their children, they need free and accessible reproductive care right now, includ-ing abortions if they choose.

• To safeguard the health of future generations, there must be an immediate moratorium on all off-shore drilling, and the ban on deep-water drilling must be made permanent — with no interruption of paychecks to industry workers.

• The mayor of Bayou La Batre, Ala., reported that domestic violence has increased 320 percent since the spill. Shelters must be made available to all women in need.

Deeper solutions must also be fought for. The entire energy industry should be nationalized under workers’ control, and urgent measures taken to move to energy sources other than oil. Imperialist wars and their terrible consumption of oil in pursuit of markets and resources must be ended. War funds should be redirected to jobs, mass transit ex-pansion, social services, and the environment.

The Gulf disaster is a devastating example of the basic incompatibility of profits and people. In the end, only a democratic, socialist society, free forever of capitalist greed and insensitivity, can ensure that the earth remains clean, beautiful, and full of life. The sooner working people begin to fight in numbers for that goal, the better our prospects for survival.

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