CHALMETTE, La. – Contrary to some stereotypical images of members of building trades unions, electrical workers in coastal Louisiana are among the most determined defenders of the environment. Many of them still battle daily against the effects of the BP oil spill that followed the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, an explosion that killed workers and poisoned the Gulf of Mexico.
And because the Gulf coast is receding closer every day to their homes these same workers and the communities they are a part of are well versed on the effects of human caused global warming.
“Sludge balls are still coming up, you can see the water with film on top of it,” said Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. Hammond drove the local’s political director, Al Bostick, and two Peoples World reporters Sept. 22 along roads that cut through the Bayou marshes.
At a stop in Yscloskey, a town where people make their living harvesting oysters, trapping crabs and fishing, we met 90-year-old Edward “Doogie” Robin who began fishing in the area 75 years ago. He described how during a storm two weeks ago an oily film bearing hundreds of dead flounder rose up in the marshes around his home and the homes of his neighbors along the Yscloskey Canal.
“Water come up, oil come up, and hundreds of flounder – all belly up all over the place – hundreds of them. They were in the water, which had come up about a foot and a half,” he said.
Robin’s home is a modest but well-kept structure that, like the homes of countless others in the Bayou, sits on a platform atop 18-foot high stilts. They are designed to keep the homes out of the water in the event of storms or hurricanes. As the coastline recedes, the water pushed in by those storms gets deeper.
Oil companies sinking wells into the marshes for many years have damaged the ability of those marshes to serve as a buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and the city of New Orleans. The marshes were the second line of defense, in a sense, after the barrier islands, against disasters like the one that occurred when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
As we drove back to Chalmette we could feel at least one of the chilling effects of global warming. We passed mile after mile of dead trees, many of them a century or more old; dead now because of the seepage of salt water from the Gulf into the freshwater marsh areas.
We stopped in Chalmette at Julie’s, a watering hole frequented daily by union workers. Yesterday at noon there were five IBEW members and one from the plumber’s union having lunch-time beers at the bar.
They welcomed reporters from Chicago, offering to buy us more drinks than we could have handled and they shared some of their stories.
They told us about a crabber who came in and showed them a crab he had harvested only a few days ago. The crab was full of blackened oil that had seeped through the top and bottom shell.
Bolinda LeBlanc, the bartender, heard the conversation and went into the kitchen, returning with the crab, which she said the trapper had given her. She had wrapped it in a large paper towel and put it in the refrigerator. “He brought this in here a few days ago,” she said, “and he was pretty upset. The problems with the spill – will they ever end?” she said.
Back in the car Hammond and Bostick were bitter when they talked about the explosion and the oil spill. “These people (BP) knew there was a problem on that non-union rig and they knew it would blow and they did nothing to get those workers off the rig and they covered things up,” said Hammond.
“Yet nobody goes to jail when this happens,” Bostick added. “They don’t care about fines, they pay them with company money, start new corporate entities, change the names and get away with murder. If they were thrown in jail you’d see things change.”
“A big problem too,” he said, “is with the media. They publicize this when they can get good ratings but the story and the problems continue. We’re glad you are here but all the major media should be here too, getting the word out. If they don’t come back here to do that there may soon be nothing to come back to.”
Photo: Edward “Doogie” Robin in his kitchen in his Yscloskey, La. home. | Blake Skylar/PW