A Louisiana Parish Just Received $45 Million To Help Rebuild From the BP Oil Spill

By Yessenia Funes May 11, 2017

Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana has settled its lawsuit with BP regarding the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill for $45 million, Parish President Amos Cormier III announced Tuesday (May 9).

In a press conference yesterday, he explained that the parish still needs to determine where the money should go, but he hopes it will be used for a few things including coastal restoration, reimbursments for administrative costs and legal fees. Watch the conference below:

The 2010 BP oil spill was the largest oil spill in U.S. history—and the worst. It devastated the Gulf region, and some argue that Plaquemines Parish was hit the hardest. When BP began the process in 2015 to settle claims with communities along the Gulf Coast, then-President Amos Cormier Jr. stood his ground and demanded more money—the less than $23 million initially offered was not enough, he believed.

“As ground zero of the BP oil spill, the parish was unwilling to take settlement money less than was offered to the Orleans Parish School Board, which suffered no oil damages," said Scott Bickford, an attorney who was representing the parish at that time, to The Times-Picayune.

Plaquemines is in the state’s southeast corner, with the most coastline area of any other parish in the state. It is also Louisiana’s top oyster producer. Today, roughly 23,000 people live there. Most are White, but there’s a concentration of Black, coastal Native and Asian immigrant communities as well. They’ve all been hit hard by the disaster’s ripple effects: a damaged fishing industry and an economy in need of revitalization.

“Our economy has never fully recovered from it,” says Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, and a Plaquemines Parish native. Encalade has seen families flee the area because they can’t survive. When a region relies on the fishing industry as its economic backbone and that’s lost, everything else suffers, too.

While Encalade emphasized that he doesn’t see this as a race issue, he did tell Colorlines in a phone interview that Pointe à la Hache, an entirely Black unincorporated community in the parish, suffered the bulk of the damages.

“These fishing communities [in Pointe à la Hache] have taken a tremendous lick, and whether they’ll ever be able to recover, we don’t know yet,” he said. “We still don’t know.”

He hopes that the parish uses the money to reinvest in communities like these, areas that have easily been forgotten by government officials and are in need of an economic boost. Perhaps that boost comes in the form of infrastructural repairs, particularly as the area braces for further climate change impacts. Or maybe is it reinvestment in local businesses so that people can shop locally again and rebuild their economic foundation.

What he doesn’t want is to see the money spent on restoration projects that he believes should be funded through the federal RESTORE Act, which was enacted in 2012 to rebuild and protect the Gulf Coast region after the spill.

But there are varying opinions on where the money should go. Sandy Nguyen is the executive director of Coastal Communities Consulting, a nonprofit that assists fishing communities in Southeast Louisiana with translation services or business start-up, among other things. She works with numbers of Cambodian and Vietnamese fishers. “They relocate here through immigration,” she told Colorlines, “because the climate is very similar, and they have a trade they can carry from their home country over and make quick money.”

Like Nguyen’s parents, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam, most don’t speak English.

She’s seen how these communities, in particular, have trouble navigating government processes and policies because of language barriers. That’s where her organization can help. But her organization can only do so much; when an unexpected—and unprecedented—disaster like the BP oil spill happens, people struggle to find alternative employment—particularly immigrants.

So Nguyen wants to see this $45 billion go toward transitioning some of these residents into other industries.  It remains uncertain whether fisheries in the region will survive under a changing climate or further environmental damage from extreme weather events and coastal erosion.

“All other fishery-dependent businesses are going to shut down with them,” Nguyen says.

With that potential reality in mind, Nguyen wants to see the parish develop a comprehensive mitigation plan that includes flood risk housing programs, as well as economic and business development. She hopes the parish could work with the state in these efforts.

She’s not certain what is the answer—except that it should involve community feedback. “That should be the first step,” Nguyen says. “What [the parish does] with that may take years or months.”

On top of all this, Plaquemines Parish is also home to the coastal Native community of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation. The tribe is in danger of losing its home and cultural sites to rising sea levels as the state views the region as “high risk,” meaning Louisiana wants to move them elsewhere.

“The only thing they offer us is to move. But we can’t move,” said Rosina Phillipe, an elder and spokeswoman for the Atakapas-Ishak/Chawaska tribe, to The Advocate. “For us, home is more than the building you live in. It’s everything in the environment that surrounds you. If you leave, you become someone else. You are no longer the same person. No longer the same people.”

Chief Crying Eagle Edward Chretien told Colorlines that he’d like to see the money go toward coastal remediation in the community if that means the tribe can remain there.  His people continue to see their economy impacted, he said. Businesses are doing better, yet he wants to see them back to where they were before the oil spill.  

The parish is in the very premature stages of receiving its $45 billion, so stakeholders will have to wait to learn what Parish President Cormier III decides to do with the money—and who benefits the most.

“I just don’t want to see the money wasted,” Encalade emphasized. “We can’t afford to waste no more money in Louisiana.”