Over the past couple of days I've traveled across the state meeting with experts involved in the oil spill. Yesterday morning I left Grand Isle and headed up to Baton Rouge to meet with Don Davis, the director emeritus of the Sea Grant program at Louisiana State University. The Sea Grant program has helped act as a liaison between shrimpers and fishermen in Louisiana and BP. They have extension agents, kind of like agricultural extension agents, spread throughout the Mississippi Delta listening to the concerns facing fishermen and offering advice where they can. One of the most troubling problems Don brought up was the fact that so many fishermen are paid in cash, and like most cash-based workers, many don't report their full income on their taxes.
BP's claims process rests on being able to prove how much income you would have been making if you'd been able to fish as usual, but since there's no paper trail most fishermen have no way of proving how much they've lost because of the spill. What that means for most of them is that they simply have no relief. Some have been able to get jobs working for BP to help on the clean up, but the pay for most is meager compared to what they could make on a good fishing day. Louisiana has two shrimping seasons, May for the white shrimp out in the Gulf, and August for the brown shrimp feeding in the inland estuaries. Since the spill happened in April, both seasons have been effectively knocked out, leaving fishermen with no source of income. Many have had to resort to using the Catholic Charity services, which are very active in the region, but for people who are used to supporting themselves and living highly independent lifestyles, the idea of having to beg for assistance or take orders from BP is a lot to ask.
This morning I met with Benny Puckett, the Chairman of the Committee for Plaquemines Recovery and an employee of the Parish President's office. It was obvious that Benny was frustrated with BP and with the bureaucratic nature of the clean up effort, but he was particularly proud of how many of the ideas that have worked so far came from listening to the suggestions of local people. Things like corralling the oil between ships towing boom so that it could be scooped up, or the use of "jack boats" as floating docks, and even the controversial building of berms along the coast to keep the oil out of the estuaries.
While Benny was obviously unhappy with how BP's actions had ruined the economy of his Parish, he was equally upset about the idea of a moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling. Rather than doing the equivalent of "grounding every airliner anytime a single plane goes down," he suggested the problem really lay with the competition between safety people and money people on rigs. While safety concerns sometimes won out, all to often concerns about making the rig financially feasible trumped them. His suggestion was that the federal government should assign "rig marshals" who would live on board offshore rigs and monitor safety issues so that they could make the final decision, rather than it being a competition within the company operating the rig.