[permaculture] The Gulf Between Us/6 Months Since BP Oil Spill BY TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network
lakinroe at silcom.com
Thu Oct 28 08:47:11 EDT 2010
Interview with terry Tempest Democracynow Amy Goodman Oct 21/10
6 Months Since BP Oil Spill, Writer and
Environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams Asks
"Where Is Our Outrage?" Democracynow Amy Goodman
The Gulf Between Us
Stories of terror and beauty from the world's
largest accidental offshore oil disaster
BY TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY J HENRY FAIR
Published in the November/December 2010 issue of Orion magazine
THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE BEEN TOLD:
* April 20, 2010: the Macondo well
blowout occurred approximately five thousand feet
below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, causing
the BP-Transocean drilling platform Deepwater
Horizon to explode, killing eleven workers and
injuring seventeen others.
* 5 million barrels of crude oil
were released into the sea from the BP blowout.
On average, sixty thousand barrels a day were
escaping from the well before the gusher was
capped on July 15, 2010.
* 632 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline
have been oiled: 365 miles in Louisiana; 110
miles in Mississippi; 69 miles in Alabama; and 88
miles in Florida.
* There have been 411 controlled
burns on the surface of the sea, killing hundreds
of sea turtles and untold numbers of dolphins.
The number of deaths has been greatly
* Four hundred species of wildlife
are threatened by the spill, including marine
life from plankton to whales, dolphins, sea
turtles, tuna, and shrimp; dozens of species of
birds, including brown pelicans and piping
plovers; land animals such as the gray fox and
white-tailed deer; and amphibians, the alligator,
and the snapping turtle.
* 8 million feet of absorbent boom
have been used to contain the oil spill in the
Gulf of Mexico; 3 million feet of containment
boom have also been set around islands and
shorelines for protection.
* 2 million gallons of a dispersant
called Corexit have been applied on and beneath
the surface of the sea to break up the oil. It is
produced by Nalco Holding Company, which has
corporate ties to BP and ExxonMobil. The EPA, on
May 20, 2010, gave BP twenty-four hours to find a
less toxic alternative. Corexit's known toxicity,
acknowledged following its use in the Exxon
Valdez oil spill, was denied by BP. The EPA's
request was ignored.
* On May 25, the EPA gave BP a
directive to scale back their spraying of the sea
with dispersants. The Coast Guard overlooked the
EPA's edict and granted BP seventy-four
exemptions in forty-eight days, essentially
rubber-stamping their continued routine use of
* Defense Secretary Robert Gates
authorized 17,500 National Guard troops "to fight
the massive oil spill," alongside an army of
42,500 individuals paid by BP to protect and
clean up vital shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico.
Over 5,300 "vessels of opportunity" have
registered with BP, captains with their own boats
being paid to look for oil.
* August 5, 2010: BP officials
reported a permanent stop to the spill. Crews
used a "static well kill" to plug the gusher with
drilling mud and then concrete. Two relief wells
at depths of 17,864 feet and 15,963 feet are
being drilled to ensure a secure and final
closure of the well.
* Amid reports of the oil in the
Gulf being nearly gone, an article in the August
19 issue of Science describes the presence of a
plume of hydrocarbons at least twenty-two miles
long and more than three thousand feet below the
surface of the Gulf of Mexico, residue from the
Macondo well blowout. The plume was said to be
moving in a southwesterly direction at a rate of
about 6.5 kilometers a day.
I AM ANGRY. I AM OUTRAGED. And I am in love with
this beautiful, blue planet we call home.
This story in the Gulf of Mexico is not a new
story. Living in the American West, I understand
the oil and gas industry, both its political
power in a state like Wyoming and its lack of
regard for the safety of workers. Broken necks
and backs are commonplace injuries. So are lost
fingers. Occasional blowouts occur on land as
well, resulting in fatalities. Production is
paramount at the expense of almost everything
And I have seen the environmental degradation
that is left in the wake of collusion between
government agencies and oil companies. Federal
regulations are relaxed or ignored, putting the
integrity of our public lands at risk. Ecological
health is sacrificed for financial gain. This
sense of entitlement among oil companies is
supported by the U.S. Congress. It has direct
results on the ground: burning slag pools; ozone
warnings; contaminated water wells flushed with
benzene; and loss of habitat for sage grouse,
prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope. The scars
on the fragile desert of southeastern Utah, from
endless road cuts to the sheared oil patches
themselves, will take decades to heal. These are
self-inflicted wounds made by a lethal economic
system running in overdrive.
After months of watching the news coverage on the
blowout and subsequent oil spill, I had to see
for myself what I felt from afar: this
catastrophic moment belongs to all of us.
On July 28, 2010, I traveled to the Gulf Coast
with two friends: Avery Resor, a recent
environmental science graduate from Duke
University, and Bill Weaver, a seasoned filmmaker
from Montgomery, Alabama, who now lives in
British Columbia. Avery grew up on her family's
cattle ranch in Wilson, Wyoming, where she
continues to live in a log cabin without running
water or electricity. She is twenty-four years
old and bikes wherever and whenever she can. Her
name ties her to a deep family history rooted in
Louisiana: Avery Island, famous for Tabasco Sauce
made from hot peppers, vinegar, and salt. Bill
has dedicated his life to making films that
illuminate issues of environmental and social
justice. He facilitates Media that Matters, a
yearly conference committed to more transparent
journalism. He is more cat than human, quiet and
nimble. When he rolls his camera, you don't know
it. He has learned how to disappear so the
authentic story can be told.
We arrived on the hundredth day of the oil spill
and stayed until the "static kill" was complete.
We sniffed out stories and followed them. We
listened and we engaged. I took notes. Avery took
pictures. Bill filmed.
The oil is not gone. This story is not over. We
smelled it in the air. We felt it in the water.
People along the Gulf Coast are getting sick and
sicker. Marshes are burned. Oysters are scarce
and shrimp are tainted. Jobs are gone and stress
is high. What is now hidden will surface over
Meanwhile, 1 billion birds are migrating through
the Gulf of Mexico this fall, resting, feeding,
and finding sanctuary as they have always done,
generation after generation. The endangered
piping plover will be among them. Seventy percent
of all waterfowl in North America fly through the
Mississippi Delta. Their energy will be
compromised, with food not as plentiful. Their
health will be vulnerable to the toxic traces of
oil and dispersants lingering in the marshes.
The blowout from the Macondo well has created a
terminal condition: denial. We don't want to own,
much less accept, the cost of our actions. We
don't want to see, much less feel, the results of
our inactions. And so, as Americans, we continue
to live as though these 5 million barrels of oil
spilled in the Gulf have nothing to do with us.
The only skill I know how to employ in the
magnitude of this political, ecological, and
spiritual crisis is to share the stories that
were shared with me by the people who live here.
I simply wish to bear witness to the places we
traveled and the people we met, and give voice to
the beauty and devastation of both.
To bear witness is not a passive act.
209 BOURBON STREET
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
"All worlds meet at Galatoire's," David Barr
Gooch tells us as we are escorted to our table.
He is the great-grandnephew of the original
proprietor, Jean Galatoire, who first opened
these doors on Bourbon Street in 1905. Mr. Gooch
assures us that they do have oysters and that all
the shrimp, crab, and local fish is safe to eat.
"Our local suppliers take care of us first, so
please enjoy yourself."
Our waiter's name is Shawn Perry, a native of New
Orleans. He dotes on us as if we are the only
diners in the restaurant. When he finds out that
we are from Utah and Wyoming, he says, "Will you
allow me to order for you?" What comes to our
table is Galatoire's Grand Gouté, which includes
shrimp rémoulade, crabmeat maison, and shrimp
maison with their signature French bread.
For an entrée, he orders redfish prepared both
ways for us to try: broiled and fried, with
vegetables on a bed of couscous and a side dish
of creamed spinach. "You have to have creamed
spinach in the South," Shawn says. The food is
delicious, especially the redfish, heightened by
our waiter's joie de vivre.
"How is the Gulf spill affecting business?" I ask. He pauses.
"The people aren't coming." He looks around the
dining room. "Usually on a summer night, this
place is packed. The wait can be long, an hour or
more, outside on the street. You walked right in.
As you can see, the dining room is only a third
full. As far as the food goes, we've got what we
need. But the oysters are the thing-everybody's
For a split second, Shawn sheds his elegance as a
waiter, and his eyes deepen. "It's another blow
to the region, and I don't know how many more we
can take. We're resilient, we make do, but this
spill is scaring everybody because we just don't
"Don't know?" Avery asks.
"We just don't know what the long-term effects
are going to be to the fisheries, to the people,
to the Gulf." He pauses again. "There's not a lot
of trust in this city about what we're being
told." He looks over at another one of his
tables. "Would you like some more bread?"
Avery and I finish our redfish. The gold fans
with exposed light bulbs help distribute the air
and conversation around the room. Green wallpaper
decorated with gold fleur-de-lis rises above the
mirrored panels, which create the illusion that
the dining room is larger than it is. This is not
a pretentious place.
Suddenly, a waiter in the far corner of
Galatoire's announces with great gusto that it is
"Charles's birthday." The room breaks into song.
Charles stands and takes a bow. I note that all
the patrons are white and the waitstaff is black.
Shawn surprises us with bread pudding. "One
should do," he says smiling. One between us could
actually be shared with another party of four. It
is decadent and rich and we take our time with
slow, small bites. Shawn is pleased by our
We hug and kiss both cheeks after dinner, not
common behavior for me with a waiter, complete
with the exchange of addresses. Galatoire's lives
up to its reputation. We indulge in the
tradition, saying goodnight to Mr. Gooch, who
sees us out the door and watches until we
disappear into the glare of Bourbon Street on a
hot, steamy night in New Orleans.
MARGARET AND KEVIN CUROLE
ST. CHARLES PARISH
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Kevin is working on his daughter's motor scooter,
taking it apart in the middle of the sidewalk. I
can't help but stare at the extravagantly colored
tattoo on his back, a narrative needled and inked
on flesh that depicts Godzilla standing on a
shrimping boat battling other boats, with oil
rigs looming in the background. He gets up,
catches my eyes on his back, and shakes my hand.
"It's a helluva good story if ya wanna hear about
Margaret and Kevin Curole are Cajun shrimpers.
They have lived along the bayous in Galliano all
their lives. Today, they are staying at their
daughter's place in New Orleans, adjacent to a
large cemetery. It's beyond humid and the searing
heat leaves me drenched. Margaret has agreed to
talk to us about the Gulf crisis as both a
resident of the region and an activist who serves
on the executive board of the Commercial
Fishermen of America. She also serves as the
North American coordinator of the World Forum of
Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, an NGO that
works with the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organization to protect the rights of fishing
communities around the world.
"It is a good story," she says, smiling at Kevin.
She has a flower tattoo on her right breast
showcased by her low-cut black t-shirt. "Let's
get a couple of chairs and sit out back." Her
dark, layered hair, shoulder length, accentuates
her yellow-brown eyes. "Are you cool enough
today?" she asks, smiling.
On May 16, 2010, Margaret Curole joined aerial
artist John Quigley and sent three text messages,
spelled out with human bodies on the beach in
Grand Isle, Louisiana, to BP, the federal
government, Congress, and other officials,
calling for immediate action to address the
economic and environmental devastation from the
spill. Their message was simple and direct: Never
Again; Paradise Lost; WTF?!
This last sentiment is where Margaret picks up
with our conversation. "Did you see that there's
another spill today, a barge hit ground off of
Port Fourchon, not far from Grand Isle? That's in
the Lafourche Parish where we're from." Margaret
is referring to headlines in the Daily Comet:
"New Oil Spill Sullies Locust Bayou Near Border
of Terrebonne, St. Mary."
"About five hundred gallons of light crude. It's
the second spill this week in southeast
Louisiana," she says. "It's endless and ongoing
all over the world. I'm on my way tomorrow to a
conference in Norway to talk about the state of
fisheries and oil spills. Part of my job with the
Margaret tells me that her father was an oilman.
In the 1950s, before she was born, her parents
lived inside the British Petroleum compound in
Saudi Arabia. "I was adopted. My birth mother was
Cajun. I'm Cajun. The transaction was completed
for the price of five hundred dollars and two new
dresses for my mother. My parents are dead now,
but I've lived in the same house in Galliano for
"And your husband?" I ask.
"My husband has shrimped all his life, until the
local fishing industry collapsed in 2000. Ask him
about separating shrimp from a bucket for his
grandmother when he was three years old. It's in
his blood. He was fishing those waters as a kid.
Loved it. Lived for it. We all did. It's how we
raised our daughter. You know why he quit in
2000? 'Cuz he was feelin' violent-violent toward
the government, violent for them not valuing an
honest day's work. He just left what he loved and
went and worked for oil. At least we were one of
the ones who had options."
Margaret explains to us how the local shrimping
industry has crashed in the bayous since 2000,
due to America "dumping" Asian shrimp into the
market. "Our shrimp aren't worth anything,
certainly not worth all the effort that goes into
harvesting them. My husband used to sell a pound
of shrimp all cleaned up and put on a bucket of
ice for seven dollars. Then, after the Asian
shrimp came in all covered with white blight and
crowded out our own southern Louisiana shrimp,
he'd get paid under a dollar. They treat our
shrimp like trash. It's not just the money, it's
our dignity. The ability to work hard is at the
heart of Cajun culture.
"We are one generation removed from those
speaking French, although Kevin still speaks the
dialect. What you need to understand is that for
us Cajun folk, fishing isn't a business, it's a
way of life. It's something beautiful. We may be
poor, but we never went hungry. We had shrimp,
crabs, and coon oysters. We had a free and
abundant food supply. In these parts, you either
fish or you work in the oil fields. So if you
take away the oil job, with the moratorium on
deep-well drilling, and the fishing is gone,
we're down to nothin'."
Margaret's fast speaking clip slows down. "And
then you've probably already heard about the dead
zone in the Gulf of Mexico created by all the
dumping of pesticides from farming-the nitrates
from farms upriver?" She pauses. "My sense of
hope is fading fast."
She looks away and then her gaze becomes direct.
"Don't believe 75 percent of what you hear about
this blowout down here. Ask the people on the
ground. People are not being allowed to talk. My
husband has been working on the water for the
past three months. Most of what is being done to
clean up the oil is to make the American people
think something is being done."
"So what's the story that isn't being told?" I ask.
"Two things: how much oil actually has gone into
the sea and the amount of dispersants used to
make it disappear," she says.
"The workers are getting sick with contact
dermatitis, respiratory infections, nausea, and
god knows what else. The BP representatives say
all it is is food poisoning or dehydration. If it
was just food poisoning or not enough water, why
were the workers' clothes confiscated? As we say
in these parts, Answer me dat!
"I never really got nervous until I got a call at
nine-thirty on a Sunday night from the BP claims
office telling me to back off. But I'm speaking
out. I kid my friends and family and say I'll
leave bread crumbs. The other day, two guys from
Homeland Security called to take me to lunch. I'm
a chef. They tried to talk food with me, to cozy
up and all, and one of them told me he was a
pastry chef." Margaret shakes her head. "But I
knew what they was up to, I'm not stupid. They
just wanted to let me know I was bein' watched."
"Here's the truth," Margaret says, now emotional.
"Where are the animals? There's no too-da-loos,
the little one-armed fiddler crabs. Ya don't hear
birds. From Amelia to Alabama, Kevin never saw a
fish jump, never heard a bird sing. This is their
nestin' season. Those babies, they're not goin'
nowhere. We had a very small pod of sperm whales
in the Gulf, nobody's seen 'em. Guys on the water
say they died in the spill and their bodies were
hacked up and taken away. BP and our government
don't want nobody to see the bodies of dead sea
mammals. Dolphins are choking on the surface.
Fish are swimming in circles, gasping. It's ugly,
I'm tellin' you. And nobody's talkin' about it.
You're not hearing nothin' about it. As far as
the media is reportin', everythin's being cleaned
up and it's not a problem. But you know what,
unless I know where my fish is coming from, I'm
eatin' nothin' from here."
Margaret and I sit in silence. I am suddenly
aware of the shabbiness of the neighborhood, the
cracking paint on the wooden slats, the weariness
of the ivy in this dripping heat.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I haven't cried in a long
time. I've been tough, I've been holding it all
together, but it breaks me up." She looks at me
with unwavering eyes, "Have you read 'Evangeline'
I can't speak.
"Read it. Read it again," Margaret says to me.
"It's our story as exiles. If I wasn't speakin'
out about this, I'd be havin' a nervous
breakdown. I'll tell you another thing that
nobody is talkin' about. At night, people sittin'
outside on their porches see planes comin' into
the marshes where they live, and these planes are
sprayin' them with the dispersant. That's the
truth. But hey, we're Cajuns, who cares about us?"
"I don't feel like an American anymore," Margaret
says. "I don't trust our government. I don't
trust anybody in power."
She leans forward in the heat as the pitch and
fervor of frogs intensifies. "We might not be the
most educated people schoolwise, but we know more
about nature than any PhD. We know. We know
what's goin' on."
27900 HIGHWAY 1
PORT FOURCHON, LOUISIANA
The sun, a bright orange orb, slowly sinks into
the horizon of golden grasses. Flocks of great
white egrets are flying to roosting trees, mostly
dead cypress that have drowned from rising
waters. We are stopped by the side of the road,
struck by beauty in Lafourche Parish, "Gateway to
There is a sense that you are standing flush with
the sea. Wooden houses are on blocks above lawns,
some on stilts. Every half mile or so, there seem
to be signs advertising BAYOU LOANS or APARTMENTS
FOR RENT. One billboard with a large image of the
Virgin Mary reads, THIS IS MY TIME. But the
blessed trinity of shrimp, crab, and oysters is
no longer a vision to be taken for granted.
Between fields of sugar cane, seafood café after
seafood café is closed, in spite of banners
advertising, TAILS AND SCALES FOR SALE. Shrimp
boats named Bywater Liberty and Daddy's Angels
remain idle on the sides of the canals.
In small coastal communities like Golden Meadow
and Larose, local artists have turned the sides
of abandoned buildings into murals: BP TOOK OUR
ARMS, THE GOVERNMENT IS TAKING OUR LEGS, HOW WILL
WE STAND? And then an image of the iconic Barack
Obama poster by Shepard Fairey, revised with
floating question marks and the words WHAT NOW?
Another mural has BP portrayed as the grim
reaper, rising toward the statement YOU KILLED
OUR GULF, OUR WAY OF LIFE. In front stands a
mannequin wearing a gas mask holding a placard:
GOD HELP US ALL.
In twilight, we soar over the marshes on a
graceful freeway bridge that brings Port Fourchon
into full view. It is a horizon of lights rising
out of the wetlands, what Avery calls "a city
that is not a city." It reminds us both of the
oil fields in Wyoming where one can read a
newspaper at night in what was once a wilderness
of stars at the base of the Wind River Range.
We stop at Fin's Bar for a drink. Once inside, we
could be in Pinedale, Wyoming, or Rifle,
Colorado, or Vernal, Utah. All oil towns breed
the same kind of culture, hard-drinking drifters
following the money. Avery and Bill sit down at
the bar and talk to the bartender whose name is
Angel. A circle of men are sitting on stools with
pints of beer in hand.
Having grown up in the oil and gas industry, I
recognize the men as kin. I walk over and ask if
I might join them. Turns out they are captains
working with the NRC, the National Response
Center, hired by BP as skimmers. They follow the
oil spills wherever they occur worldwide. Some
had been in Kuwait, others had worked the Exxon
Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, and others
had been in South America last year. They came
from Seattle, New Jersey, Texas, from all over
the United States.
"Do you think BP is doing a good job?"
They look at each other. One captain named Phil
says, "They're sure throwing a lot of money at
it." The men begin talking among themselves about
all the bogus boats in the Gulf registered as
"vessels of opportunity" that are supposed to be
"What they're collecting is a hefty paycheck for
driving around in circles," a captain named Bruce
says, laughing. "They've got nothing to do."
"Where is the oil?" I ask.
"We sank it," one of them says matter-of-factly.
"Dispersants, above and below."
"Carpet-bombed the whole fuckin' ocean," says
another captain, who by now is drunk.
"Yeah, above and below and deep, man, I mean way
deep," the man sitting next to him says. It was
as though the captains were competing with one
another for who could tell the most unbelievable
"It's called Corexit-corrects-it-get it?"
"Wonder how many millions some asshole in
corporate America got for coming up with that
"Is it safe?" I ask.
"Who in the hell knows, but it got rid of the
oil-at least on the surface. We just got told by
BP that they'll be sending us home in another
week or so."
"But don't count on it," says another. "We'll
probably get called right back for duty after the
first hurricane dredges up all the oil sitting at
the bottom of the ocean and throws it inland."
The captain seated across from me seemed
troubled. He didn't say much. He told me later
when we were at the bar alone that he had worked
on the Exxon Valdez spill. He said he had watched
fish eat the dispersant as it gathered along the
tide line in Alaska. He said he had seen the
mullet doing exactly the same thing out in the
"They're probably just eatin' the microbes that
are eatin' up the oil after the dispersants have
broken it up," he said. "But it can't be good for
"I don't know, I think that stuff really fucks up
the food chain," he said. "The herring never did
bounce back in Prince William Sound. I've been up
there fishing since the spill. Almost killed
every last one of them."
JORDAN'S MINI STORE AND DELI
17611 EAST MAIN STREET
When we asked Margaret Curole where we could get
some good Cajun food, she told us to go to
Galliano, her hometown, and look for a little
café with a large red awning across from the
church. By the time we get there, it is after ten
o'clock, but the lights are still on.
"Welcome," Becky Duet says warmly, a woman in her
early fifties who is cleaning up. "It's late and
the grill is down." We strike up a conversation,
and before we know it we are sitting down at a
table with Becky, her husband, Earl, and their
son, Jordan. The convenience store and deli were
named after him.
"He was conceived three days after my granddaddy
died and I knew he'd be a boy. He's our miracle
baby," Becky says. Jordan, now twenty, smiles,
his multiple piercings shining under the direct
lights. Just then, a person dressed in a white
t-shirt, black pants, and silver chains, with a
geometric haircut, walks in.
"This is my brother, Donna," Jordan says with a mischievous smile.
"Yeah, I raised her, too," Becky says. "That's the way it is in these parts."
Becky offers us a ham and cheese po' boy on
French bread. It is the best sandwich I have ever
"Eatin's important to us, makin' the gumbo and
jambalaya. We feast in the bayou. We say, All you
need to survive is some rice, some potatoes, and
bread. Nature provides the rest." She looks at
her boy. "But not now."
"I knew the oil spill wasn't any good the minute
it happened," Becky says, stroking her ponytail
tied loosely at the nape of her neck. "So I
stocked up on local shrimp and put 'em in
freezers all over. Good thing I did, too, 'cuz
you can't find any shrimp now, and if you could,
you wouldn't wanna eat it."
"Be afraid to now," says Earl. "Them sprayin' us and the bayous at night."
"Who?" Bill asks, since we'd been hearing about
Coast Guard planes doing the spraying.
"BP. We've all seen 'em, heard 'em. They're
sprayin' the marshes-everything. People are gonna
"They already are," Becky says.
Becky and Earl were both raised in the bayous.
They speak Cajun French (derived from Acadian
French, as it was spoken in what are now the
Maritime Provinces of Canada-New Brunswick, Nova
Scotia, and Prince Edward Island-where Cajun
ancestors lived before they were dispersed in
1755 by the French and found a home in the bayou
country of southern Louisiana). They can hardly
understand their son's French, and so they settle
on a hybrid Cajun-English between the three of
Becky served on the school board, working to
create a bilingual English-Cajun program for
children growing up in the bayou, where the
average annual household income is $31,419.
She echoed Margaret's sentiments about the bayous
offering them a bounty of food in all seasons of
the year. "We're wealthy if you look at the food
we can eat right here in our own homes. I mean,
you just put a chicken neck on a hook and throw
your line in the canal and you've got everything
"What's a redfish?" I ask Becky, curious about
the origins of our main course from the night
"We've got 'em here. They're a fish that likes to
give you a fight. They're real pretty with gold
scales and a dot on their tail, a big burgundy
spot." She pauses. "We might see some in the
canal below the bridge?"
It's been raining. The wet parking lot reflects
the lights of Galliano, a town of barely eight
thousand people. Jordan and Donna run ahead of us
and disappear. I now see Becky's uncommon beauty,
the lines in her face.
She and I walk toward the bridge talking about
sons. I tell her I became a mother at fifty, that
our son is from Rwanda. "You'll love your son
like no other," she says. "It's a different kind
of love than you have for your husband." Becky
then shares a Cajun tradition. "When you have a
baby, you invite the women of the community over
and each one writes some words of wisdom in red
magic marker on a set of diapers, so that every
time you change one, you are reminded of a
thought or a wish that gives you confidence as a
new mother. What I just told you about the love
you have for your son, well, that was written on
one of Jordan's diapers. I still remember that
because it's still true."
Jordan and Donna are already in their rowboat,
fishing. We step onto the green-painted bridge
that spans the bayou and stare into the
tea-colored water. The canal is crowded with gar,
recognizable by their long, peculiar snouts
visible in the waning full moon of July, now
emerging from the clouds. Leaning on the railing
of the bridge, Becky points out that each gar has
its own distinctive markings, some spotted like
leopards, others marked like a maze on their
backs. They slowly tread water, lazily,
seductively, some three feet long, all facing the
Jordan screams, "I caught a redfish!"
Donna leans over to see. "Wow, on your second cast!"
Becky calmly says to reel it in so we can see the
fish for ourselves. Jordan and Donna carefully
bring the twelve-inch fish into the boat, but not
without a fight. "Those redfish really give you a
hard time," Becky says. "It's why the fishermen
like them so much. They can live to be forty
years old, weigh thirty-five pounds, and can grow
to be three feet long. But we like the little
Jordan and Donna row the boat to bayou's edge,
tie it to some grasses, and bring the fish to
Becky. Becky holds the redfish in her hands with
its gold, glistening scales.
"See the burgundy spot?" Becky asks. It appears as a single unblinking eye.
At Galatoire's, I didn't know what a redfish was
or where it lived. Twenty-four hours later, I am
stroking the side of a redfish that will
eventually find its way from these moonlit
marshes to the sea. Magic lives in the world when
we surrender ourselves to a place. Jordan doesn't
just know a redfish, he can think like one. The
line he dangles into his home waters is his
Becky gently returns the gift back to the bayou,
and we watch as the redfish's side fins propel it
forward into the murky depths.
BRETON SOUND, LOUISIANA
The marsh grasses are burnt. The mud flats hold
an iridescent sheen, and it looks like a painter
came to shore with buckets of oil and dipped his
brush in it, then spattered the island with
drops, not black or brown, but red drops, like
blood. Comfort Island looks like the scene of a
Jumping off the boat, I sink into the muck. It is
my first look at an oiled beach. Shells are
strewn across the shore, angel wings, whelks, and
tiny, hinged sunrise shells. Brown pelicans and
royal terns are standing three, four deep on the
edge of the island. One pelican is standing on
the yellow boom, now a broken circle.
"Amateur hour," grumbles the boat captain, Danny
Diecidue, who has fished these waters for over
thirty years. "The boom is fucked. It absolutely
does no good. The island's too big and the
workers have gotten it all wrong. At least the
pelicans get a perch to fish from out of this
I bend down and touch the oil, spread it over the
pages of my journal so I won't forget. It burns
my finger. White curled feathers cartwheel across
the beach until they become heavy with oil. I
find a small bed of oysters saturated in crude.
"The oil comes in with the high tide," says
Danny, a native of Hopedale, in the St. Bernard
Parish, an hour from New Orleans. "That would
have been around two o'clock this morning."
Farther down the beach, a television reporter
from the CBS Evening News stands with perfectly
coiffed hair, sporting a flak jacket. He wants a
shot with the yellow boom in the background. He
is about to interview Dr. Paul Kemp,
vice-president of the National Audubon Society's
Louisiana Coastal Initiative. He asks his
cameraman if he is ready. The cameraman gives him
the go sign: "It's Day 100 and I am on Comfort
Island in the Breton Sound with Dr. Paul Kemp of
the National Audubon Society. Dr. Kemp, would you
agree this is not the environmental disaster we
were all expecting?"
"It's too early to tell," says Dr. Kemp. "We just
don't know what the effects of the dispersants
are going to be on the overall ecosystem."
"But wouldn't you agree that the oil spill isn't
as bad as was initially predicted?"
"No, I don't agree. It's just too early to tell."
"What do you know?"
"What we do know is that the Mississippi Delta is
the only world-class river delta we have in North
America. It really requires our attention. People
think this will be here forever, but that is not
the case. The system is in collapse. It will not
survive another generation unless we change our
point of view and move it to one of restoration.
We need to restore the Mississippi River and
engage in something as large in scale and vision
as the Marshall Plan, so it can deposit the
sediments it once did into the delta and is meant
to do. These extraordinary marshlands cannot
afford to be cut up by canals to serve the oil
industry or covered in oil when a spill occurs."
The CBS anchorman is getting frustrated. This is
not the story he wanted. He tries again. "So,
what is the impact of oil on this system?"
Dr. Kemp: "No one can say. We can see that this
system will come through it, but if we don't
change the way we manage these wetlands, this is
the beginning of the end."
"You are saying this is the beginning of the end?"
"Yes. Not because of the oil disaster, but
because of the navigational canals. They are
fragmenting marsh grasses creating more erosion.
And coastal erosion is the issue. Since 1930, we
have lost more than 2,300 square miles of land.
In 2010, we are losing one football field of land
every thirty minutes. If we do not change the way
we think about the Mississippi Delta, it will all
be underwater very soon." He pauses. "America's
Gulf Coast is in cardiac arrest."
"That's a wrap," the newsman says to his cameraman.
If only it were that simple. Take a few pictures.
Speak a few words. End of story. Meanwhile, oil
reaches the beach, the mud, the grasses, sullying
the feet of birds now preening their feathers
with oiled beaks, cleaning their feathers and
ingesting the oil that will sicken them.
The system is breaking down not from one thing but everything.
Dr. Kemp and I walk along the edge of the
wetlands. He is a thoughtful marine scientist who
worked at Louisiana State University before
joining the environmental group. We are the same
age, both of us now white haired, and share
similar concerns. Where we step down, oil oozes
"This oiling extends across six hundred square
miles," he says. "Nobody knows. Nobody knows what
these oil particles will do that are hanging just
below the surface. Nobody knows how this will
affect the animals living in the mud or the
spawning of species in the sea or the planktonic
absorption of oil or how the toxicity levels held
in coral reefs will impact their health. Nobody
knows what this means to the whole ecology of the
Gulf Coast and the Delta.
"We need actions going forward, not incremental
steps, that will change our whole outlook of how
we see the Mississippi River. We have to start
implementing this plan to restore the river now
and get the Army Corps of Engineers on
I look at him and smile. "You know what you are advocating . . . ?"
"What?" he asks quietly.
"You are basically calling for a complete
restructuring of Western civilization."
He doesn't flinch.
FISH CAMP LANDING
A GATED COMMUNITY
ORANGE BEACH, ALABAMA
Jerry Cope is pale, very ill, and barely able to
speak. "I'm not the only one sick down here," he
says. We first met on March 2, 2009, at the
Capitol Climate Action demonstration in
Washington DC, where more than twenty-five
hundred activists successfully blockaded all five
entrances to the Capitol Power Plant that fuels
the United States Capitol building.
Cope works on climate issues, from stopping
mountaintop removal in Appalachia to halting a
uranium mine in Colorado, where he lives. He came
to the Gulf with Charles Hambleton, a producer
and member of the team featured in the Academy
Award-winning documentary The Cove. Having
secured evidence that BP had been both burying
dead dolphins in landfills and shipping corpses
to Mexico in refrigerated trucks to be sold as
food, they were investigating what was happening
to the bodies of other dead sea mammals,
including a pod of sperm whales. Jerry had spent
three weeks following this story up and down the
Gulf Coast with little sleep. He was now
suffering from chemically induced pneumonia and
staying with friends in Orange Beach, Alabama.
"I've got some amazing activists I think you
should meet," he had said to me over the phone.
"They've been tracking the spill in Alabama very
closely. It's become a serious health issue."
We enter Robin Young's condominium to find a
house filled with people. With oil still on my
feet and blood on my shin from Comfort Island, I
discretely ask if I might use the bathroom to
quickly rinse off.
I have not been in the living room three minutes
before meeting a man with strong shoulders and
bare arms tattooed with Maori tribal designs that
"My name is Gregg Hall and I'm an activist from
Pensacola Beach, Florida." He shows us a
six-minute video titled "The Truth: My Hometown,"
with Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" as a
soundtrack. It isn't just the huge tar balls on
the beautiful Pensacola beach that are
disturbing, or the ghastly brown sheets of oil
smeared on the white sands, but the boiling
water, thick with chemicals from the dispersants,
that gives me goose flesh.
"It's a color I've never seen before in the
water," Gregg says. "You could believe you were
in the Caribbean. Call it Corexit green."
Gregg describes himself as part Native American
and Cajun. He is a diver and has been documenting
the disaster every day since the first oil
appeared on Pensacola Beach. Many of his images
were taken underwater: streaks of black crude
that look like dead seals congregating on white
rippled sand; dead fish and dead crabs rolling
back and forth on the bottom of the sea.
We move to the screened porch. The sizzling sound
of insects outside reminds me I am a long way
from home in the arid Southwest.
"My name is Ashley Hughes and I'm an activist
from Magnolia Springs, Alabama. I'm interested in
public health. If you go out to Gulf Shores,
twenty minutes from here, you'll still see people
swimming in the water, even as the oil sheen
circles them," she says. "Mothers are just
sitting on the beach watching their kids splash
around in the surf. It's crazy."
"I'm not a conspiracy theorist," says Ashley, an
attractive woman in her forties, part Blackfoot
Indian. "But you have to wonder what's going on
when no red zones have been established on our
beaches. No warnings posted but pitiful little
signs that look more like LIFEGUARD OFF DUTY than
TOXIC BEACH AND WATER. Instead, Governor Riley
says, 'Swimming is a personal decision.'"
"My name is Robin Young and I work in guest
services for a property management company called
Relax on the Beach. This is my house. I started
Guardians of the Gulf with the single goal of
educating the community as to the possible
effects of the oil spill on their lives and
businesses. As people have become increasingly
ill, however, we've been forced to find the
proper medical people to help us conduct blood
tests and treatment. We are now organizing a
class action suit against BP in Baldwin County
for all those individuals who have become sick,"
Robin says, her blue eyes intensifying. "We were
down on those beaches Ashley is talking about on
Father's Day. All that red oil swirling around.
Kids playing in the surf. Crazy."
"Night after night, we watched this tourism
booster named Rebecca Wilson tell us how clean
the beaches were and how safe. Finally, a bunch
of us got sick of listening to her propaganda and
so we made a video spoof of her asinine
statements," Ashley says. "We filmed it on
Perdido Beach in Gulf Shores. Our friend, David
Crosby, dressed in drag and called himself
Rebecca Spillson. He spouted all the lovely
wonders of an oil-drenched beach. We got in our
bikinis, covered ourselves in chocolate syrup to
look like we were dripping in oil, and played
volleyball in the background-all this with the
Beach Boys singing 'Let's Go Surfing.'"
Robin turns on her computer and we watch the video on YouTube.
"We didn't make any friends in the Office of
Tourism," Ashley says. "But we did get their
attention. It ran on all the networks." She looks
at the other women in the room. "We just don't
want people to get hurt."
Robin interjects, "We've demanded that the air
quality be tested. We've all had our blood
tested. I've got elevated readings of benzene and
cadmium. The toxins are inside us. People are
sick and the doctors tell them it's a summer cold
Robin explains how Guardians of the Gulf demanded
that water samples be taken along Alabama's Gulf
Coast, to see just how much oil was in the water
and sand. Studies were done at Orange Beach, Gulf
Shores, Katrina Key, and Dauphin Island. Samples
were then taken to an independent chemist named
Bob Newman, who doubted there would be anything
more than five parts per million in each study.
To his surprise, the lowest quantity of oil and
petroleum in the samples was sixteen parts per
million from the water at Katrina Key; Orange
Beach yielded the highest, 221 parts per million,
where children were playing in the sand; and the
water sample from Dauphin Island exploded in the
"Nobody was more surprised than the chemist,"
Robin says. "He thinks that the reason it
exploded was because of the presence of methane
gas or a chemical dispersant in the water.
Because the sample blew up, that particular test
was deemed inconclusive."
"You couldn't make this stuff up," I say.
"You wouldn't want to make this stuff up, it's
such a friggin' nightmare," Robin says. "All our
lives have been turned upside down."
"My name is Lori DeAngelis and I am the captain
of the Dolphin Queen. I run educational dolphin
tours in Alabama's back bays. This is my ninth
year in business. I've lived here for sixteen."
"My name is Mike DeAngelis. I am Lori's husband."
Both Lori and Mike look shellshocked and
exhausted. Lori, like Robin, has long, blond hair
and is tanned and weathered. She wears a tight
turquoise t-shirt that reads, SALT LIFE. Lori's
blood test also came back with high levels of
benzene and cadmium. Like Jerry, she too has
"We were a bad idea on the planet," Lori says
bluntly. "Humans." She stares past us. "This oil
spill-it goes beyond breaking your heart. It
breaks your soul. To have no remorse. To say it's
under control. You can't put your arms around it."
"Where are the animals?" she asks. "Dead. Burned.
Buried in landfills at night. It's common
knowledge. I've been out in the water with my
boat saying, 'Damn, where are my dolphins?' The
dolphins I've known for years are either gone,
dead, or disappeared. The ones I have seen are
acting lethargic or like they're drunk. I know
it's the Corexit. The ocean's a toxic soup. It
doesn't look right. The color's all wrong." She
starts to cry.
Robin takes over. "How many times have we been
told to stand down, that we are overreacting and
asking too many questions?"
"It started with money and it's ending with money," Gregg says.
Robin looks at Avery and Bill. "It feels like
we're in a John Grisham movie and we can't wake
Lori tells me she's bleeding from her vagina and
it makes no sense. "I had a hysterectomy years
ago." She then leans forward and whispers in my
ear, "I'm bleeding from my anus, too, but I don't
dare tell Mike. This thing is killing me."
"So what's the story that's not being told?" I ask the room of activists.
"Which one do you want?" Robin asks. "The
misappropriation of funds? The dead animal
coverup with local dumps smelling like rotting
flesh? The dispersants and public health issues?
Or how about the decapitated birds?"
"You can't run toxicology tests on birds without
their heads," Lori says. "I worked for six years
with the Alabama Sea Rescue Unit collecting dead
dolphins and seabirds. If you don't have the
bird's head, you can't run the test. The reason
BP and the government have disposed of all the
dead sea mammals is because they are federally
protected by law. Each dolphin costs you a
shitload of money if you kill it. Again, it's
about money. The BP website says there are three
hundred-plus dolphins that have died so far.
That's bullshit, trust me, it's in the thousands.
And the number of sea turtles-"
"Ask me what I'm doing with our boat?" interrupts
Mike DeAngelis, raising his glass as Robin fills
it. "Go ahead, ask me what I'm doing with our
"What are you doing with your boat?"
"I'm a voo-dude."
"A voo-dude. Our boat is registered with BP as a
'vessel of opportunity.' We were called into
action on Sunday. BP called me at eight-thirty
p.m. They said, Are you so and so? I said, Yeah.
So is this your boat? I said, Yeah. Can you be
activated in the morning? I had applied for the
program and said, Sure. The mayor of Orange Beach
has encouraged locals with a boat to apply for
the program so BP money can go to locals instead
of scammers who are coming from out of state with
recently purchased boats just to cash in on the
"It's complicated for us," Lori says, "because
Mike owns the boat in name, but I use the boat
for my business. Dolphin Queen is my love. I take
her out for my dolphin cruises. People love how
she's decorated with mermaids and all."
"But we need the money," Mike says. He turns to
his wife, "Baby, I'm not out there 'cuz I wanna
do this-I gotta do this."
"I know. But it hurts me that I can't-" Lori
breaks down. "That I can't be out checking on my
Mike explains that BP is paying $1,200 a day for
a twenty-four-foot boot like the DeAngelises'
craft, plus an extra $200 a day for every crew
member. They pay $2,000 a day for thirty- to
forty-foot boats and $3,000 a day for fifty-foot
"It's a scam," Mike says. "People have come out
of the woodwork, bringing ten boats down to
Mobile Bay and registering them in the program,
guys who don't even live here. I met one guy from
New Jersey who's making $12,000 a day with ten
little Jon boats, twelve-foot aluminum boats,
while local fishermen struggling just to make
ends meet were trying to keep their suppliers
loaded with shrimp before it all got shut down.
By the time the fishermen realized what was going
on, the program was saturated."
"Tell 'em what happened to you, honey," Lori urges.
Mike takes another sip from his drink. "It was
Monday morning, six a.m., I'm headed out to Fort
Morgan in my car, thirty miles from here, which
is where they told me to go to launch my boat.
Just as I get there, my phone rings and it's
another call from the BP representative, who
says, 'I'm anchored east side of Pensacola Naval
Station. Can you run on over here, we'll do a
face to face?' I tell him I'm three to four hours
away. He says, 'Okay, just forget about it. We'll
see you tomorrow.' I was paid and never entered
"On day two, the BP guy is still in Pensacola. He
tells me to call him at eleven for instructions.
I call him and he says, 'Just get in your boat
and go look for oil.' No instructions. No
equipment. Nothing. Just go look for oil. When I
asked him what I should do if I see any, he says,
'Just call me.'
"Day three, we just get up early and go. I turn
on my radio to channel eleven and let the captain
know I'm there. We do circles in the Gulf. The
water was as pretty as I've ever seen it, scary
pretty, that emerald color you see in the
Bahamas, not typical to the Gulf. But you're not
goin' to see me swimmin' in it. The waves are all
wrong. I can't describe it. Spooky as hell. And
then coming back, we went, 'Whoa, fliers!'
Bunches of flying fish appeared way too close to
shore. Usually, you don't see them until you're
two miles out. Here they were, three hundred
yards in. Betcha it's lack of oxygen in the
water. They're coming in for air. God, it's
strange out there, bubbles coming up from who
knows where." He pauses. "I've never seen this
kinda shit out in the bay.
"And then today, we're told to go to a safety
meeting, the first one. The BP guy stands up and
chuckles. 'You just need to know three things.
Don't eat the oil. Keep your PPs on. And go have
"What are PPs?" I ask.
"Personal protection," Mike says. "They want you
to keep your pants on, your shirt on, and your
shoes. Oh yeah-and your hat."
"So is anyone wearing hazmat suits?" Bill asks,
having seen BP workers on the beach wearing white
"Only the hazwhoppers-that's what they call them,
the guys who've been through the forty hours of
hazmat training. They're the ones certified to
collect oil on the beaches, right next to the
people in bathing suits."
Jerry is lying down on the couch, listening. He
looks worse than he did earlier.
Mike looks at his wife. "We've got a pirated boat
held hostage in BP's name, Lori can't run her
business, and the checks we're receiving feel
"We're at each other's throats," she says.
"Fightin' all the time." She stops. "We need the
money, but I want my boat back. I wanna see if my
dolphins are still out there. I know they're
"It ain't right," Mike says. "None of it. The
irony is we still haven't spent the money yet. It
feels like hush money and we ain't hushin' up."
"I've thought about writin' my own story," Lori
says. "But tell me, how in God's name do you end
GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE
PERDIDO KEY, FLORIDA
Voluminous thunderheads are building themselves
into a vertical column against a deep indigo sky
with god-streaks breaking through the clouds.
Lightning bolts cut into the sublimity of the
moment and it is hard to know whether to stay or
We stay. Avery and I sit and face the ocean on
the white sand beach at Perdido Key, while Bill
photographs clouds. A plane flies over the
abandoned coast carrying a red streamer that
reads, THANK YOU FOR VISITING OUR BEACHES.
The sea is translucent, the color of emeralds,
just as Mike DeAngelis said. There is orange boom
farther out. Sanderlings forage along the beach,
scurrying in and out of the wrack line.
Earlier, we were at Gulf Shores, now a ghost
resort with high-rise hotels, one after another,
empty. There were a half dozen rainbow-colored
umbrellas staked in the sand with mothers reading
novels while their children played in the surf. A
few couples were walking hand in hand, ignoring
the posted warning signs. A large cross of
weathered wood had been erected in front of the
red flag, stilted in the heat, raised as a danger
alert. Our eyes were burning. We moved on to
Perdido Key, part of the Gulf Island National
Seashore, naïvely believing it might be safer.
"We are sweating our prayers," says Bill as he
continues to photograph the unfolding storm. It
is 104 degrees without the heat index. We wear
the humidity as wet clothing.
Clouds erupt into white-masted schooners-light in
the presence of shadow, shadow in the presence of
light. Nothing is as it appears. What is true and
what is not? The white of these sands is true. A
flock of pelicans gliding over an oiled sea is
true. Oil dispersed and out of sight is also true.
Lightning strikes very close. I half expect to see the ocean burst into flames.
Just as we get up to leave, a BP bus pulls up. It
is five o'clock. Forty workers in yellow and
green vests rush onto the beach. They are met by
a convoy of dune buggies and backhoes, poised to
dig in the sand. We learn from two of the workers
that the night before, from sundown to sunrise,
two thousand pounds of oil were recovered from
the beach in a hundred-yard swatch. The oil is
buried in the sand-a build-up from Bonnie, the
tropical storm that came through a couple of
weeks earlier. On a hot day, the tar balls, some
of them too big for a man to carry, will soften
and melt, turning into something like gooey
peanut butter that percolates through the sand.
The workers dig it up.
When we ask two of the workers, both African
American, what happens with the ton of oil they
collect in a night's work, they say, "We truck it
"BP says they're going to cook it, turn it into
asphalt to pave roads, but if you ask me, I think
it's just sitting there in some landfill, hot as
hell," one of the workers says. "I've got kids.
They build sand castles. What's going to happen
when they run into buckets of oil on the beach
down there?" He points toward Gulf Shores. "Are
they safe? I think about that."
We watch the two men walk down the wooden plank
to the white beach, where they will be digging
through the night with thunder and lightning
flashing all around them.
BP-TRANSOCEAN DEEPWATER HORIZON
MACONDO WELL, GULF OF MEXICO
Tom Hutchings is flying barefoot over the open
sea. We are on our way to "The Source," the
Macondo well, ninety miles south of the mouth of
Mobile Bay, Alabama. Coordinates: latitude
28º45'12'' N; longitude 88º15'53" W. Destination
time: forty-five minutes.
Avery and Bill are positioned in the rear of the
small, agile Cessna 182, ready to take
photographs from the open baggage door. I'm
seated in front with Tom, able to talk with him
through a headset.
"I don't use the word evil often, but what's
going on here in the Gulf is evil," Tom says.
This is flight number twenty-eight since April
20. Hutchings has clocked in more than ninety
hours in the air as a volunteer SouthWings pilot,
taking public officials, photographers, and
journalists to the site of the blowout to witness
for themselves the magnitude of the calamity.
Hutchings's previous trip was twelve days
earlier. He is interested in seeing how things
"Given all the reports, I won't be surprised if
we just see a lot of beautiful ocean today, which
would be fine by me," he says, looking out the
window. "But if the oil is to be seen, we'll see
Tom Hutchings is a Gulf Coast native who grew up
spending summers in Josephine, Alabama, next to
the water. His father and brother were both lost
at sea when Tom was nine years old. "We suspect
pirates, although nothing was ever certain." His
fierce sense of responsibility toward his
remaining family has never left him. Married,
divorced, and married again, his devotion to his
daughter, Brinkley, as a single parent has been a
constant. She is now a student at the University
of North Carolina at Wilmington.
"When I flew Brinkley to The Source in the early
days of the blowout, she didn't say a word, not a
word. A couple days later, she looked at me and
simply said, 'Dad, get out of the way. Your
generation screwed it up and we are going to have
to fix it.' She's now working for Greenpeace. I
told her, 'Look, you're twenty years old, you've
got a long life ahead of you. Be careful.' But
she's angry and I don't blame her. I'm angry,
Tom is filling out his flight log. I look down
and see the wrinkled skin of the sea, blue-gray.
Early morning haze creates a mesmerizing effect
of no horizon. Orange boom on the water appears
as script, a free-form writing exercise in
futility. We pass Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island,
where the exploding water sample was taken.
"There's the vessels of opportunity bunched
together doing nothing," Tom says. "Have you
heard the phrase, 'We're on BP time?'"
Tom points out the huge rafts of sargassum floating on the surface of the sea.
"This is an incredibly important seaweed, similar
to the kelp forests in the Pacific, a critical
habitat for aquatic larvae of all kinds, myriads
of fish, and juvenile turtles, and a resting
platform for marine birds. They're like floating
islands of life.
The oil is killing it, breaking it up. You can
see both a change in color and a change in
structure from the air. We'll see more, the
closer we get to Deepwater. Strangely, we've not
been seeing it wash up on shore this summer like
it usually does. Don't know why."
We fly over shallow-water rig platforms, one
after another. We are now twelve miles offshore,
seventy-eight miles from The Source.
"It's disconcerting to hear one thing on shore
and then fly out here and see something
completely different," Tom says. "It's important
to trust what you see, not what you hear. The
plane for me is my own personal ground-truthing."
Tom runs a consulting firm called Eco-Solutions,
helping various organizations and agencies come
to better decision making through collaboration.
But he is a known and respected agitator, one who
isn't afraid to speak his mind. I recognize him
as Coyote, a trickster. I am glad he is on my
"What seems unnatural to me is the wave action.
Can you see what I'm talking about?" Tom asks.
"There are usually peaks to the waves. But see
those rolling waves? Normally, you'd say they
belong to the wake of a boat, but they don't.
They're just long rolling folds in the sea. I've
never seen them before. There's got to be oil on
the surface here-" He pauses.
And there it is. Oil. Lots of it. Sickening
sheets of iridescent sheen with sargassum
"It's such a perverse reflection," Tom says.
His comment strikes me as both a physical
observation and a psychological one. BP is only
partially to blame. Our hunger is also
responsible. This is the horror of what we are
witnessing-the magnitude of our addiction and its
lethal consequences for those who have no part or
say in the decision.
"Dolphins," Tom says. Avery points her camera
through the opening. Bill is rolling film. It is
a terrible beauty.
We are thirty-two miles from The Source.
The oil now appears like miles of stretchmarks on
the pregnant belly of the sea. What lies below,
we cannot tell, but surface stress is apparent.
We see dead fish and birds on the sargassum mats.
Trash, as well.
Tom continues to read the ocean. Oil. Oil. Oil.
The headphones I am wearing become heavy hands
pressing against my ears reminding me of The
Scream. If Robin Young feels she is living inside
a Grisham novel, I have just stepped into Edvard
Munch's painting. The swirls of red toxins below
sicken me inside the confinement of this moth of
a plane juxtaposed against the vastness of the
soiled sea. Outrage. Agony. Helplessness. I
cannot track the disturbance in me. This is new
The plane continues south by southwest. We are eighteen miles from The Source.
I turn to Tom, my rage erupting. "Why is this not
being reported? Why aren't there more planes out
here filming these huge sheets of oil? How can
anyone say this is over?"
"Shore-based reporting, I assure you," he says,
looking out. "See what I'm talking about, the
laziness of the waves? It's like the ocean is
"Is it lies?" I ask desperately, my heart racing.
"Or do Americans just not want to know the truth?"
Avery, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the
plane, points below. "What is that?"
Tom banks the plane and circles the gray-white
body. "Looks like a dolphin. Dead." I strain to
see the animal over Tom's shoulders. Next, we see
three large pods of dolphins.
Tom tells us of flying with photographers John
Wathen and J Henry Fair filming the oil burning.
"It was apocalyptic," he says. "But the image
that continues to haunt me was the group of
dolphins facing the fires, perfectly lined up on
the edge of the flames, together, watching."
Silence envelops us again. Enormous mats of
oil-soaked sargassum hold our gaze in the midst
of the oil shoals and swirls.
Finally, The Source comes into view. The familiar
television images do not match the reality. The
remaining BP-Transocean rigs look like LEGO
constructions surrounded by a child's Matchbox
collection of orange-bottomed barges and ships.
After the shock and weight of seeing oil
stretching as far as one can see, as wide as one
can look, for as long as one dares, these
man-made platforms are anticlimactic. The irony
that something seemingly this small and tenuous
has created such lethal death blows, and not just
to those who died, but putting an entire
ecosystem at risk, is difficult to fathom. We
have entered a corporate play zone that kills.
As Tom circles the two remaining rigs, I have
this eerie sense that we are seeing something we
are not supposed to see, that somehow, by viewing
the blue steel structures that have wreaked such
havoc on the Gulf, I am being robbed of an
innocence I would have wished to preserve in
order to go about my life as usual, unaware of
the consequences of my privilege. This is the
place where eleven men loved by their families
were catapulted into a fiery hell witnessed by
their co-workers. Only some of their bodies were
found. Five thousand feet below is the site of
the violent blowout that created a geyser of oil
for more than one hundred days, fouling the seas,
floating onto shore, into the wetlands, into the
food chain, into our bodies. Here is the source
of our unconscious lives, where we remain blind
to the harm we are causing to all that is alive
and breathing and beautiful.
"All oil," Tom says as we circle the petroleum
complex for the sixth time. Our eyes are red and
burning. The stench of gasoline is strong. I have
a headache and hold some pressure points on my
right hand for relief.
Some scientists believe there is leaking beyond
the Macondo well. That there just couldn't be
this much oil coming from one opening. That
pressure from the rogue well could have caused a
fracturing of the seafloor, creating more
fissures exacting more oil.
"That would make sense," Tom says. "Nobody knows.
That's the bottom line. Nobody fucking knows
anything. We're in the middle of a goddamn
We circle The Source one last time. My eyes are
saturated in oil: horizons of oil. The brown-red
crude is a deadly seam along the tide lines,
where it congregates as poison. Smaller pools of
crude have attached themselves to the sargassum,
now dark as honeycomb. A film of oil floats along
the surface of the sea. We are seeing rivers of
oil, rivers of oil as wide as the Mississippi
braiding themselves into the currents creating
their own morbid shorelines. A striated sea
drenched in a psychedelic sheen reflects a
blinding light back to us.
As I look down, I keep hearing the captain's
declaration at Port Fourchon: "We sank it."
"There is still oil on the surface, Omaha 99,"
Tom reports over his radio to the air traffic
control aircraft circling overhead.
"I just want to make sure the government aircraft
working this event knows that someone else is
seeing what is actually going on," he says to me.
Tom picks up speed and gains elevation. "Let's go
see some beauty!" We leave The Source and fly off
toward the Mississippi Delta.
"Frigate birds," Tom says. "And two pelicans to
our right. We are entering the great marshes of
I watch the magnificent frigate birds soar below like black crossbows.
The scenery changes dramatically. Now we are
flying over vast wetlands, a tapestry of greens
and yellows woven into the sea. The Mississippi
Delta comes into full view like a great nurturing
hand smoothing the edge of the continent.
"The untold story," Tom says, "is that this
beauty is still here, in spite of hurricanes, oil
spills, and a sinking landscape. We're looking at
the most productive system of wetlands in North
White lilies are blooming in ponds. Miles and
miles of spartina, marsh grass, is shimmering in
shallow water, creating a different kind of
reflective mirror. Enormous flocks of gulls are
flying over the buoyant landscape. This is a
perspective of grace, and I feel my soul lighten.
"Verdant," Tom says. "I have probably used that
word once in my life, but since I've been flying
these past three months, I bet I've used it a
hundred times. The contrast is stunning."
We cross over the tip of Louisiana's boot. If Tom
is thinking about the word verdant, I am holding
the word resilient. The resiliency of these
wetlands is a testament to the enduring strength
But we can't continue to count on it.
"The vastness of this place . . . " Tom says.
Outside my window, there is a windswept island beaded with birds.
"That's Breton Island," Tom says.
"Can we circle it?" I ask.
Teddy Roosevelt visited Breton Island in June
1915. It was the only refuge he ever visited, and
the second one he committed to the National
Wildlife Refuge system. Piping plovers nest here,
as do least terns, both threatened species. This
critical nesting site is also home to thousands
of brown pelicans and royal terns. There is still
boom draped around one of the promontories for
Tom circumnavigates the island, giving us a
closer look at the pelican population. The
numbers are large, which is reassuring.
We fly toward the Chandeleur Islands, also part
of the Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge,
which stretch across the Gulf of Mexico for fifty
miles, forming the eastern point of the state of
Louisiana. This vast matrix of freshwater marshes
adjacent to the sea appears enduring and fragile
From above, we can see through the water.
Constellations of cownose rays speckle the sea
with brown-red diamonds. Pods of dolphins race
ahead of us. Tom sees a large shark that we miss.
And schools of shimmering fish congregate in the
shallow turquoise waters closer to shore.
"This is good," Tom says. "If the bait fish are
doing well, the whole system will do well." His
mood is shifting. "This is good, this is really,
really good. I've not seen this much wildlife in
the water since this whole mess started." Tom's
eyes flash a joy recovered from the past weeks of
gloom. "What a day."
Tom tips the wings of the plane abruptly and
makes a sharp turn. My stomach drops. "I think I
just saw a manta ray." He circles back around.
"Yes, right there." I lean over his shoulders.
Avery and Bill can see it through the opening.
Then I see it too. Even from the air, it is
enormous. A manta ray can be as large as
twenty-five feet across and weigh up to three
"That is grace," Tom says as we watch its black wings undulate in blue waters.
Tom circles one more time so we can all get a
good view. This time, I see its white horns. As
the plane moves ahead, leaving the ray behind, he
points. "There's two dolphins." He smiles.
He turns the plane around again and sure enough,
as he banks the wings, we see two dolphins as
one, a yin-yang of gray-white, an equipoise upon
BP DECONTAMINATION UNIT
GRAND ISLE, LOUISIANA
WELCOME TO GRAND OIL! announces a freshly painted
sign in the coastal community of Grand Isle,
Louisiana. The artist, Darleen Taylor, has a
Burma-Shave run of billboards written from the
sea creatures' points of view: SAVE OUR HOMES:
SAVE JELLYFISH FIELDS; SMALL PEOPLE MATTER
TOO-EVEN CHUBS; DON'T WISH YOU WERE HERE!
SERIOUSLY, WHEN CAN WE GET BACK IN THE WATER? ask
Grand Isle was among the first shorelines to take
the hit from the blowout. Brown pelicans were
drowning in oil, oysters were saturated.
Louisiana native James Carville and his wife,
Mary Matalin, filled their empty water bottles
with thick, brown crude from the oil-soaked
marshes and shamed the president of the United
States for doing nothing.
Real estate signs now read, OIL SPILL SPECIAL,
with $150,000 slashed to $115,000. Most of the
vacation homes on stilts are shuttered up.
We park our car on the edge of the public beach.
It too is empty, cordoned off by an orange
plastic fence: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Since Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer
of BP, had just gone on national television to
say he would feed Gulf shrimp to his children and
to declare all Louisiana beaches open, we ignore
the airy fence.
The beach feels desolate, tamped down by enormous
vehicle tracks. I bend down and fit my hand into
the individual tread marks. Gulls and terns are
standing on black sand, and it's hard to tell
whether the dark color has been caused by oil or
not. Avery goes in one direction and I go in the
other, each of us appreciating a rare moment of
solace. Bill is filming terns hovering above the
Along the edge of the sea, there is no wrack
line, no seaweed. Dead blue crabs are rolling in
the small waves as if communicating a secret. I
touch the water. It is oily. A silky sheen
emanates off the surface, made more extreme by
the severity of the heat. The stench of oil hangs
in the humid air. Even so, the lure of the long
empty expanse propels me forward.
I stop to pick up a few broken shells and
continue walking, still weak from having gotten
violently ill following our flight the day
before. I retched my guts out while Avery drove
us from Alabama to Mississippi to Louisiana. And
each time I was on my knees by the side of the
road, I thought, Is this dehydration, or a toxic
hell from too much intake of oil fumes during our
four-and-a-half-hour flight over the sea?
A vehicle with a red flashing light interrupts
the stillness and I hear someone yelling. A man
dressed in black, head to foot, gets out of the
truck and motions me toward him.
"Is there a problem?" I ask.
"Yes, ma'am. You are contaminated." I begin to
walk past the fence. "Step back, ma'am. You are
now contaminated, I cannot allow you to step out
from the fence."
"Who do you work for?" I ask, seeing the Talon
Private Security Guard insignia on his black
"Where are you from?"
"The United States of America, ma'am." He pauses
and looks past me. "Louisiana."
Avery starts to cross the imaginary line as well.
"Step back. Stay on the beach. You're
contaminated and we are going to have to take you
to the BP Decon Unit."
"The Decon Unit?" I ask.
"To be decontaminated, ma'am."
"And what are we contaminated with?"
"I am not at liberty to say, ma'am."
"No comment, ma'am."
"Why isn't there a warning posted?"
By now, another man has joined the Talon guard. "Didn't you see the sign?"
"I didn't see any sign," Avery says.
"I did see the sign," I say. "But since Doug
Suttles announced this morning that all Louisiana
beaches were open, we took him at his word."
We are marched in military fashion half a mile
down the "contaminated beach," the Talon guard
and the BP worker leading us onward from the
other side of the fence as a stifling afternoon
breeze blows hot sand across their footprints,
Up ahead, we see two men dressed in full-body,
white Tyvek coveralls with gloves and boots
secured with duct tape. They are stoically
standing near two kiddie pools filled with a
clear, bubbling liquid. I want to say the pools
had multicolored balloons on them, but I can't be
"Welcome to the BP Decontamination Unit," one of
the hazwhoppers says as the other unwinds a roll
of white paper towels. He tears off six sheets
and places them carefully on the blue tarp,
evidently one for each of our feet. He puts the
towels down and grabs a metal brush, asking for
our flip-flops, which we dutifully take off.
Seemingly, our hands ought to be contaminated as
well now, but that does not seem to disturb them.
He dips our sandals in the fluid and scrubs them
"Please step in the pool," the other hazwhopper instructs.
"What's in the water?" Avery asks politely.
"Don't worry, it's all natural," he says.
"Looks like it, especially the bubbles," Avery says laughing.
I am next, and as I step into the water, my feet
begin to burn, especially the cut on my ankle
from Comfort Island.
"Is this about dispersants?"
Bill is standing on the edge of the tarp, quietly
filming the whole thing. When it's his turn, they
ask him to also put the legs of his tripod in the
liquid. He remains quiet and continues the
washing and rinsing with his camera running.
As we wipe our feet on the paper towels and step
off the tarp, a BP worker asks for our names and
I write down my name and number, figuring they
have both, since I had already received two
unsolicited phone calls from BP representatives
on my cell phone while traveling in the Gulf.
Each left a message and a name, requesting I get
in touch with their public relations department.
When I returned their calls, one of the men said
curtly, "I'm busy right now. I don't have time to
talk to you." It was clear their calls were for
intimidation, not information, my number most
likely acquired from tapped phone lines of Jerry
Cole and Robin Young.
Bill gives his name and a bogus number.
Avery surprises both of us with her acerbic
rebuttal, delivered in utter cheerfulness. "I'll
give you my name and number, but I'm not giving
either to BP."
The worker, charmed, whispers, "Just give me
another name and some numbers for me to write
down." And so she does.
Across from the Decon Unit is a white tent where
a dozen or more cleanup workers are taking a
break from the heat. Amused by what we were just
put through, they ask if we want some water or
Gatorade. We take them up on their offer, sit
down and join them, at the extreme displeasure of
the Talon security guard. He disappears.
What we hear for the next fifteen minutes are
tales of oil on the beach and of more oil to
come. Dispersants dominate the discussion, how
they were used repeatedly. Again, the phrase
carpet-bombed is used. Fear for their own safety
emerges. They share BP's instructions, given to
them a few weeks earlier, that should tropical
storm Bonnie materialize, the whole island would
be evacuated because it would turn into "a hot
zone." The workers were told there was a high
probability of huge amounts of oil being dredged
up from the deep and deposited on shore.
"We were on high alert," one worker says.
The Talon guard returns with his radio in hand
and says sternly, "You need to go. Now."
I want to ask, "By whose authority?" But I don't.
We are returned to our car in an official dune
buggy driven by a former soldier who had served
two tours in Iraq, a half-tour in Afghanistan,
and one in Somalia. When we ask him his opinion
about President Obama's speech, delivered that
morning, announcing the withdrawal of all troops
from Iraq by August 31, 2011, he says, "It's a
mistake to take the troops out."
"What do you think we should do?" Bill asks.
"We should have done what George Bush wanted us
to do, but couldn't. Bomb the hell out of both
Iraq and Afghanistan."
THE CONFLICT IN THE PERSIAN GULF and the conflict
in the Gulf of Mexico are the same story,
predicated on our collective thirst for oil. Our
inability to connect the dots, the same oily dots
that cover Comfort Island and the bodies of the
dead in Iraq, is our unwillingness to see the
world we are both creating and destroying
In 2010 alone, there have been major oil
disasters off the coasts of China, Australia, and
India. The people of the Niger Delta are drenched
in oil, at risk physically and politically, every
day. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for his protesting
voice. And in 2009, forty-seven indigenous
communities were decimated by an oil spill on the
Santa Rosa River in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest.
Our consumption of oil is murdering life.
We know what is required. Change. Change that is
both personal and political, creating an uprising
among us that will hold our government and
corporations accountable for the warming of the
seas and the disordering of Earth's natural
processes. We must also hold ourselves
accountable for the choices we continue to make.
What are the 5 million barrels of oil that have
spilled into the Gulf of Mexico worth to America?
The oil now sullying shorelines and sea would
have powered the U.S. economy for a total of four
I am sick. I am tired. And I am shattered by what
I saw: an ocean of oil that we had been told was
nearly gone. But the people who live and work in
the Gulf of Mexico give me great heart because
they are speaking forcefully and
truthfully-asking us to listen.
While preparing this article for publication, I
received a letter from Becky Duet, who is now a
friend. She writes:
I have a deeper and different feeling now. It's
hard to explain-the bayous, the boats, the
people, and all our lives. I always said if you
starved down here it was because you were lazy.
Well, since April 20, 2010, we have been
starving!!!! An act caused by humans changed our
lives. We can't fish, ride our boats, entertain
our friends with Cajun foods. Someone else is in
charge of us.
She goes on to say: "I have not felt like a Cajun
lately. When you see boats with oil booms instead
of shrimp nets, crab cages on the banks, oyster
boats with port-a-lets on them, and bait shops
empty, we have lost our freedom."
This is not just Becky's story. It is our story.
The redfish on my plate is the redfish in the bayou is the redfish in the sea.
We are losing our minds if we believe that the
source of our power lies in a circle of rigs
named Deepwater Horizon. The source of authentic
power is housed in the sacred nature of life,
interdependent and whole, where a reverence for
what is both human and wild is not only
cultivated but honored. We must see our denial of
this truth for what it is: madness.
On our way back to New Orleans, Avery, Bill, and
I stop at the edge of the marsh to get our
bearings before returning to the city. Tree
swallows are in a feeding frenzy, and white
egrets are returning to their nightly roosts
along the bayou. It is twilight. The sky is
crimson. My eyes focus on a large oyster bed,
where each shell is poised upright in the
black-tainted mud. I see them as hands, our own
splayed hands, reaching beyond the oil.
Interview with terry Tempest Democracynow Amy Goodman Oct 21/10
6 Months Since BP Oil Spill, Writer and
Environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams Asks
"Where Is Our Outrage?"
Six months ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig
blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven
workers and triggering the worst oil spill
disaster in US history. More than 200 million
gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf, polluting
coastlines in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and
Florida. To mark the six-month anniversary, we
speak to acclaimed writer and environmentalist
Terry Tempest Williams, who spent two weeks
traveling the Gulf Coast this summer. [includes
Filed under BP Oil Spill
UAN GONZALEZ: Six months ago, BP's Deepwater
Horizon oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico,
killing eleven workers and triggering the worst
oil spill disaster in US history. The explosion
leaked over 200 million gallons of oil, which is
nearly five million barrels of oil, into the Gulf
of Mexico and fouled coastlines in Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
With the Macondo oil well now sealed, the spill
is no longer in the headlines, and last week
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the
Gulf was once again, quote, "open for business."
But much of the oil that gushed out of the
blown-out well remains dispersed deep under the
sea, and scientists are still unclear about the
long-term effects of both the oil and the
chemical dispersant on marine ecosystems.
AMY GOODMAN: Six months since the spill,
lawmakers have been slow to take action and the
House's spill response bill remains stalled in
the Senate. On Wednesday, three environmental
groups sued BP, accusing the British oil giant of
violating the Endangered Species Act. The suit,
brought by Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf
Restoration Network and the Save the Manatee
Club, notes that at least twenty-seven endangered
or threatened animal species live in the Gulf
region, including five species of endangered sea
turtles and four species of endangered whales.
In a moment, we'll be speaking with the acclaimed
writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest
Wiliams, who spent two weeks traveling the Gulf
Coast this summer. She has written an extended
piece about the stories she heard on her visit to
what she calls the world's largest offshore oil
disaster. Her piece is called "The Gulf Between
Us," and it was published in the
November/December issue of Orion magazine. She is
the author of several books, including most
recently Finding Beauty in a Broken World and The
Open Space of Democracy. She'll be joining us
from Salt Lake City, Utah, after this break.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Terry Tempest
Williams, writer, environmentalist. Her books
include Finding Beauty in a Broken World and The
Open Space of Democracy. Her latest piece in
Orion magazine, an extended reflection on the BP
oil spill, called "The Gulf Between Us."
Terry Tempest Williams, welcome to Democracy Now!
from Salt Lake City. You went to the Gulf on this
six-month anniversary. What are your reflections
about what happened April 20th? I'll never forget
it because it was Earth Day.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That's right. I think it
changed all of us, who were paying attention.
And, Amy, I just want to thank you for your
program, first of all, that we can even have this
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Reflections. It's-yeah,
you know, we hear that five million barrels of
oil were released from the Macondo well. We know
that [ 362] miles were oiled in four states, 400
species of animals threatened from this, 400
controlled burns that killed hundreds of sea
turtles and untold numbers of dolphins and sea
mammals. We're told that it's over, that the
story is gone, as is the oil. And what I can tell
you in reflecting over six months is that the oil
is not gone. The people are still there, and
they're getting sicker and sicker.
And I just think it's really important that, at
this anniversary of six months, that we begin to
really hear from the people on the ground. And
that's what my purpose was. You know, I have a
pen. I'm a writer. I was home in Utah thinking,
you know, what can I do? And I had to go. I had
to see it for myself. So it was about ground
truthing. It was about bearing witness. And I
don't think bearing witness is a passive act.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Terry Tempest Williams, this
is an extraordinary piece, as you talk about and
you relate basically the words of a variety of
people on the ground. And I was struck by one
particular passage, when you were interviewing a
Margaret Curole, and she says to you, "Here's the
truth. Where are the animals? There's no
too-da-loos, the little one-armed fiddler crabs.
Ya don't hear birds. From Amelia to Alabama,
Kevin never saw a fish jump, never heard a bird
sing. This is their nestin' season. Those babies,
they're not goin' nowhere. We had a very small
pod of sperm whales in the Gulf, nobody's seen
'em. Guys on the water say they died in the spill
and their bodies were hacked up and taken away."
And she goes on to say, "Fish are swimming in
circles. Dolphins are choking on the surface.
It's ugly, I'm tellin' you. And nobody's talkin'
about it. You're not hearing nothin' about it. As
far as the media is reportin', everythin's being
cleaned up and it's not a problem." Tell us about
some of these-
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That's the power of Margaret Curole.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. What about some of the other stories?
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: You know, what I love
about the voices in this piece, the voices in the
Gulf that I heard, the people in place, standing
up, standing for their home ground, was exactly
that kind of passion, that kind of truth telling.
Margaret Curole and her husband Kevin are Cajun.
They're shrimpers. And they talked about how
there's two alternatives in the Gulf: you either
shrimp or you work in the oil fields. And, you
know, I learned something from them. I have been
against, you know, deepwater drilling, and they
were talking about the moratorium, how it needs
to be lifted so that people can eat. So, it was
through Margaret that I really began to see the
complexity of this situation.
I love her feistiness. She, with an artist
friend, created on the beach at Grand Isle human
bodies that spelled out messages, which they took
pictures of and texted to Congress, to the
governor, to BP executives, to everyone in power
they could think of. The three messages laid out
in bodies were "Never again," "Paradise lost" and
"WTF." What I can tell you about Margaret is that
she received calls from the BP claims department
saying to back off. She was taken to lunch by two
agents from Homeland Security. And this is
serious. And she said, "They want me to shut up,
and I will not."
Another story, she told us if we wanted great
Cajun food-and that we couldn't understand this
story unless we ate-to go to Becky Duet's deli in
Galliano, which is where they're from in southern
Louisiana. We went to Becky Duet's deli, called
Jordan's, named after her son. It was 10:00 at
night. The lights were still on. We walked in.
She said, "The grill is closed." And then she
proceeded to tell stories, that in Cajun country
they've always viewed themselves as rich, that
the bounty is from the waters, that as long as
you had rice, beans and bread and had a chicken
neck that you could throw into the bayou, you
were wealthy. Just a few weeks ago, I received a
note from Becky, who's become a good friend. She
said, "We're starving, Terry. There are no fish
in the waters. And any fish we would see, we
would not eat."
These are the stories that are coming out of the
Gulf. These are the stories that we're not
hearing from the media. I think about a group of
women in gated communities in Alabama, just off
of Mobile Bay, Orange Beach. These women took the
situation into their own hands, because no one
was responding. They had water samples taken,
four, from very wealthy areas. The fourth one on
Dauphin Island blew up and was deemed
inconclusive. These women-Robin Young, a captain,
Lori DeAngelis and her husband Mike-their blood
tests came back high in cadmium and benzene.
They've had chemically induced pneumonia. These
are the stories, again, that we're not hearing.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Terry Tempest
Williams, writer and environmentalist. Her latest
piece is in Orion magazine, called "The Gulf
Between Us: Stories of Terror and Beauty from the
World's Largest Accidental Offshore Oil
Disaster." Terry, tell us about Jerry Cope and
Fish Camp Landing, the gated community in Orange
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Yeah, those were the
women I was referring to. I met Jerry in March of
2009 at the climate action in Washington, DC. I
call him a guerrilla journalist. While I was down
there, he was there also with Charles Hambleton,
one of the producers and members of the crew that
you see in the film The Cove. They had heard
about the bodies of dolphins being taken to
dumps, refrigerated to Mexico. They wanted to do
an investigative witnessing, if these stories
were true. Jerry, in the three weeks that he was
out on the Gulf, he also came down with
chemical-induced pneumonia, ended up meeting
these activists, these women in the gated
community, and Robin Young among them, who
started this organization called Guardians of the
Gulf. It was there that he really saw on the
ground, as did I, you know, what the situation
is. These women were calling, as I said, for
water samples, air samples, blood tests, to
really show the seriousness of the public health
issues. And again, these are the stories that
we're not hearing-upper respiratory disease, lots
of skin infection, rashes.
When I was there, they were having to drain the
swimming pools, because children were being sick.
And, Amy, it just-it made you sick. You'd go down
to Gulf Shores, and here were these seemingly
pristine beaches, this Corexit green, this
ungodly color, women, mothers, you know,
overburdened, 110-degree heat. Their children
were playing in the waves. It was like there was
no connection between what was in the water and
what was seeping into their children's skin. I
mean, the stories are heartbreaking.
We walked down the beach several miles to the
Gulf Island National Seashore, again what seemed
to be white pristine beaches. There had just been
a thunderstorm. It was this eerie color of the
water again. You half-expected the water to burst
into flames with lightning strikes. Just then, a
BP bus pulled up. Thirty workers, some of them in
hazmat suits. We started talking to them, saying,
"Well, it doesn't look like there's oil here."
Two of the workers, African American men in their
twenties, smiled and said, "Can we tell you that
we just took out 2,000 pounds last night? We work
from dusk to dawn under the cover of darkness."
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about what's-
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That's a ton of oil-I was
just going to say that was a ton of oil taken out
in a 100-yard swatch. Again, these are the
stories we're not hearing. I just talked to Robin
yesterday, and she was saying that five minutes
she had tar balls the size of baseballs. And, you
know, you go down a foot, and that's where the
oil still remains.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about those workers
and the boat captains that are still working for
BP and some of the illnesses that they're being
exposed to, and also that their clothes are being
confiscated while at same time BP is telling them
that they probably just have dermatitis?
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That's right. The doctors
don't even know how to treat these diseases that
are coming forward. Mike DeAngelis, married to
Lori, both of them are captains. Lori runs a
dolphin education cruise. She hasn't been able to
go out, because their boats have been registered
for Vessels of Opportunity, because they needed
the money, quite frankly. You know, these are
people that are working-class people. Mike, as a
captain, when they registered their boat, was
getting paid $1,200 a day, $200 for extra crew
members. And what were they doing? Nothing. There
was a joke around the Gulf that you're on BP
time: being paid for doing nothing.
One of the most moving stories was really flying
with a barefoot pilot named Tom Hutchings. In the
American Southwest, we would call him a coyote.
Again, an activist, he was taking people, as a
volunteer for SouthWings, anyone who would go
with him, to fly over the Macondo well site. We
went with him on Day 100. Upper right-hand corner
of the New York Times, you know, remember the
article that said most of the oil is gone, 80
percent. You remember a week later, Carole
Browner of the Obama administration said 75
percent gone, poof, Mother Nature is doing her
job. What I can tell you is that as we flew out
to the Gulf to what they call "the source" to see
the Deepwater Horizon rigs, for as far as we
could see, for as wide as we could see, for as
long as we could bear it, oil. All we could see
was oil. I mean, it's just-I wonder, where is our
outrage? And I was saying to Tom, this brilliant
pilot, you know, that must have made twenty,
thirty, forty flights at his own expense, "Why
isn't this story being told?" And he was saying
that most of what we've heard has been
shore-based knowledge. I mean, there were rivers
of oil as wide as the Mississippi itself.
Stunning. When I asked him what has stayed in his
mind most in terms of his witnessing, he said
that when they were burning the oil off the
surface of the sea, he remembers on the edge of
the flames seeing a pod of dolphins, side by side
by side by side, watching, simply watching the
I think the other untold story are the
dispersants. We know, thanks to Congressman
Markey from Massachusetts, that after the EPA
said, "Please, please," to BP, "find another
dispersant that is less toxic," what we know now
is that our Coast Guard, the United States Coast
Guard, gave BP seventy-four exceptions in
forty-eight days. And that's the untold story.
And I think that's where so much of this illness
is rising from. And we hear from the scientists,
two inches of oil on the bottom of the sea. The
scientist Samantha Joye said it's a "graveyard
for the macrofauna" and that the Gulf is dying
from the bottom up. And again, that's what I
wanted to see, is what are the stories from the
ground up, from the people who live there? Again,
witness is not a passive act.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And as you mention, this is not
just a regional catastrophe, but this fall a
billion birds will migrate from, of course, North
America through the Gulf of Mexico and the area,
and the impact could then obviously spread for
the bird population throughout the hemisphere.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That's correct. And as we
speak, as you say, a billion birds migrating
through the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Delta
sees 70 percent of our waterfowl. You know, I
think that's the other untold story that touched
me so deeply, was the beauty. It's still there,
against all odds. The Gulf is still there. And
you fly over and see these beautiful islands,
these islands beaded with birds, pelicans,
skimmers-the feathered skimmers, not the
boats-piping plovers, who are endangered. You
know, we'd fly over and see, you know, these
extraordinary manta rays, twenty-five-foot wing
span, 3,000 pounds, looking like black angels on
the turquoise water. It's such an extraordinary
landscape. I had no idea. And I think what's
interesting-and I do have faith in Obama's
commission, that's saying, let's look not at the
protection of putting more levees, more canals,
that cut up the system, the ecosystem, but let's
think about, really, restoration, even a full
restoration project of the Mississippi Delta, the
Mississippi River itself. And that's where I see
AMY GOODMAN: Terry Tempest Williams, we want to
thank you very much for being with us, writer,
environmentalist. Her books include Finding
Beauty in a Broken World and The Open Space of
Democracy. Her latest piece was just published in
Orion magazine on the six-month anniversary of
the Gulf oil spill. It's called "The Gulf Between
Us." She was speaking to us from Salt Lake City,
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