Coastal Communities Still Feeling Effects Of Spill

Apr 20, 2012

A view of the oil source as seen during an overflight on May 20, 2010. (Photo:NOAA)

Two years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers, and causing the largest marine spill in American history.

Beyond the effects on wildlife, tourism and fishing along the Gulf Coast, the spill has had a lasting impact on the lives and relationships in communities there.

Diane Austin, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, was part of a research team that published a report last year on those social effects. She talked with WRKF's Ashley Westerman by phone about the pervasiveness of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

AUSTIN: I think an example of how deep and where those relationship are is: I was interviewing a motel clerk who - when the workers, before they go offshore to work on the rig, they stay usually and often have a motel their rig will contract with for the period of time that they're in a location. All those workers had stayed for months in this same motel and as the clerk, when I was in there to talk to her about the effects on her motel, she tears up and says, "You know, those were like family, those were my guys, they stayed here." So when we start there, you say that was the first level of effect.

Then you move to the spill. Everybody's interested in making sure this oil doesn't spread, protect the wetlands. As it gets larger, you get more and more people involved. You have people coming in, you know, having seen oiled animals, that effect of, you know. I remember a young man talking about they saw a pelican and they tried to chase it down so they could get it to one of the rehabilitation services but they couldn't get it and so they knew it wasn't going to survive. Then you have the investigation starts, the hearings, the moratorium, suspension of drilling. Then you start having policy and regulatory changes, fisheries closures, increased regulations, the fresh water diversions, new permitting processes. All of those. And so these effects are on-going and will continue to go on for some time.

WESTERMAN: Your study also talks about something I thought was really interesting but you spoke about the erosion of family and business ties within the coast communities. What exactly do you mean by that type of deep, personal erosion?

AUSTIN: Probably the biggest impact on everybody was the uncertainty. The effects are very uneven so you start having conflicts at the household level, at the community level, people talking about their own neighbors. Some people start filing claims and getting, some people go for the very quick settlements and so they suddenly have money and other people haven't. There's just this massive amount of uncertainty, misinformation, lack of information. People are trying to find out what's happening. And then at the level of the businesses: if you think about the loss of a small to medium sized company that builds or repairs vessels, going to work for that company is an important way for young people not only to learn skills but to learn the values of their community and the value of work and make those social connections in their community. When those businesses shut down, those opportunities are lost. So some of those effects, as I said, we're going to continue to see. We'll be tracking this over a number of years because as this happens, and not all of that is happening because of this disaster. You're coming again in the context of hurricanes, the context of a recession, context of a shift in the oil and gas industry, context of the struggling fishing industry but it's certainly a trigger that causes other effects.

WESTERMAN: Do you think the coast's communities are ever going to be able to fully recover from this?

AUSTIN: It's a tough question to think about what recovery means. As we sit here now almost two years after the explosion occurred and we look across the communities, and as I had said, the real issues of the ongoing uncertainty, the fact that many of these impacts are going to be long-term and that they're all interwoven with other events that are taking place means that it's going to increasing difficult to pick out what are the effects of this disaster from all of the other events that have taken place in this region.

WESTERMAN: Alright. Dr. Austin, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

AUSTIN: You're welcome.