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Environmentalists still face uphill battle on Gulf Coast

In the conservative region, heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry, activists have had difficulty gaining momentum.

April 20, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • A year after the BP oil spill, Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., remains closed despite the clean appearance of the sand.
A year after the BP oil spill, Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., remains… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New Orleans — Across the gulf states Wednesday, a number of public events will mark the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill, many of them organized by publicity-seeking environmental groups.

Environmentalists plan to call attention to wetlands loss accelerated by oil in the marshes; concerns about the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant sprayed on the oil; and the spill-related health problems of some residents.

Some big names are attached: Kevin Costner and his band are playing a New Orleans benefit concert sponsored by the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council. Dr. John is headlining a "Solution to Pollution" show not far away.

But if anything, the last year has underscored the difficulties of building a more vigorous environmental movement in a conservative region heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry. On Tuesday in New Orleans, for instance, a rally to draw attention to BP's use of the dispersant Corexit drew fewer than a dozen people. A woman addressed them with a megaphone that hardly seemed necessary.

In the crowd, French professor Robert Desmarais Sullivan, 68, said that the perceived threat to oil and gas jobs was one reason for the lack of support. Nor did it help that the effects of the spill are spread out and difficult to see.

In Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the spill, the most polarizing environmental issue was the deep-water drilling moratorium issued by the Obama administration to assess industry safety and draw up new rules. The moratorium was supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other leading environmental groups but opposed by many Louisiana residents and state leaders.

Portraits From the Gulf

One year later, five people whose lives were changed by the oil spill share their stories.

"In a New Orleans Times-Picayune article Tuesday, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) criticized President Obama and "his environmental extremist allies" for trying to "advance their anti-drilling agenda."

At an event called the Gulf Coast Leadership Forum, shrimper and oysterman George Barisich sat at a booth for the United Commercial Fisherman's Assn. A T-shirt on display showed drawings of dead gulf wildlife and declared that BP was "bringing oil to American shores like never before."

Next to Barisich was a booth for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group, which prominently displayed a brochure titled "United for a Healthy Gulf." But Barisich said he wasn't too keen about uniting with environmental outfits that had hurt his business by forcing him to use devices on his nets that help sea turtles escape — along with some of his cash crop.

"We haven't joined ranks with them," Barisich said of the major environmental groups. "It was so funny. They reached out to me, and I said, 'Do you know who I am? Do you know what you've done to me for the last 20 years?' "

Environmentalists have been able to garner support for coastal restoration. On Wednesday, environmentalists plan to join Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) to urge Congress to pass his bill to dedicate at least 80% of BP's fines under the Clean Water Act to restoration of wetlands that have been damaged by the oil spill — but also by decades of canal building and dredging, some of it for oil pipelines.

A June 2010 poll of coastal residents in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and western Florida by Louisiana State University researchers found that when given a choice, two-thirds of the people would choose protection of wetlands and wildlife over oil drilling.

Another LSU survey released last month found that among Louisiana voters, the environment ranked sixth among the most important issues, behind the economy, education, budget, healthcare and crime.

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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