Fishermens concerns remain after open housesJul 30th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: top story
Last week, Plaquemines Parish officials hosted two open houses – one at the Buras Auditorium and the other at Phoenix High School – aimed at arming residents with vital oil spill related information and connecting them to representatives from both BP and various government agencies.
In all, the open houses included representatives from BP, the Vessel of Opportunity program, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, Wildlife and Fisheries, the Small Business Association, the Louisiana Departments of Environment Quality and Health and Hospitals, the Plaquemines CARE Center, the local health department and the Plaquemines Parish Government.
The Buras meeting, held July 20, opened with a message from U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, a Mobile, Ala., native who traveled to Southeast Louisiana last week to assess local access to both physical and mental health services.
“We’re seeing people who are anxious and with high tension who are turning to alcohol and substance abuse,” Benjamin said. “We want people to know there’s a place they can turn to.”
Benjamin first encouraged residents to keep a careful watch on their own family members during the oil spill crisis and cleanup.
“You know your family members better than other people do,” she said.
And because of that intimate knowledge, family members are often able to see warning signs long before they become evident to others.
Benjamin also emphasized the state and local services available to people in times of high stress, illness and depression. On the state level, she pointed to state designated mental health officers in the area and to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals as two good resources.
She said she’s also working with the five impacted Gulf Coast states to seek funding from BP to provide additional mental health services on a local level.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who followed Benjamin in greeting the crowd that packed the Buras Auditorium, then touched on some of the latest developments in BP’s Vessel of Opportunity program.
Nungesser focused on both the rotation schedule recently put in place by BP and details on how payment received from BP will count against future claim settlements.
Neither subject eased tension amongst the dozens of commercial fishermen who attended the Buras meeting, many of whom said they have either not been called to work or have had difficulty getting on the work list. During his opening remarks, Nungesser was interrupted on a number of occasions by fiery fishermen who called for more action from both BP and the parish government. After the crowd dispersed to speak one-on-one with representatives from the various agencies, Nungesser spent the rest of the open house responding to specific concerns from residents.
By far the most popular booth at the open house was the one manned by the Vessel of Opportunity program. Judi Paul, Vessel of Opportunity program liaison and coordinator for BP, said most fishermen she talked to in Buras mainly wanted to confirm they were in the system already.
“They’re just trying to make sure they’re on the list,” she said.
Paul also confirmed, not only will income from BP count against an individual’s or business’s future claim settlements, but any money earned – regardless the source – will be factored into the equation for determining actual loss.
But despite the information offered at the meetings, some questions remained.
Kim Nguyen-Ehrenreich, daughter of Plaquemines Parish oysterman Ve Van Nguyen, said she had traveled to the area from her home in San Francisco to help her father and the Vietnamese community as a whole gain better access to information and work opportunities.
“The Vietnamese people here don’t have a voice,” she said.
Nguyen-Ehrenreich said she has heard reports from the Vietnamese community regarding both inadequate access to translators and other challenges the Vietnamese community faces with regard to both the BP and parish-directed Vessel of Opportunity programs. Plans were in the works for Nguyen-Ehrenreich to meet with a BP representative last week to remedy the problems. Both BP and the parish have employed translators since the oil spill began.
Bjorn Ragas, who said he works as a deckhand, said that, as BP sets up oil spill cleanup infrastructure in the parish, he would like to see more permanent structures built that could later be used to boost the local economy.
“Give us store fronts. Don’t keep putting up tents,” Ragas said. “We need a new industry down here.”
BP officials have said that, if the Venice Responders Village becomes a long term facility, the company will consider constructing permanent facilities in place of the current trailers and tents.
Wayne Squarsich, one of the more vocal commercial fishermen at the Buras meeting, said his main frustration is with what he considers a lack of control over boaters working with the Vessel of Opportunity program. Squarsich claimed that non-commercial fishermen continue to work for the oil cleanup program.
“They should have gone to the harbor masters and gotten the harbor masters’ records,” Squarsich said. “Then they would’ve known who was a commercial fishermen.”
Paul has said BP is in the process of weeding out anyone who is not a commercial or charter fisherman. Squarsich, though, still lamented the lost time on the water.
“These months are our months. These months we got are very, very valuable to us,” he said. “When winter comes, people are going to be starving.”