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Will black contractors be sidelined in BP spill clean up?

June 3, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( In Washington, commentators ironically label the Obama administration’s oil spill strategy as “too much, too late.” Lt. Gen. Russell Honore (ret.), himself a black Creole from the very communities facing this catastrophe, lamented that it’s not merely a way of life being destroyed on the Gulf. It’s lives, measured in lost jobs, mortgages, healthcare, schools–with a ripple effect still immeasurable on the U.S. economy. With 13,000 or more barrels of crude oil a day bellowing into the Gulf, economic impact costs alone could be $4.5 billon before midsummer.

This is a leveling blow. First comes the effects of the spill directly on African-Americans, from fisherman and shrimpers, to casino and hotel workers and everyone who depends on those paychecks.

The coup de grace is an utter lack of meaningful clean-up job and contracting opportunities from BP directly, or the federal and state governments. Opportunity is a barrier to despair, and now despair rises as the incoming tide swallows bayou reeds. President Obama might well find a way to channel the anger at BP. But despair sticks just like oil.

At Grand Isle, Jefferson Parish, La. BP had recruited local people, mostly African-Americans who’d been laid off from fishing-related or seasonal work like cutting the lawns of the now empty vacation homes, for clean-up. For ten dollars an hour, twelve hours a day in hot sun and muggy air, they raked globules oil from beach sand, wearing minimal HAZMAT gear. They collect the filth and yet have no idea where to dump the mess, or the dead birds and fish they find in it. But at least they can feed their families.

In Phoenix, Placquemines Parish, La., there aren’t even odd job BP checks to be cashed. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s 20-foot storm surge wiped out whole flotillas of African-American skiffs and trawlers, and poisoned oysterbeds not already depleted from decades of run-off from chemical plants far up the Mississippi River.

Before the oil spill, activist Rev. Tyrone Edwards, who’d been organizing local shrimpers and fishermen against state and federal discrimination, could commiserate with John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association, still awaiting their $1.5 billion settlement with the federal government over decades of racist handling from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now, Edwards is counseling residents in the face of a total economic and social collapse.

Indeed, few black fisherman have been recruited by BP into the stopgap “Vessels of Opportunity Program,” where ships could operate booms and skimmers as a buffer between the surface oil and landfall for around $3,000–and that’s after a few hours of hazardous waste training not by the U.S. Coast Guard, but by BP clean-up/environmental contractors. In the words of a local official, “BP was bullsh*tting them.”

Perhaps Rev. Edwards could count the lack of participation by local people as a blessing. Last week, Louisiana and Alabama vessel fisherman began voiding their contracts with BP over what BP calls “boilerplate” release clauses. Often uneducated fishermen were covenanting to “hold harmless and indemnify…release, waive and forever discharge the BP Exploration and Production, Inc., its subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, regular employees, and independent contractors…from all claims and damages” relating to the spill. This has scared off many black people from signing anything BP offers. It should also enrage we who aren’t living off the Gulf. Yet I’m sure Rev. Edwards is dealing with despair first. .

Farther east near Biloxi. Mississippi coast is thick with gambling barges and beach resorts, yet full time and seasonal custodial, housekeeping, kitchen and grounds staff are now facing layoffs or cuts. Layla Barnes, who’s been let go from Harrah’s after Memorial Day, says jeopardized workers are low-skilled African American employees like herself.

People gonna cancel trips, so they [hotels] lose money so that means we don’t get paid. I gotta do for my children. I can work hard, even for BP, or if Obama gonna give me job to clean up, I do it,” said Barnes. She has cousins in Alabama’s Bayou LeBatre, home of the fictional Forrest Gump. Her family’s hardships there are going to be anything but make-believe whether the oil’s abated or not. At the very least they, too, want to help clean up, and be paid for their efforts.

According the Federal Register, the Coast Guard, in conjunction with BP, is ready to award a contract to actor Kevin Costner’s Ocean Therapy Solutions for its giant seagoing vacuum cleaner. Such stories constitute the extent of the media coverage of major contracting efforts by the federal government until now. Yet the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NOAA and even the Minerals Management Service–disgraced by Bush era regulatory lapses–are putting out close to $40 million in contracts over the next three months to aid the clean-up and abatement effort on the Gulf and along the coast. There is grant money for localities for direct employment, and aid to small businesses through SBA. But into how much of this can minority businesses and locally-affected people tap?

Only the EPA, headed by Lisa Jackson, an African-American, seems to have considerable small/minority/SBA Section 8(a) participation on services ranging from water and soil chemistry to waste disposal. But other services include everything from skimming to cleaning wildlife refuges to dredging to create huge artificial islands (favored by the Army Corps of Engineers and thus a bane to fisherman) food and transportation services. Black-owned public relations and marketing firms like Bright Moments in New Orleans are awaiting proposal requests to do community outreach and messaging.

Nevertheless, the only advocacy coming out of D.C. for such contracting efforts appears to be through fact-finding promised by Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Ca.) , who has pressed BP officials during last week’s contentious House Judiciary Committee hearings, and statements from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D. Miss), who chairs the Homeland Security Committee. I spoke to a friend who lobbies for minority firms on the Hill, and has contacts in the oil, gas and environmental engineering industries. She wasn’t impressed with the contracting outreach thus far, despite a black president, or advocacy by African-Americans in Congress. “One thing that compounds a tragedy,” she told me, “is when the victims aren’t even allowed to fight for the dignity to help themselves.”

Written By Christopher Chambers

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