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Louisiana Oystermen Still Struggling Two Years After Oil Spill

Tala Hadavi

Almost two years ago an explosion on an offshore drilling rig killed 11 men and sent 4.9 million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The result was the worst environmental disaster in United States history.  Of all the local businesses affected by the spill, Louisiana's once-flourishing oyster industry is probably in the worst condition.  Oysters are still scarce and consumers are still afraid to eat them.

Nearly two years have passed since the accident that changed the Collins brothers' lives.

"We weren't rich like we can travel the world.  But we weren't worried about [paying] our mortgage, putting gas in our truck, putting food on the table. And now those things [have] become worryfull," recalled Nick Collins, a fourth generation oystermen.  "[But now after the spill,] in 90 percent of the area that was affected, all we have are dead shells."

Just like his own 12-year-old son, Nick has been in the family business since he was just a boy. Now…he is not sure he can provide his son the same kind of job security as his father did for him.

"My dad wanted me to go to college. And I didn't. I was like: 'go where? I'm going oystering.' You know this is our legacy," Collins added.

Shortly after the disaster, a $20 billion fund was set up to pay those affected by the spill. The Collins Oyster Company received $44,000. Nick got $14,000, but he says it's not enough.

"BP needs to man up and say 'we killed Louisiana's oyster industry.' Because they did. [At one time,] Louisiana produced 80 percent of the United States' oysters. Now we don't," Collins noted.

Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg was appointed by BP and the Obama administration to implement and administer the fund. Collins and many others in the area have criticized the ad-hoc distribution of the money.  But Feinberg says the criticism goes with the territory.

"You've got to understand that people have suffered terribly.  Death, physical injury, economic loss, [it's all] very emotional.  And you carefully empathize, try and understand where they are coming from, these claimants, but at the end of the day you do a professional job.  And that's what you've been asked to do, so you do it," Feinberg said.

Before the oil spill, Collins Oyster Company used to average 60 to 80 sacks of oysters a day - about 2,700 to 3,600 kilograms.  Last year, things got so bad the company had to shut down for a period.  

And the company where the Collins Brothers sold their oysters for decades is no longer buying them.  

Al Surseri, who runs P&J Oyster Processors and Distributors with his brother, says he now only has two part-time employees.  He says the hardest thing was laying off all the people he grew up with.

"Its more than just employees, they were family members. We knew their kids. They knew our kids. This is one of the most difficult things I've been able to handle emotionally," Surseri said.

Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg notes that payments to fishermen can only do so much.

"I can't make people whole if they are going to lose seven generations of institutional memory.  I can't do that.  Money can't do that.  I can only do the best I can to give people some financial help transitioning and moving forward," Feinberg added.

BP recently released a statement saying it has now settled with the oil-spill victims.  But Collins says he has not received anything. Until he does, he says, he plans on just making ends meet and keeping hope alive for the next generation too.

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