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Healing Journey: Shrimp Sniffing Certificates

National Geographic Education Fellow Jon Waterhouse continues his chronicle of the Gulf oil spill's aftermath from Grand Isle on the Louisiana coast.

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By Jon Waterhouse

When last I wrote, my traveling companions and I were speaking with Karen Hopkins and Dean Blanchard, two residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana, whose lives and community have been dramatically affected by this year's BP oil spill.

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National Geographic Education Fellows Jon Waterhouse and John Francis speak with Grand Isle, Louisiana resident Karen Hopkins about life in this coastal community in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The disaster here is ongoing, yet Dean's wish to get "the truth" from the oil mega-giant seems to be an insurmountable task for the people of the Gulf Coast. As they try to recover from the catastrophic explosion and the colossal environmental mess that the Deepwater Horizon spill has created, frustration mounts.

Hearing from Gulf residents about the tactics used by BP and its partners to remove the oil was in itself astonishing. Learning that they cannot seem to get details on the chemical make-up of what BP used to render the oil invisible is where Dean's issue of getting to the truth comes in.

As we sat and talked, I noticed a gallon jug of a dark liquid labeled "Oil Dispersant" on the floor near my chair and asked Karen about it. "Ha!" she blurted. "That stuff won't even take the chicken grease out of my fryin' pan!" That's when the subject of Corexit--the dispersant which BP used extensively to eradicate evidence of the massive spill--came up.

"When people started to get sick in the aftermath of the so-called 'clean-up'," Karen told me, "we used our own money to contract an independent lab to take samples of the air here. The samples were taken on Sept 9, 2010, and the lab results revealed high levels of the carcinogens Acrylonitrile and Toluene."

From what Karen tells us, now people here are living in fear of what may lie ahead not just for their livelihoods, but for their lives. "We believe the dispersant Corexit is the culprit of this sickness because the water and the air were so heavily polluted with it during the clean-up effort."

The answers Dean seeks from BP may help the people of Grand Isle figure out how to deal with their illnesses. "We're all adults here," he tells us. "We can handle the truth. Not knowing is what we can't handle, because we're wasting time. BP owes us an answer and they are hiding from this demand."

His comment reminds me that when we first arrived in this coastal community, we had noticed it looked more like a fishing town during the off season than the site of an enormous oil disaster. There had been no sign of BP or clean-up activity anywhere. As a matter of fact, aside from a few local people wandering in and out of small grocery stores along the road and beach, we didn't see much of anything.

Glaringly evident was the absence of BP. The sunny green and yellow logo was nowhere to be seen in this Gulf Coast community. I'd looked over at the ocean as we drove along the coast and wondered where nearly two hundred million gallons of leaked oil had gone.

Did it sink to the bottom? We were told that during and after the massive spraying of Corexit, when our government demanded to know how the dispersant was eliminating oil and where it was going, BP's contractors took water samples to prove the chemical was not simply causing the oil to sink. They gathered samples for the test using a common shrimping rig that was designed for use directly on the seafloor.

According to locals, though, the samples BP collected were taken from three feet above the ocean floor. "You ain't gonna catch no shrimp or oil that way," say the fishermen.

Dean continues to talk with us about BP's explosion, the spill, and the stunning debacle it has left behind. After 51 years here, he knows the Gulf and the marine life it sustains like the back of his hand, he says. "Hell, my playpen was a shrimp pot."

He tells us that BP and an organization called the Association of Food and Drug Officials required local shrimp sellers to take a quick course in "shrimp sniffing"--to ensure a catch was safe for human consumption. They charged $25 a head for those who enrolled in the course. Dean proudly shows off what he refers to as his "$25 BP Sniffing Certificate."

This notion seems absurd to us, and obviously to Dean. Petroleum by any other name still smells like petroleum, even if it's on a shrimp. But beyond the joke of it, is this really all that BP and our government felt it took to certify that these Gulf shrimp were safe for people to eat?

By not providing any real scientific data on the contamination of these shrimp, and by placing responsibility for approving their sale on the seller, BP further limited its losses. The feeling here on the Coast is that this approach has become the norm, as the conglomerate takes steps to insure that long-term responsibility for the outcome of this disaster lies with its victims.

We laugh when Dean tells us about his sniff certificate. But after the laughter fades, we sit quietly and reflect for a long time. Then Karen says, "I want my life back." We will ponder her words the entire drive back to New Orleans.

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Jon Waterhouse is director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, a National Geographic Education Fellow, and an avid paddler.

The views expressed in this article are those of our guest blogger Jon Waterhouse and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Mary Marshall and John Francis contributed to this report.

Photos courtesy Jon Waterhouse

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