Facing South

Gulf Coast restoration task force hearing showcases residents' distrust

lisa_jackson_gertf_nola.pngThe president's Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force met yesterday in New Orleans to gather public comments for the plan it's working on to restore the region's ecology in the wake of last year's BP catastrophe.

A major theme of those comments was the deep distrust that many of the region's residents feel toward their government -- a feeling that began for many in the wake of Hurricane Katrina disaster and only deepened after the oil spill.

"People have been hurt so much," said Patty Whitney of Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, which works in Southeast Louisiana's Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, an area hit hard by Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. "We don't trust anybody."

Many Louisiana residents at the forum questioned the task force's assurances that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, with some saying they wouldn't feed it to their families.

In conversations outside the main meeting room, fishermen reported seeing oil slicks in areas of the Gulf currently open for fishing. They also reported unusual problems with various species: crabs so weak they die before they get to the dock, crabs with holes in their shells, shrimp with lesions.

"People that have been doing this all their lives have never seen this before," said Mike Roberts, who has worked as a fisherman for over 35 years and is also a founder of the Louisiana Bayoukeeper program.

The task force, which is headed by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, hopes to have a first draft of its plan by early May with the final version due by Oct. 4. The plan will address the effects of the BP blowout as well as Louisiana's longstanding problem with coastal erosion.

"This task force was created out of a horrible event," said Jackson. "But it has to go beyond that and look to the future."

In one session that brought members of the state's nongovernmental organizations together to share their thoughts and ideas, people talked about what it would take for them to regain trust and feel respected.

"Big business, oil and gas -- they always win," said Whitney. "If once in a while the people won, that would change things."

(For more information on submitting comments to the task force, click here. Photo of Lisa Jackson at the task force meeting by Ada McMahon of Bridge the Gulf.)

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