Shrimping boat off the coast of Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

(Photo: Billy Metcalf/Flickr)

A Southern Town Struggles to Survive Four Years After the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Bayou La Batre, Alabama's seafood capital, remains battered by the United States' worst oil spill.
Oct 29, 2014· 9 MIN READ
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans–based writer. Her work has appeared in The New Orleans Advocate, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, and other news organizations.

More than four years after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, stories of hard luck and poor health are not hard to find in Bayou La Batre, a small Alabama fishing village known as the state’s seafood capital.

Residents mostly work blue-collar jobs; they’re welders, fishers, oyster shuckers, crab pickers, and deckhands for the town’s seafood processors and shipbuilders. About one-third of the townspeople are Vietnamese who started migrating here in the 1970s. There’s an easy friendliness here along the coast: Townspeople say hello to everyone they walk past, and residents greet each other with hugs and kisses, demanding updates about children and grandchildren and trading fish stories.

More than a quarter of Bayou La Batre’s 2,558 residents were already living in poverty in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina sent a 16-foot storm surge down the town’s two main highways and into its curving side streets. Then, on April 20, 2010, just as most residents had recovered from the devastation, BP’s Macondo oil well blew and decimated the town’s economy again as it gushed for three months. By the time the well was capped, Gulf waters had become polluted with an estimated 210 million gallons of oil and 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a dispersant designed to break up and sink the oil. (Bayou La Batre is featured in The Great Invisible, a documentary on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that premieres on Oct. 29 and was produced by Participant Media, TakePart's parent company.)

Last month, in a 153-page ruling, a New Orleans federal judge found that BP had acted with “gross negligence” in the 2010 spill, though the penalty phase of the trial won’t begin until January.

Perhaps worse than the spill, locals say, was the uncertainty that followed it. The neighbors who worked on the cleanup and fell sick. The BP claim-payments process that pays and doesn’t pay in an almost random way. The fish and seafood populations that now have taken a mysterious nosedive.

Fisher Pierre Fearn, 50, used to catch 50 or 60 flounder a night. Now he’ll be lucky to catch that many a year, he says. Some people argue that it’s logical that bottom feeders like flounder are more likely to be affected by the oil sunk to the bottom by dispersants. But because flounder also head into deep water in late fall to lay eggs, the root of the problem could also be in those spawning grounds.

Fearn shrugs as he stands in front of a freezer filled with shrimp and crab at the seafood office where he has just sold that day’s catch. “So much is unknown,” he says. “All I know is that something’s not right.”

A short drive away, down narrow roads lined with tall needle pines, fisher Nello Barbour, 66, complains of a recent rotten evening of fishing: He put 240 feet of net into the water and landed only four flounder. He and his son spent $30 on gas and made $12 on the fish, he says as he sits on the front porch of the home of Ricky and Janice Collier, whose 25-year family business, P&J Seafood, is failing because there are few fish to process and no oysters.

Every night, P&J’s shuckers call Ricky Collier, 62, to see if he’ll have work for them the next morning. It breaks his heart to tell them no. But in the past three weeks, he’s gotten oysters once—from Louisiana, the only place along the Gulf harvesting any.

“Alabama used to have way more oysters than anybody,” he says. “Now we don’t have anything.”

As a result of the shortage, wholesalers like Collier pay double what they used to for oysters.

His longtime shuckers are now stretched “beyond thin,” he says. Many have tried to pick up odd jobs mowing lawns or cleaning boats, but they rely heavily on food-pantry programs run by the Hemley Road Church of Christ and local charities.

P&J used to open 60 sacks of oysters a day; in the first three weeks of October, it opened 60 sacks total.

Workers process oysters at Water Front Seafood in Bayou La Batre.
(Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Collier’s three fishing boats used to pull in 150 pounds of fish a day each; over the past three days, they’ve landed 18 pounds. In his oyster lease, everything is dead; there’s no spawn, no seed oysters; the shells crumble at a touch. He can barely pay his $1,200 monthly utility bill for cooling his freezers and ice, much less any other bills.

He blames dispersant for the oysters and the vanished fish. “It destroyed our bottom,” he says. “It’s killed the whole bottom of the bay.”

Collier learned how to shuck and sell seafood from his father, who learned it from his father before him. His two sons and daughter all fish for a living, and they’d wanted to keep the business going, but now it looks like P&J won’t survive another generation. “We’re going down fast,” Collier says. “At the rate we're going, we'll be lucky to be in business next year.”

The story is the same in downtown Bayou La Batre, a leafy half-mile stretch of State Route 188 that’s flanked by a mini-mall, a gas station, a dollar store and a Waffle House. In the heart of Bayou La Batre, Patrick Kraver, 47, and his family run seafood distributor Jubilee Foods out of a stately white stucco building that resembles a courthouse. The company’s motto: “If it swims, we carry it.”

Jubilee’s operations were once larger and included a seafood-processing plant that opened in 1967 and that processed only domestic seafood for nearly a half century. It shut down soon after the spill, and Kraver can’t see it reopening. About half of the town’s processing plants have closed, he says.

The only seafood that Kraver is seeing in abundance is shrimp, he says. Statewide, Alabama shrimp landings for 2013 climbed to about two-thirds of what they were in 2009, the year before the spill, according to the state Marine Resources Division.

But other seafood? Kraver shakes his head. “Oysters? Alabama’s done,” he says. “If not for Louisiana, we’d be getting all our oysters from Korea.”

What about blue crabs? “There are none,” Kraver says. A crabber he knows was once catching nearly 7,000 and is now down to about a tenth of that. Statewide landings in Alabama for 2013 were 70 percent of pre-spill numbers, but Kraver says he hasn’t seen even close to that.

BP asserts that blue crab landings are only 11.2 percent lower than pre-spill averages. And Jason Ryan, a BP spokesman, says that oysters were not affected by the spill.

“Preliminary analysis of data indicates that oyster reefs were not exposed to oil or dispersant compounds released as a result of the Deepwater Horizon accident,” Ryan writes in an email, noting that some believe the lower oyster harvests are due to flooding and droughts that changed water salinity.

The most recent oyster-stock assessment by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries doesn’t write off the spill as easily.

“A significant event which is suspected of having continued impacts on a large portion of the coastline and oyster resources is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” the report states. “Extensive reductions in oyster recruitment have occurred since 2010, and the dramatic results observed in recent years coincide with the occurrence of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response efforts.”

The conventional wisdom here is that Louisiana’s deep marshes may have protected oysters there better than Alabama’s more open oyster grounds protected theirs.

Blue crabs from the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Mira on the Wall/Flickr)

But locals offer differing theories about what caused the crab shortage. Some say it’s because the spill altered the bay’s floor or because crab eggs, which take three years to mature, were damaged by the disaster. For Kraver’s part, he believes the crab population is low because crabs are being eaten by higher populations of ocean fish such as red snapper, which was deemed overfished in 1988 and is now under a federal and state management plan that sharply curtails snapper seasons. Overall, fewer large fish are being caught by commercial fishers, he says, because of cuts to gillnetting in Alabama, one of the last Gulf states to place restrictions on the use of large nets.

Others in the field have heard the theories. “They might be true,” says John Valentine, a professor of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama and executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a research facility located on a slim barrier island three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay. “They might not be true. We just don’t know.”

Soon after the spill, the Sea Lab led BP-funded efforts by the Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium—100 Alabama scientists from 22 colleges—to monitor marine life, coastal water, and habitats up until the well was capped. Then the money ran out, and the Sea Lab’s monitoring efforts ceased.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association continues to monitor some of the same conditions, Valentine says, for use in federal litigation against BP. (That data won’t be released until after the court case is resolved, however.) Other scientists are examining specific parts of the spill’s consequences through the $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

“But no one has sat down, to my knowledge, and synthesized the whole story,” Valentine says.

Four years have passed since fisher Homer Ladnier put on a protective suit and spent 47 days pulling oil out of the Gulf of Mexico through BP’s Vessels of Opportunity Program. He and his crew spent eight hours a day scooping up chunks of floating Louisiana crude oil that looked like six-inch-thick pieces of liver. One day, they scooped out 27 contractor-size bags of oil, but it seemed like nothing.

“We couldn’t even make a dent in it,” Ladnier says of the spill.

Ladnier, 59, recalls trying to hold his breath when the boat he was on passed through clouds of Corexit, a dispersant sprayed from a nearby vessel. But soon after the Vessels program ended, he developed intestinal and respiratory problems. A medical scan showed nodules on his lungs, though he’d never smoked. His doctor asked him if he’d worked on the spill cleanup.

Ricky Collier’s family have also had health concerns, though they say they were healthy before the spill. No one has interviewed them about their health or tried to disentangle what’s due to environmental factors and what’s due to the severe financial stress they’ve been through. His wife, Janice, is depressed and has been diagnosed with brain lesions; he’s had severe heart and respiratory problems. Their older son, Ricky Jr., who also worked on the cleanup, had a collapsed lung.

Jemison's Bait and Tackle shop in Coden, Alabama.
(Photo: Courtesy Blog.AL.com)

Local health complaints likely overstate the problem, while BP public health explanations likely understate it: BP’s briefing sheets say that its monitoring showed that response teams and residents weren’t exposed to airborne concentrations of oil or dispersants above recommended levels.

Roosevelt Harris, 72, who heads up the truck ministry for the Hemley Road food program, says poor health and poverty often go together. For example, he delivers groceries to a number of people who have lost limbs from the combined effects of untreated diabetes and lifetimes of cigarette smoking.

But it seems to Harris that too many healthy, active people in Bayou La Batre now have trouble breathing, including one woman who rolls an oxygen tank with her everywhere she goes. “She was fine before that oil came through,” he says. He wishes that someone would track and map all the health effects, especially those involving respiratory difficulties, he says.

As the sun moves lower in the sky, Harris hands a bag of groceries to a thin man in white rubber shrimp boots who works as an oyster opener. He made $9 today, $1.25 per pound for the oyster meat he helped to extract.

The man has bicycled to the food pantry from Heron Bay, a particularly poor area that Harris knows well. Generations of families in Heron Bay have spent their lives catching fish, oysters, shrimp, and crabs, he says. “That’s all they know what to do,” Harris says. “They live right on the bay, and they go work on it.”

Sometimes hungry children from Heron Bay and other hard-stricken areas flock around Harris when he’s at the gas station or at a store. “What you got for me today, Mr. Roosevelt?” they’ll ask.

Some local organizations have started programs to retrain seafood workers by putting them through high school equivalency classes and then teaching them a trade, such as welding, that can be used in the growing shipbuilding industry here. But getting an equivalency degree alone could take some people years, notes Billy Spaulding, who runs the food pantry and other outreach programs for the Hemley Road Church of Christ.

Harry Jemison, 59, who owns Jemison’s Bait & Tackle near Heron Bay, says that his longtime neighbors, like everyone else, are suffering from lack of seafood and fish.

“But those folks are generations of fishermen, who have learned to adapt and survive,” he says. “They’re used to hard work. They can put enough fish on the table, right now, for their families. But they need more fish, more seafood, to be able to put something else on the table, to put clothes on their backs and pay the Alabama Power company.”

Food-pantry sign-in sheets show that the Hemley Road program is still helping roughly 500 different people a week with groceries. “People are still hurting down here,” says Harris. “And they’re hurting bad. The BP money is not coming in to everyone. They’re not giving to the little people.”

Ricky Collier says that he has received nothing for his business claim for P&J. “They tell me it’s under review,” he says.

Malay Young, who now works for Jubilee’s wholesale business, had to close her seafood processing business after the spill; BP offered her only $16,000, which she appealed, only to see her case stall in a way she doesn’t understand.

Kraver, the owner of Jubilee Foods, remembers when Kenneth Feinberg—the government-appointed administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund—came to Bayou La Batre. Feinberg said that BP would compensate businesses shuttered because of the spill for the loss of future revenues.

That didn’t happen, Kraver says. He rattles off a list of big entities that received money: condominium associations, chicken farms, even the $58 million recently allocated for a Gulf Shores beachfront hotel that was damaged during Katrina.

“Yet she gets nothing,” Kraver says. “It’s absolutely sad, what BP did to her.” Young said with a grimace that if she calls to ask, she is inevitably put on hold and then told only that her appeal is still under consideration.

Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans lawyer who represents fishers affected by the spill, says that it’s “extraordinarily common” for smaller seafood operators like Young and Collier to be left hanging. “It’s not whether you were harmed; it’s how sophisticated you are that drives whether you get paid,” he says. “The smaller seafood retailers may have suffered the most, but they’re not going to get paid.”

October data from the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center show that 17 percent of BP’s claims came from Alabama. Overall, BP has paid only 14 percent of 80,251 claimants filing for “business economic loss.”

In recent months, the claims have become increasingly hard to move, Waltzer says. “The name of BP’s game is to just deny. They rely on a level of proof that no one can supply.”