Tracy Kuhns never imagined a future as an environmental activist. The Louisiana native was a young mother and college student living in Texas when she discovered the reason she and the neighborhood kids were getting rashes and were constantly sick: They were living next to a chemical plant’s waste pit.
Six years after she began her fight, the area was declared a Superfund site, the houses in her neighborhood were razed, and she moved back to Louisiana.
Once back home in bayou country and married to a fisherman, Tracy found it impossible to look the other way when she saws signs of trouble in her new backyard. When her fishermen neighbors started coming back from the nearby fishing grounds with stories of pollution left behind by the oil and gas companies that had come in, exploited resources and left—leaving spills, pipelines, and infrastructure behind, fouling the estuaries—she had to get involved.
Today Kuhns and her husband, Mike Roberts, are the official Louisiana Bayoukeepers. Kuhns also works with the local Fisherman’s Association in Barataria, counseling on everything from health insurance to the more recent recovering from the loss of income due to the oil spill.
The day I find her at home, Roberts' fishing boat is docked on the canal behind the house as the sun glistens off the waterway that leads toward the Gulf (30 miles away). It would have been the opening day of brown shrimp season.
“We’re used to spills around here, but usually they’re small and you won’t be able to fish in that area for a couple years,” she says. “This is something totally different. This is something [the oil company] can’t control and it’s just heartbreaking and infuriating.”
“What they’ve done here is wiped out these coastal communities...it has essentially put us all out of business—the marinas, the charter captains, the commercial fishermen, nobody can do anything.”
Like many fishermen in the area, Kuhns is worried that fishing as they know it along the Louisiana coast may be finished. For good.
“I’m not a biologist, I’m not a scientist, but I know that if you kill off all your little marine creatures, even the bacteria and the algae that they eat, then how do you restore that stock?” Kuhns says. “Even if you are able to clean it up, if the sediment covers all the oil and hides it, how do you recover everything that you’ve lost?”