The BP Cough

For this Gulf community, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is still going on.

April 03, 2015

No community along the Gulf Coast was hit harder by the 2010 BP oil disaster than Grand Isle, Louisiana, a blue-collar fishing village perched on a spit of sand 50 miles south of New Orleans. The beach community was right in the path of the disaster’s toxic crude and foamy chemical dispersants.

Ecocide: Voices from Paradise, a 58-minute film directed and produced by Juliet Brown, captures what Grand Isle has endured over the last half decade. Fishermen, mothers, and local businessmen recall the shock of watching waves of reddish-brown oil crashing onto once pristine beaches, followed by armies of cleanup crews trying to remove the sticky goo from the sandy shoreline. Offshore, C-130 warplanes carpet-bombed the brown rivers of oil with Corexit, a chemical dispersant that has since been found to make petroleum more than 50 times more toxic.

Photo: Rocky KistnerBetty Doud displays a handful of tar balls.

The planes have flown away, but oil and tar balls still wash in, and tar mats the size of football fields continue to linger on the ocean floor. For the people of Grand Isle, the five-year-old disaster is still going on.

Scientists aren't as certain, but many local parents blame their children's respiratory problems on breathing contaminated air, such as the thick black smoke that billowed in from the oil fires at sea. Former resident Betty Doud calls her granddaughter's chronic bronchitis the “BP cough.” Doud, who is a professional painter, describes why her business plummeted five years ago: "No one knew what was going to happen and didn't want to put money into their houses."

Fishermen, many of whom became cleanup works after the spill, are hurting, too. Dean Blanchard, who was once one of the biggest buyers of wild-caught shrimp in the United States, shows the filmmakers shrimp loaded with tumors. The animals have black gills and missing eyes. “Like a horror film,” he says.

Grand Isle is used to recovering from strong storms and hurricanes, but the seaside town is hardly a match for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. No one in the film seems to know how to cope with it—and for them, there’s no end in sight. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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