A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.
In the spring of 2010, three weeks after the explosion of a deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico, NRDC attorney Al Huang found himself sitting in a small church in Biloxi, Mississippi, listening to locals whose lives and livelihoods were threatened by the unfolding disaster.
As the head of NRDC's Environmental Justice program, Huang was there to offer legal advice to those in need—and there was plenty of need to go around as oil gushed from the hole left by the Deepwater Horizon. Six Vietnamese-American fisherfolk, speaking through a translator, told Huang that BP was offering them less compensation than their English-speaking colleagues had been offered. What could NRDC do to help?
After copying down their stories, Huang later went to the heads of the environmental and civil rights divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice to request an investigation into the alleged inequity.
That meeting in the church was one of several that Huang and his NRDC colleagues would attend over the course of the spring and summer. Like most, it was organized by the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, a consortium of regional nonprofit groups that, despite their various foci, have one thing in common: concern for the environment.
Huang and NRDC helped to establish the fund in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, creating a network of local activists who could identify where money and help were needed most. It was members of the fund who told Huang after the storm that moldering remains were going to be buried on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans in a landfill called Chef Menteur.
The landfill was not lined, yet it was slated to receive all sorts of debris, primarily the remnants of bulldozed homes: broken TVs, jugs of bleach, and every other type of household waste you don't want seeping into your groundwater. With Huang's help, the consortium won a battle to shut down the landfill.
Since then, Huang has become a walking Rolodex of Gulf Coast contacts, serving as the primary point of connection between NRDC—scientists, advocates, lawyers, and donors—and groups on the ground. After the Deepwater Horizon, NRDC decided to go one step further by creating a special program within the organization to channel donations directly to local groups. The organization quickly raised more than $130,000 from members and supporters for the NRDC Gulf Recovery Fund. Every dollar contributed was sent directly to the Gulf consortium, which in turn distributed the money to communities and nonprofit groups throughout the region.
Back in his New York office two months after the BP disaster, Huang sifted through his inbox, picking out e-mails from Gulf Coast Fund members who had sent him information about waste disposal. "The booms and oil-laden water have to go somewhere," he said.
Huang and his collaborators worked quickly to gather information about the ultimate burial grounds for much of this debris, just as they did after Katrina. "It's up to the community leaders to tell us which sites are near their schools, their homes, and their drinking water so that we know where to focus our energy."