The Mother Who Became a Voice for the Gulf

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Kindra Arnesen went to the mat to help heal and protect her southeastern Louisiana community and the fishery it relies on. Ten years later, she’s still fighting.
Kindra Arnesen

Bryan Tarnowski

Kindra Arnesen would prefer you not call her resilient. Indeed, she’s well aware that many people will see her and other fishing families in coastal Louisiana that way; after all, they were on the frontlines of the largest marine oil disaster in history. “But in my opinion,” she says, labeling the communities this way “downplays the actual impact of what they have gone through and are still going through 10 years later. Yes, we’re hardworking, and we’re tough. But we are not bulletproof.”

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, and started spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Arenesen and her family hadn’t yet recovered from the damage Hurricane Katrina had brought to their home in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, five years earlier. The day this happened marked a terrifying new chapter of life for Arnesen, then 32, a mother of two, and the wife of a commercial fisherman. It also began her journey as an advocate for a sound emergency contingency plan for when—not if—the next disaster happens.

On that fateful spring day, Arnesen, who spent many years working on boats herself, remembers immediately worrying about the rig’s workers. It wasn’t long before she learned that 11 of the workers had died and another 17 were seriously injured. “My first thoughts were never about what the chemical impact was going to be,” she says. “We trusted our elected officials. We trusted the EPA. But I was in for a rude awakening.”

Brown sludge started washing up on her community’s shoreline almost immediately. And when Arnesen and her husband went out into deep blue waters, she remembers seeing “death everywhere.” Nine days after the oil spill began—an event that would last 87 days—she took a boat to the Chandeleur Islands, a 50-mile-long chain of uninhabited barrier islands forming the easternmost point of Louisiana. In her 20 years of fishing the Gulf, she still can’t recall ever seeing anything like it.

Tom MacKenzie/USFWS

“I’m talking about a peanut butter sludge inches thick on the surface of the water, as far as you could see. It was so gross. It was a brassy, bronze color and it stunk,” she says. “I remember breaking down on the boat. I knew right then and there that we were in serious trouble.”

Soon after, Arnesen’s neighbors started becoming sick. Her husband, David, also fell ill, and to this day, his health has not been the same since Deepwater Horizon blew. He was among a crew of 16 who’d gone out shrimping while oil was still gushing, and returned dizzy and nauseated, with a deep, raspy cough and chest pain. His sickness only got worse, and there were times Arnesen didn’t think he’d survive. “Something like that changes your body for good,” she says. She and her children also suffered from migraines, skin rashes, and respiratory problems. For months, her daughter, who was eight in April 2010, was in and out of the hospital with chest pains and breathing problems. And she wasn’t the only one: Her elementary school of 400 kids had a closet full of nebulizers.

“What is going on?” Arnesen asked through tears while speaking on a panel promoting The Big Fix, a 2011 documentary on the disaster. “I look at my children, and I don’t know what their future will be. My six-year-old seems fine, but am I going to be in the hospital with my daughter in six or seven years with her hair falling out?”

Arnesen says the cancer rate in her community exploded after the BP disaster. “Everybody I knew or loved or cared about was going to the doctor for headaches or chest pains or stomach pains—and it was stomach cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, lymph node cancer, brain cancer,” she remembers. In 18 months, Arnesen went to 23 funerals. Others in the community “have had to learn to live ill,” she says.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, Arnesen armed herself with as much information as she could find online. She also relied on the expertise of Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and former commercial fisher who’d lived through the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil catastrophe in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Ott had traveled to the Gulf to support the community and answer questions. At one local meeting, Arnesen learned about some of the potential triggers behind her family’s health problems—namely, the toxic fumes produced by the oil, as well as the chemical dispersants BP was using to sink the oil down toward the seafloor. These products are toxic to both humans and marine life, Ott said, readily moving through cell walls, skin barriers, and membranes that protect vital organs. (Scientists are still evaluating the effects of dispersants on human health, though one study has shown that the mixture of oil and dispersants is detrimental to the health of deep-sea corals.) Response workers ultimately spread an unprecedented 1.8 million gallons of dispersants through the Gulf.

The revelations angered Arnesen and changed her view of the corporation’s cleanup efforts. She began to refer to it as a coverup to protect BP. “The primary goal of the response from the federal government—from all parties that had any type of authoritarian position—was to minimize the damage to and liability of BP,” she says. “It wasn’t to make sure they were doing the least amount of damage possible to the people or the environment.”

Fearing the health threats caused by the oil and dispersants, Arnesen evacuated her kids and her mother to a rental home in a town 200 miles to the north. And she started speaking out to anyone who would listen. After her first media interview, in which she broke the silence about her husband’s illness, reporters started knocking on her door and following her around town. She went to public meetings with representatives from every government agency involved in the recovery.

“My husband was sick, stuff was dying, and I wanted answers,” she says. “So I started asking questions.” Questions like why they were permitting chemicals known to be toxic to be dumped into the Gulf, and why they didn’t have a better, up-to-date contingency plan. Most important, why weren’t they paying attention to sick and dying people, as well as a rapidly declining fishery? Arnesen quickly saw that government officials and oil executives branded her as a troublemaker, just for asking these questions.

An oil-covered fish washed ashore on Grand Isle, Louisiana

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

She also received pushback for her advocacy efforts closer to home. After she posed a question at a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council meeting on whether the fishery should be shut down and given time to recover, she saw members of her own community turn against her. Fearing even more financial loss than they’d already suffered, they threatened to burn her family’s house down. They sunk her boat; they slashed her truck’s tires. Worried that it might explode, she checked her truck every time before putting her children in it.

But fear has never stopped Arnesen from taking action. Regan Nelson, former senior oceans advocate at NRDC, can vouch for that. She coordinated Arnesen’s first trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with then representative (and current Louisiana attorney general) Jeff Landry—who, at the time, was pushing for expanded offshore drilling. Though Arnesen had still assumed her representative would have her community’s best interest at heart, it wasn’t long before she realized his true priority was to represent the oil and gas industry—and not even its workers, but its corporate leaders and shareholders only.

“She got furious with him and really stood her ground,” Nelson remembers. “I remember being in awe of her bravery and her courage to stand up for what she believed in and to stand up for her family and her community. She is a fighter.”

Arnesen says the experience in Washington, D.C., helped her “cut her teeth” and prepare her for what would be years more of advocacy for her Gulf home. Most recently, this past January, she decided to join a lawsuit filed by the University of California, Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic and the Center for Biological Diversity that challenges the way the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Contingency Plan—last revised in 1994—handles offshore oil spills, and seeks to limit the use of chemical dispersants in response efforts.

Arnesen holding up photographs of people and animals sickened since the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster during a protest in New Orleans, February 9, 2012

Julie Dermansky

In response to public pressure from Ott and others, the EPA finally initiated a rulemaking process in early 2015 and received more than 81,000 public comments, the majority of which were against the use of the dispersant Corexit in oil disaster response actions. Yet the agency has failed to complete that process, which the plaintiffs say violates the agency’s legal obligations.

Noting that news of her participation in the lawsuit has created some renewed tension in her community, Arnesen remains steadfast in seeing the case through: “Our representatives should have done their jobs—this should already be changed. I don’t want to have to be part of a lawsuit. I just want to go fishing.” But with the Trump administration gutting offshore drilling standards, she feels she has no choice. “Until we are all willing to really step up to the plate and put a little bit of skin in the game, we're not going to see any positive changes,” she says. “That’s just how it is. So it's become my life. It's become who I am.” And it’s why she hasn’t stopped spreading the word to audiences beyond Louisiana as well, as with her recent trip to Park City, Utah, where she attended the Sundance Film Festival to help promote The Cost of Silence. The documentary, which producers spent nine years in the Gulf filming, exposes the devastating consequences of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and includes Arnesen’s own experience as a central storyline. The film received a standing ovation at the premiere.

Arnesen’s fight on behalf of the fisheries also continues. She’s helping to lead a resistance to proposed coastal restoration projects that would include two large-scale river diversions in her parish. The state of Louisiana plans to use most of the $9 billion it received in settlements and fines after the blowout to battle the problem of coastal land loss, but Arnesen fears the projects planned for her area would decimate an already fragile fishery by flooding the entire estuary with polluted Mississippi River water. Also of concern is the fact that the state has passed legislation releasing it from responsibility for any impacts to the community from the coastal restoration projects. In other words, if the projects do indeed jeopardize the ecosystem, Arnesen and other fishers cannot take the state to court to recoup damages. At the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meetings she’s been attending, “it’s been like fighting BP all over again,” Arnesen says.

With her community still reeling from the events of 2010, Arnesen has little expectation she’ll be able to let down her guard anytime soon. “We live in disaster after disaster after disaster in my hometown, and we are tired,” she says. She looks back on how the community came together to rebuild after Katrina, but feels the odds of recovery are now longer. After all, even after that record-setting hurricane season, “we came back and carved a life out of thin air and dirt because our fishery was healthy and our people were healthy.” But they no longer have that foundation to lean on. “And without a healthy fishery and without a healthy population, what will we do when the next disaster hits?”

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