Democracy Now: Terry Tempest Williams Discusses the BP Oil Disaster

Be sure to also catch NPR’s interview with Terry:  Interest Turns Away, But Gulf Coast Still Suffers (

From Democracy Now:

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Terry Tempest Williams, writer, environmentalist. Her books include Finding Beauty in a Broken World and The Open Space of Democracy. Her latest piece in Orion magazine, an extended reflection on the BP oil spill, called “The Gulf Between Us.”

Terry Tempest Williams, welcome to Democracy Now! from Salt Lake City. You went to the Gulf on this six-month anniversary. What are your reflections about what happened April 20th? I’ll never forget it because it was Earth Day.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s right. I think it changed all of us, who were paying attention. And, Amy, I just want to thank you for your program, first of all, that we can even have this conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Reflections. It’s—yeah, you know, we hear that five million barrels of oil were released from the Macondo well. We know that [ 362] miles were oiled in four states, 400 species of animals threatened from this, 400 controlled burns that killed hundreds of sea turtles and untold numbers of dolphins and sea mammals. We’re told that it’s over, that the story is gone, as is the oil. And what I can tell you in reflecting over six months is that the oil is not gone. The people are still there, and they’re getting sicker and sicker.

And I just think it’s really important that, at this anniversary of six months, that we begin to really hear from the people on the ground. And that’s what my purpose was. You know, I have a pen. I’m a writer. I was home in Utah thinking, you know, what can I do? And I had to go. I had to see it for myself. So it was about ground truthing. It was about bearing witness. And I don’t think bearing witness is a passive act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Terry Tempest Williams, this is an extraordinary piece, as you talk about and you relate basically the words of a variety of people on the ground. And I was struck by one particular passage, when you were interviewing a Margaret Curole, and she says to you, “Here’s the truth. Where are the animals? There’s no too-da-loos, the little one-armed fiddler crabs. Ya don’t hear birds. From Amelia to Alabama, Kevin never saw a fish jump, never heard a bird sing. This is their nestin’ season. Those babies, they’re not goin’ nowhere. We had a very small pod of sperm whales in the Gulf, nobody’s seen ‘em. Guys on the water say they died in the spill and their bodies were hacked up and taken away.” And she goes on to say, “Fish are swimming in circles. Dolphins are choking on the surface. It’s ugly, I’m tellin’ you. And nobody’s talkin’ about it. You’re not hearing nothin’ about it. As far as the media is reportin’, everythin’s being cleaned up and it’s not a problem.” Tell us about some of these—

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s the power of Margaret Curole.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. What about some of the other stories?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: You know, what I love about the voices in this piece, the voices in the Gulf that I heard, the people in place, standing up, standing for their home ground, was exactly that kind of passion, that kind of truth telling.

Margaret Curole and her husband Kevin are Cajun. They’re shrimpers. And they talked about how there’s two alternatives in the Gulf: you either shrimp or you work in the oil fields. And, you know, I learned something from them. I have been against, you know, deepwater drilling, and they were talking about the moratorium, how it needs to be lifted so that people can eat. So, it was through Margaret that I really began to see the complexity of this situation.

I love her feistiness. She, with an artist friend, created on the beach at Grand Isle human bodies that spelled out messages, which they took pictures of and texted to Congress, to the governor, to BP executives, to everyone in power they could think of. The three messages laid out in bodies were “Never again,” “Paradise lost” and “WTF.” What I can tell you about Margaret is that she received calls from the BP claims department saying to back off. She was taken to lunch by two agents from Homeland Security. And this is serious. And she said, “They want me to shut up, and I will not.”

Another story, she told us if we wanted great Cajun food—and that we couldn’t understand this story unless we ate—to go to Becky Duet’s deli in Galliano, which is where they’re from in southern Louisiana. We went to Becky Duet’s deli, called Jordan’s, named after her son. It was 10:00 at night. The lights were still on. We walked in. She said, “The grill is closed.” And then she proceeded to tell stories, that in Cajun country they’ve always viewed themselves as rich, that the bounty is from the waters, that as long as you had rice, beans and bread and had a chicken neck that you could throw into the bayou, you were wealthy. Just a few weeks ago, I received a note from Becky, who’s become a good friend. She said, “We’re starving, Terry. There are no fish in the waters. And any fish we would see, we would not eat.”

These are the stories that are coming out of the Gulf. These are the stories that we’re not hearing from the media. I think about a group of women in gated communities in Alabama, just off of Mobile Bay, Orange Beach. These women took the situation into their own hands, because no one was responding. They had water samples taken, four, from very wealthy areas. The fourth one on Dauphin Island blew up and was deemed inconclusive. These women—Robin Young, a captain, Lori DeAngelis and her husband Mike—their blood tests came back high in cadmium and benzene. They’ve had chemically induced pneumonia. These are the stories, again, that we’re not hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Terry Tempest Williams, writer and environmentalist. Her latest piece is in Orion magazine, called “The Gulf Between Us: Stories of Terror and Beauty from the World’s Largest Accidental Offshore Oil Disaster.” Terry, tell us about Jerry Cope and Fish Camp Landing, the gated community in Orange Beach, Alabama.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Yeah, those were the women I was referring to. I met Jerry in March of 2009 at the climate action in Washington, DC. I call him a guerrilla journalist. While I was down there, he was there also with Charles Hambleton, one of the producers and members of the crew that you see in the film The Cove. They had heard about the bodies of dolphins being taken to dumps, refrigerated to Mexico. They wanted to do an investigative witnessing, if these stories were true. Jerry, in the three weeks that he was out on the Gulf, he also came down with chemical-induced pneumonia, ended up meeting these activists, these women in the gated community, and Robin Young among them, who started this organization called Guardians of the Gulf. It was there that he really saw on the ground, as did I, you know, what the situation is. These women were calling, as I said, for water samples, air samples, blood tests, to really show the seriousness of the public health issues. And again, these are the stories that we’re not hearing—upper respiratory disease, lots of skin infection, rashes.

When I was there, they were having to drain the swimming pools, because children were being sick. And, Amy, it just—it made you sick. You’d go down to Gulf Shores, and here were these seemingly pristine beaches, this Corexit green, this ungodly color, women, mothers, you know, overburdened, 110-degree heat. Their children were playing in the waves. It was like there was no connection between what was in the water and what was seeping into their children’s skin. I mean, the stories are heartbreaking.

We walked down the beach several miles to the Gulf Island National Seashore, again what seemed to be white pristine beaches. There had just been a thunderstorm. It was this eerie color of the water again. You half-expected the water to burst into flames with lightning strikes. Just then, a BP bus pulled up. Thirty workers, some of them in hazmat suits. We started talking to them, saying, “Well, it doesn’t look like there’s oil here.” Two of the workers, African American men in their twenties, smiled and said, “Can we tell you that we just took out 2,000 pounds last night? We work from dusk to dawn under the cover of darkness.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about what’s—

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s a ton of oil—I was just going to say that was a ton of oil taken out in a 100-yard swatch. Again, these are the stories we’re not hearing. I just talked to Robin yesterday, and she was saying that five minutes she had tar balls the size of baseballs. And, you know, you go down a foot, and that’s where the oil still remains.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about those workers and the boat captains that are still working for BP and some of the illnesses that they’re being exposed to, and also that their clothes are being confiscated while at same time BP is telling them that they probably just have dermatitis?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s right. The doctors don’t even know how to treat these diseases that are coming forward. Mike DeAngelis, married to Lori, both of them are captains. Lori runs a dolphin education cruise. She hasn’t been able to go out, because their boats have been registered for Vessels of Opportunity, because they needed the money, quite frankly. You know, these are people that are working-class people. Mike, as a captain, when they registered their boat, was getting paid $1,200 a day, $200 for extra crew members. And what were they doing? Nothing. There was a joke around the Gulf that you’re on BP time: being paid for doing nothing.

One of the most moving stories was really flying with a barefoot pilot named Tom Hutchings. In the American Southwest, we would call him a coyote. Again, an activist, he was taking people, as a volunteer for SouthWings, anyone who would go with him, to fly over the Macondo well site. We went with him on Day 100. Upper right-hand corner of the New York Times, you know, remember the article that said most of the oil is gone, 80 percent. You remember a week later, Carole Browner of the Obama administration said 75 percent gone, poof, Mother Nature is doing her job. What I can tell you is that as we flew out to the Gulf to what they call “the source” to see the Deepwater Horizon rigs, for as far as we could see, for as wide as we could see, for as long as we could bear it, oil. All we could see was oil. I mean, it’s just—I wonder, where is our outrage? And I was saying to Tom, this brilliant pilot, you know, that must have made twenty, thirty, forty flights at his own expense, “Why isn’t this story being told?” And he was saying that most of what we’ve heard has been shore-based knowledge. I mean, there were rivers of oil as wide as the Mississippi itself. Stunning. When I asked him what has stayed in his mind most in terms of his witnessing, he said that when they were burning the oil off the surface of the sea, he remembers on the edge of the flames seeing a pod of dolphins, side by side by side by side, watching, simply watching the ocean burn.

I think the other untold story are the dispersants. We know, thanks to Congressman Markey from Massachusetts, that after the EPA said, “Please, please,” to BP, “find another dispersant that is less toxic,” what we know now is that our Coast Guard, the United States Coast Guard, gave BP seventy-four exceptions in forty-eight days. And that’s the untold story. And I think that’s where so much of this illness is rising from. And we hear from the scientists, two inches of oil on the bottom of the sea. The scientist Samantha Joye said it’s a “graveyard for the macrofauna” and that the Gulf is dying from the bottom up. And again, that’s what I wanted to see, is what are the stories from the ground up, from the people who live there? Again, witness is not a passive act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And as you mention, this is not just a regional catastrophe, but this fall a billion birds will migrate from, of course, North America through the Gulf of Mexico and the area, and the impact could then obviously spread for the bird population throughout the hemisphere.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s correct. And as we speak, as you say, a billion birds migrating through the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Delta sees 70 percent of our waterfowl. You know, I think that’s the other untold story that touched me so deeply, was the beauty. It’s still there, against all odds. The Gulf is still there. And you fly over and see these beautiful islands, these islands beaded with birds, pelicans, skimmers—the feathered skimmers, not the boats—piping plovers, who are endangered. You know, we’d fly over and see, you know, these extraordinary manta rays, twenty-five-foot wing span, 3,000 pounds, looking like black angels on the turquoise water. It’s such an extraordinary landscape. I had no idea. And I think what’s interesting—and I do have faith in Obama’s commission, that’s saying, let’s look not at the protection of putting more levees, more canals, that cut up the system, the ecosystem, but let’s think about, really, restoration, even a full restoration project of the Mississippi Delta, the Mississippi River itself. And that’s where I see the hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Terry Tempest Williams, we want to thank you very much for being with us, writer, environmentalist. Her books include Finding Beauty in a Broken World and The Open Space of Democracy. Her latest piece was just published in Orion magazine on the six-month anniversary of the Gulf oil spill. It’s called “The Gulf Between Us.” She was speaking to us from Salt Lake City, Utah.


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