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Honda & Cao: Minority Families Hit Especially Hard by Oil Spill

BP appears to have finally stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, although the efforts to seal the well permanently are ongoing. But we must keep in mind that the job of cleaning up as much as 100 million gallons of oil — compared with Exxon Valdez’s Alaska spill of 11 million gallons — is just beginning. This is not only the worst single-incident environmental disaster in our country’s history, but it also is the world’s worst accidental marine oil spill.

[IMGCAP(1)]What is equally disastrous, but less frequently reported, is the impact to the physical health, economy and livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the Gulf Coast. Among these communities, perhaps the most vulnerable are thousands of Southeast Asian and African-American families. The adverse effects experienced by this population are potent and unique.

These Southeast Asian and African-American communities are heavily dependent on the Gulf for their livelihood. Southeast Asian fishermen, for example, make up one-third of the 13,000 fishing vessels registered in the Gulf Coast. Among the approximately 40,000 Southeast Asian individuals living in the region, one in five work in the seafood processing industry. Many of these workers are the primary breadwinners for their families, resulting in an oil spill reach that is projected to negatively affect roughly 80 percent of Southeast Asian families.

Southeast Asian communities face another gulf of devastating proportions: language barriers. This population already struggles with access to mainstream services and information given high rates of limited English proficiency, distrust of service agencies, and now, a lack of understanding of disaster recovery processes.

As if the oil spill was not damaging enough, the response to the oil spill has been haplessly insufficient in supplying language-appropriate communication. Inconsistent and incorrect translations are common (or published in the wrong dialect) and the Vessel of Opportunity safety trainings — which employ fishing boats to help with oil recovery efforts — are conducted entirely in English, precluding most Southeast Asian fishermen from seizing this opportunity.

This threat to livelihood has serious implications for a community already struggling economically, having arrived in America as political refugees, resettled in unsatisfactory camp conditions, remaining largely invisible and silent in the South. Hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, from which they are still recovering, a switch in careers due to oil spill impact is going to be difficult given that most of the Southeast Asian fishermen and seafood industry workers have maintained this lifestyle since before coming to the United States.

Our response, therefore, must be swifter and smarter, lest these newly unemployed families fall further from their already fragile socioeconomic status. BP, thankfully, has since hired a Vietnamese safety trainer who speaks the correct dialect. That’s a good start, but this type of initiative must be massively scaled up.

If we are serious about helping the most vulnerable of our fellow Americans and stemming the severity of adverse effects suffered by Southeast Asian communities in the Gulf, we must do the following:

First, we need accurate information and linguistically appropriate training on oil recovery efforts. Community members are often asked by BP to sign documents they do not understand or cannot read, many of whom do not receive a copy of what they signed, only to find out later, for example, that they unknowingly hired a lawyer.

To counteract this, a system that provides accurate, up-to-date and consistent information, in languages they understand, is critical. Additionally, all Vessel of Opportunity training must have sufficient Vietnamese-speaking staff on hand to ensure that the one-third of all Gulf-based vessel operators who are Southeast Asian get their equitable share of employment opportunities.

Second, we need an immediate influx of financial assistance and job training. Many Southeast Asian communities, once reliant on the seafood industry for subsistence, now struggle to pay even monthly expenses and are in desperate need of basic necessities such as food and gas. As additional Gulf Coast water sections close and more fishermen become unemployed, these needs will only grow.

Similarly, since most of these fishermen and seafood industry workers have no transferable work skills (having fished their entire life), the risk of persistent and pervasive unemployment is high. Limited English and literacy skills put out of reach most job preparation, training and placement services. In response to these needs, economic assistance and job training and placement programs are vital to the financial survival of Southeast Asian families and the economic viability of the region.

Lastly, we need to address the public health concerns resulting from the spill. Lacking health insurance, and with even less access to medical care due to loss of income, many Southeast Asian Gulf communities are particularly vulnerable.

Given that symptoms will likely go untreated, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in close concert with the Environmental Protection Agency, must spare no effort in proactively communicating and coordinating with this community, lest environmental disaster turn quickly into a health disaster.

On all three aforementioned fronts, we will continue to work with Ken Feinberg, administrator of the $20 billion BP oil spill victim compensation fund, with whom we recently met, to ensure Southeast Asians are not effectively barred from participation, but rather have ease of access.

This nation knows now how devastating the oil spill has become for the Gulf’s environmental ecosystem. What it has yet to realize, however, is the potential impending devastation to the other equally vital onshore ecosystems — social, economic and cultural — the most vulnerable of which is the Southeast Asian and African-American fishing and seafood industry communities.

We can stop this, but only if we employ the full force of America’s disaster response before it is too late. It is an understatement to call this an emergency, and if we postpone further, expect a full-blown crisis.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) is the chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.) is a member of the caucus.

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