Op-Ed: A year after the BP spill, inspiration in an uphill battle


WASHINGTON (JTA) — At Passover this year we mark the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill disaster. We continue a hard struggle for freedom from the crippling grasp of the oil industry and work toward a more environmentally just future for our neighbors across the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

The Passover story demands that we act as if we ourselves went forth from bondage, confronting the pharaohs and the injustices of our day with the knowledge that once we were slaves, and the understanding that we cannot be truly free unless we all are free.

Before last Passover, I had never been to the Gulf Coast. I didn’t know that south Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands every 40 minutes, that 90 percent of offshore energy development comes from the Gulf, or that the sometimes adversarial oil, fishing and recreation industries are the lifeblood of the region. I cared deeply about energy and the environment but knew little about the communities most impacted by our energy choices.

In the year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, all this has changed. When we see such a threat to the health and safety of millions of people, we as Jews must speak truth to power and demand a change. And we have responded — for the last year, I’ve been privileged to work with interfaith advocates for justice from across the Gulf Coast and across the country to right the wrongs brought to light by this disaster through our After the Spill campaign.

We fight an uphill battle. Despite the influx of media, money and public attention to the gulf last April, we’ve yet to see Congress act to restore the Gulf, prevent future disasters or set our country on the path to a cleaner energy future. As a nation, we have stood by idly as the people of the Gulf continue to suffer and our entire country stands at risk of yet another catastrophe.

Despite the frustrations in Washington and the desperation of so many across the Gulf, I find hope and inspiration in the people I have met in this work. My own journey has taken me to south Louisiana, where I have seen houses on stilts to guard against frequent flooding, shrimping boats docked and lifeless, and toxic waste dumps overflowing with the debris of Hurricane Katrina continuing to threaten the air and water of nearby communities.

I have met some of those most impacted by our failed response to disaster. I know Daniel Nguyen and the community leaders of New Orleans East, who are fighting yet another toxic waste dump in their community, adding insult to injury after this predominately Vietnamese fishing community was devastated by the BP spill and blocked access to the claims process by language barriers. I’ve traveled down the bayou with Patty Whitney of Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, and heard her stories of generations of fishermen and rig workers in her family and community (the parishes of south Louisiana are truly family) left out of work by the spill even as they rebuild from four massive hurricanes in the past five years.

And I’ve met countless rabbis and ministers, and people of all faiths, speaking out against injustice and caring for those in need. We are brought together by a common humanity and ties of faith and hope — but also outrage and injustice — driving us to action.

Just last week I spent an unforgettable day in Washington with Louisiana residents Cherri Foytlin and Drew Landry. Cherri, mother of six and wife of a former oil worker, and Drew, a musician and craw fisherman, arrived in D.C. after walking — more than 1,200 miles — from their home in south Louisiana to our nation’s capital to raise awareness about the oil disaster and connect with other communities fighting environmental injustices.

I was deeply moved when Cherri and Drew recounted the people they met along their walk who are part of local, national and increasingly global movements for environmental justice and a more sustainable future. They spoke frequently of being driven by faith and the fundamental belief that we are all connected and that human life must be valued above corporate profits.

The Gulf is a singular place, but the struggle for a healthier future that balances economic needs with environmental sustainability is universal. From campaigns to regulate refineries in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit to the Ecuadorians resisting the energy companies destroying their homelands, we are all part of one fight, and by connecting with and supporting each other we can build a more sustainable and more just future — for the Gulf and for all global citizens.

As we remember the lives and livelihoods lost one year ago, and the generations enslaved in ages past, it is easy to become discouraged by all that we have not accomplished. But I hope and believe that we are on our way to building a future in which clean air and clean water are basic human rights, where no one is shackled by environmental injustice, and where all can participate in the building of a brighter future.

(Rachel Cohen is the sustainability program director for the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.)

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