Vietnamese, Cambodian fishermen among hardest hit by BP oil spill

Many Vietnamese and Cambodia fishermen are without work now because of the BP oil spill, and some still feel the effects of Hurricane Katrina. BP is trying to help, but there's a language barrier.

Sean Gardner/Reuters
Local shrimper Can Van Nguyen sits as local Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen try to get information at the China Sea Restaurant in Buras, Louisiana. Local translators came to the meeting to help with the language barrier.

While the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has idled hundreds of fishing boats in coastal Louisiana, the disaster has hit the close knit community of Vietnamese and Cambodian shrimpers in Plaquemines Parish particularly hard.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my car insurance,” Cung “Kim” Tran, a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat, declared at a community meeting Thursday at the China Sea Restaurant in the town of Buras. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the note on my car or my house. Can you tell me what to do?”

Attended by BP representatives, parish officials, a regional United Way director, and over a hundred local fishermen, the meeting was called by Spencer Aronfeld, a personal injury and malpractice lawyer from Miami, Florida, who arrived in the parish earlier in the week.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

“When I read in the news about the contracts BP asked residents to sign before they went to work, I couldn’t stand by and let that happen,” said Mr. Aronfeld. “I felt obligated to help. I contacted BP myself and brought in the United Way and said we need to have a meeting and start feeding people.”

The contract Aronfeld referred to was a liability waiver local residents were asked to sign to enroll in safety and hazardous materials handling courses, required by BP for paid jobs containing and cleaning up the oil spill. The waiver caused much distrust and confusion in Plaquemines Parish. Many thought they would be signing away their rights to file claims over the spill, and the form was soon dropped.

Communication with Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen in the parish has been particularly difficult for the oil company. While BP has translators on hand at most meetings, an early version of the waivers were written in English only.

Language barrier

“I don’t see how in good conscience BP could ask immigrants who do not speak English to sign away their rights with a contract written only in English, particularly for work as dangerous as this,” said Aronfeld.

Aronfeld, who went on local radio to publicize the meeting, is among dozens of lawyers who have come to south Louisiana since the oil well disaster started.

Earlier this week, a federal judicial panel in Washington was asked to consolidate at least 65 potential class-action lawsuits that claim economic damage from the spill. Fishermen, charter boat captains, business owners, and vacationers filed suit across the Gulf coast seeking damages that could reach into the billions.

While local television and radio is filled with advertisements by attorneys seeking clients affected by the spill, Aronfeld has taken on the role of grassroots organizer among the Asian immigrants of Plaquemines Parish.

“It pains me to see how they are living, with many people still in FEMA trailers from Katrina,” he said. “They are a proud people and have endured a lot, but they are suffering now and need to be taken care of. I’m not sure I’m working as an attorney or as a civil rights activist.”

BP apologized...again

At the community meeting in Buras, grandmothers held babies and fishermen stood impatiently in rubber work boots as David Kinnaird, community outreach spokesman for BP, made another apology for any confusion BP caused with the liability waivers.

“We recognize we’ve been having problems communicating with people in this parish and I’m here to make sure that everyone is heard and listened to,” said Kinnaird, his presentation translated into Vietnamese and Cambodian by two local residents.

Parish officials and United Way representative also provided locations in the parish where charities are distributing food, announced that a local Methodist church will soon be handing out $100 checks to out-of-work families, and announced the establishment of a United Way effort to help local fishermen.

The room remained silent when they were asked if anyone present was worried about eating that night, but anger quickly flashed at Aronfeld, who started a question and answer period by admonishing local residents against hostility, shouting, or threats about lawsuits or claims.

“We are normal people! We are not animals! Talk to us like we are human beings!” one obviously upset fisherman shouted at Aronfeld, who profusely apologized.

Despite repeated promises by BP to quickly help fisherman in the region, many at the meeting complained of being caught in a Catch-22 of bureaucracy: BP is only accepting claims of economic loss from boat owners, not deckhands, and the company’s Vessel of Opportunity employing boatmen to fight the oil spill is only hiring fisherman who can prove their local residency.

Many Asian immigrants who have worked in Plaquemines for decades do not own their own boats. Many also moved to New Orleans after losing their homes to Hurricane Katrina, but still return to Plaquemines everyday to work.

Katrina's lasting impact

“Since Katrina there is no school here for our kids, so we had to move to New Orleans,” said shrimper Houston Le, 40. “But I still come here every day, even now with the fishing closed I am coming, but BP says it is only hiring people they say live in Plaquemines.”

BP spokesperson Kinnaird said he would get answers, and referred residents to BP’s phone number for claims, pointing out that translators are available on the toll-free line. Thoai Tong, a fisherman who is acting as an interpreter for Aronfeld, estimated that out of the 3,000 immigrants from Southeast Asia living and working in Plaquemines, about ten percent are fluent in English.

“When you say to them ‘BP gives you an opportunity,’ they say ‘what is opportunity?’” says Tong, who came to the U.S. in 1980 from a refugee camp in Thailand, when he was 2 years old.

Many of the fisherman work out of the nearby Buras marina, where their boats rock idly. “My boat is my house, my life, right here,” said Toan Nguyen said from the deck of his shrimp boat. “There’s no oil here but they won’t let us fish.”

When the wholesale price of shrimp dropped to 50 cents a pound last season, Nguyen and other shrimpers went on a strike, which had little effect due to a flood of cheap Asian imports. With rumors of price collusion among wholesalers, state officials had promised fishermen better prices this year, but the season was canceled before it started because of the spill.

“Last year a lot of people went broke, so this year everyone was counting on this season to make some money,” said Nguyen.

Nearly five years after Katrina, Buras remains an isolated community with no doctor, no school, no pharmacy, and no grocery store. After the hurricane, the local diocese closed the Catholic church many in the Asian community had attended.

“If this continues with the fishing being closed, everyone will have to move to New Orleans and on one will be left down here,” said interpreter Tong, who is still waiting for his Road Home grant to rebuild his house in Buras, boarded up since the 2005 storm.

Plenty of lawyers

While the Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen are having trouble communicating with BP, they are having no problems finding lawyers to talk with.

“They come here and go to meetings and drive around and walk up and asking you if they need a lawyer to represent you,” said Tong. “Spencer is a lawyer and we want to see him actually helping the community, and then maybe we will sign up with him.”

The area has previous experience with litigation over smaller oil spills. During Hurricane Katrina, nearly a million gallons of oil spilled from ruptured pipelines in nearby Empire, Louisiana, an incident that became part of a larger class action lawsuit.

“Many people signed papers with lawyers and they’ve never heard anything back,” Tong recalls. “You ask them who their lawyer is and they don’t know, they don’t even have a card. You ask them why they signed up and they say ‘well, everyone else was signing up.’”

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