Portland State student visits Gulf oil spill

Portland State student Tina Pham, 24, recently witnessed firsthand the effects of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Portland State student Tina Pham, 24, recently witnessed firsthand the effects of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. Accompanied by two documentary filmmakers and the assistant to Seattle’s mayor, Pham spent Aug. 28 through Sept. 5 in the Gulf of Mexico as a relief worker with Boat People SOS, a nonprofit organization founded in 1980 to provide Vietnamese-Americans with the means for civic and political activism. 

“When you’re in a position to do things to help people, you don’t think about it. You just do it,” Pham said. “I speak [Vietnamese] fluently, [so] I said, ‘I want to go.'” 

For eight days, Pham toured the region, getting to know the local Vietnamese fishermen and their families while surveying the persistent economic and environmental devastation caused by BP’s record-breaking oil spill. 

In the spill’s aftermath, the livelihoods of thousands of Vietnamese fishermen have been virtually annihilated. Trapped behind the barriers of their language, culture and class, they have lost the ability to pursue their only trade, Pham said.

“These people are left with nothing,” she said. “[Commercial fishing] is all they know.”

Pham believes that these fishermen and their families represent one of the most significant underreported externalities of BP’s oil spill. 

She attended town hall meetings—organized by Boat People in Biloxi, Miss. and Bayou La Batre, Ala.—which featured BP representatives performing gestures of corporate outreach intended to reassure the local fishing communities that BP is doing everything in its power to help them. 

However, despite the company’s efforts, the town hall meetings “didn’t go so well,” according to Pham.  

The meetings addressed, among other grievances, BP’s Vessel of Opportunity program. While it was in operation, this program was devoted to rescuing wildlife and clearing up the residual oil from Gulf waters.  

Although BP had hired some of the newly-unemployed commercial fishermen for the program, many of its applicants had received no response from BP and were not informed until long after the fact that the program had been canceled, according to Pham. 

With an audience consisting largely of jobless Vietnamese fishermen, “a lot of people were getting upset” with the scripted non-answers BP offered them, which were delivered by Vietnamese translators that appeared incompetent, Pham said.

Other objections to BP’s handling of the disaster included the company’s failure to efficiently process the fishing community’s compensatory claims. Pham said that the claimant forms tend to contain highly technical legal jargon that the area’s men and women cannot understand.  

Pham also became privy to stories of law firms from outside the Gulf hiring Vietnamese-speaking lawyers to take advantage of the Vietnamese community’s vulnerability, particularly its lack of English skills and legal expertise, she said.

“The biggest issues in the Vietnamese communities are derived from language barriers,” said Amanda Zahler, one of the documentary filmmakers who accompanied Pham. “A lot of Vietnamese fishermen are unaware of all their options and don’t fully understand what [those options may] entail.”

On some occasions, Vietnamese families have been told that by signing a certain form they will have their claims against BP filed faster, according to Pham. In reality, these families are unknowingly signing a waiver to these claims.  

According to Pham, they are “being lied to and being tricked into signing off their rights to any claims until there’s a class-action lawsuit” that may or may not happen. 

“These fishing families have been ignored,” she said. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Pham said she has repeatedly reached out to media outlets in the Portland area to stir up some interest in these stories, but with no luck.  

However, she is convinced that it cannot remain this way for long. The Gulf states supply such a large volume of shrimp, oysters and other commodities to the U.S. that, sooner or later, Americans will begin to feel the effects of higher seafood prices, she said.

For now, the incomes of employed Gulf fishermen are actually suffering from the effects of low prices, according to Pham. Globs of oil have increasingly been discovered in oysters caught in the Gulf, thereby cheapening the commodity to the degree that few consumers wish to purchase it. 

“After interviewing a lot of fishermen, the biggest impact that I was able to witness…was the loss of livelihood,” Zahler said.

Although Pham was able, through the Boat People, to volunteer at a food drive on Sept. 1 that supplied food to around 200 families, Pham said the organization is too understaffed and underfunded to “make a lasting impact in the Gulf region.”

“[BP needs] to ensure that [the Gulf’s fishing industry] is not lost,” Pham said. “This industry is a livelihood, and they’ve irresponsibly destroyed it.”