For La. American Indians, Gulf spill reinforces history of destruction at hands of Big Oil

By Cain Burdeau, AP
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spill reinforces oil bad will for American Indians

POINTE-AU-CHIEN, La. — Like many American Indians on the bayou, Emary Billiot blames oil companies for ruining his ancestral marsh over the decades. Still, he’s always been able to fish — but now even that is not a certainty.

An oil spill — 5 million gallons and counting — spreading across the Gulf of Mexico has closed bays and lakes in Louisiana’s bountiful delta, including fishing grounds that feed the last American-Indian villages in three parishes. It is a bitter blow for the tribes of south Louisiana who charge that drilling has already destroyed their swamps and that oil and land companies illegally grabbed vast areas.

“Once the oil gets in the marshes, it’s all over, that’s where your shrimp spawn,” said Billiot, a wiry fisherman with tough hands, his fingernails caked with bayou dirt.

“Then we’re in trouble,” he said in a heavy French-Indian accent.

In the month since an offshore drilling platform exploded, killing 11 workers, BP PLC has struggled to stop the leak from a blown-out underwater well. Over the weekend, engineers finally succeeded in using a stopper-and-tube combination to siphon some of the gushing oil into a tanker.

In Pointe-Au-Chien, 60-year-old Sydney Verdin felt a tingle of vengeful satisfaction at BP PLC’s misfortune over the oil spill.

“I’m happy for the oil spill. Now the oil companies are paying for it the same way we’ve had to pay for it,” said Verdin, disabled by a stroke, as he sat in his living room and watched his grandchildren play.

Even before the leak, oil’s influence on the south Louisiana landscape was unmistakable. Signs warning about underground pipelines are everywhere. So are plastic poles in canals to show the pipelines’ location. Out in the marsh, oil and gas facilities are often the only lights visible at night.

Since the 1930s, oil and natural gas companies dug about 10,000 miles of canals, straight as Arizona highways, through the oak and cypress forests, black mangroves, bird rushes and golden marshes. If lined up in a row, the canals would stretch nearly halfway around the world.

They funneled salt water into the marshes, killing trees and grass and hastening erosion. Some scientists say drilling caused half of Louisiana’s land loss, or about 1,000 square miles.

“If you see pictures from the sky, how many haphazard cuts were made in the land, it blows your mind,” said Patty Ferguson, a member of the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe. “We weren’t just fishermen. We raised crops, we had wells. We can’t anymore because of the salt water intrusion.”

As companies intensified their search for petroleum in the 20th century, communities where the Choctaw, Chitimacha, Houma, Attakapas and Biloxi tribes married Europeans in the 1800s have seen their way of life disappear.

“This is not a two-week story, but a hundred-year story,” said Michael Dardar, historian with the United Houma Nation tribe. “Coastal erosion, land loss and more vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding all trace back to this century of unchecked economic development.”

Oil companies have long argued that their drilling in south Louisiana consistently was approved by federal and state agencies and did not violate the law. Most attempts to get oil companies to fill in the canals have failed in court. Land claims have proven hard to win because south Louisiana’s American Indians have not won recognition as sovereign tribes by the federal government.

The damage didn’t end with the canals. U.S. Geological Survey scientists say sucking so much oil and gas out of the ground likely caused the land in many places to sink by half an inch a year. In boom days in the 1970s, Louisiana’s coastal wells pumped 360 million barrels a year, an eighth of what Saudi Arabia ships to the market today.

Oil wells also discharged about a billion gallons daily of brine, thick with naturally occurring chemicals like chlorides, calcium and magnesium, as well as acids used in drilling.

To many Indians, oil has meant an unmitigated disaster.

“They never done nothing for me,” Billiot said.

Pointing across canals and open water at the village’s edge, he said: “You see where all that water is: It was all hard ground. You could walk from here all the way out there. They started making cuts, the water come in. It didn’t take too many days to make a canal. A big machine and they’re done. One little stream of water here, after so many years it eat up, and that’s why everything is wide open right now.”

In addition, American Indians say land and oil companies seized swamps that rightfully belonged to them. They’ve sued unsuccessfully to regain vast areas now owned by large landholding and energy companies.

Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans lawyer who’s worked on an aboriginal land claims lawsuit for the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe, said Indian tribes were so isolated they missed the opportunity to claim ownership of swamplands after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

“They were not English speaking; they were completely illiterate and they had no means to make it to New Orleans and make their claim,” Waltzer said.

Much of south Louisiana was claimed by the federal government and sold off at 19th-century auctions to land companies. By the 1900s, oil companies bought much of the land in south Louisiana. Allegations abound among Indians that oil companies hoodwinked them into selling even the small bits of land they owned.

“They take the land. That was years ago,” said Ranzel Billiot, a 30-year-old shrimper and one of Emary Billiot’s cousins. “A lot of the older people they took the land from didn’t know how to read or write.”

About 40 years ago, Verdin, the 60-year-old from Pointe-Au-Chien, his father and a cousin took shotguns and stood in the way of a Louisiana Land and Exploration Co. marsh buggy crew digging a trench that was about to go through a nearby Indian burial ground.

“We said: If you go one more step, you’ll risk your life,” he recalled. “They didn’t go through the burial ground. I can’t think of one Indian who ever made any money from oil.”

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