The Deepwater Horizon began operations in 2001. Owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased to BP, a multinational oil and gas company, the ultra-deepwater semisubmersible rig would later be christened “one of the most powerful” in the world, building an additional reputation as a “lucky” rig.
In 2009, it would set the record for drilling the world’s deepest oil and gas well in the Gulf of Mexico’s Tiber prospect – over six miles of measured depth while operating in 4,130 feet of water.
In 2010, it would set another record. While drilling in Mississippi Canyon block 252, an oil field located approximately 40 miles off the shore of Louisiana, escaping gas from the Macondo well ignited. The Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, forcing the evacuation of 115 crewmen, causing the deaths of 11 more and unleashing the Macondo’s petroleum into the Atlantic waters. By the time the well was capped – 87 days later – the rig had sunk beneath the waves and spilled 210 million gallons of oil. To date, it is the largest oil spill in U.S. history as well as the largest accidental marine spill in the world.
Exposure to the oil killed fish throughout the Gulf region, sickening dolphins and turtles and contaminating the eggs of seabirds. Significant damage was done to the Gulf’s invertebrate populations – such as shrimp, oysters, corals and crabs – not only by the oil but also the 1.4 million gallons of dispersants used to contain it.
In the six months following the Deepwater explosion, the oil spill contaminated approximately 125 miles of Louisiana’s coast, killed 8,000 animals and incurred over $50 billion in fines, cleanup costs and settlements. Louisiana’s commercial shrimp fisheries were forced to shut down for nearly one year.
Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe à la Hache
Vanishing Pearls is the debut film from Nailah Jefferson. It tells the story of Pointe à la Hache, a small oyster fishing community in the Louisiana Gulf where lives were transformed literally over night. Jefferson’s documentary focuses on Byron Encalade, a local oyster fishing businessman, who must bear witness as his livelihood is swallowed up by the oil and the politics following the 2010 Deepwater explosion.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Ms. Jefferson earned a B.S. in Film and Television from Boston University and a Masters in Integrated Marketing Communication from Emerson College. Previous film projects include development on the Oscar-winning film Precious, as well as projects for California Newsreel and Nerjyzed Entertainment. She is currently working on a series of short films for Perspective Pictures, LLC.
Planet Experts: Where can people currently see the film?
Nailah Jefferson: Right now it’s available on Netflix, and it should be available for the next two years on Netflix. On October 1 we had a screening at the Deconstructing Film Festival in British Columbia. On October 30, it’ll be at the Covey Film Festival in Thomasville, Georgia and then November 5, we have a screening in Los Angeles at the California African-American Museum. And all of those dates and times are on http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/ if people want to check that out.
PE: How did you first become involved with Byron Encalade and the fishermen in Point à la Hache?
NJ: I had a family friend, Telley Medina, who’s actually in the film. He’s Byron’s son-in-law. He heard that I was leaving the company I was with and I was starting my own production company. I wanted my first project to be a documentary and he came over – this was not long after the oil spill, maybe a week after – and we were talking and he said, ‘You should try to do something on my father-in-law,’ and I said, ‘Well who in the world is that?’
He gave me his card, and it said Byron Encalade, President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. That weekend I went down to Point à la Hache. Even though I’ve lived in New Orleans most of my life, I’d never really visited these bayou towns, I’d never really thought about who caught the seafood, and never knew that they were these small family-run businesses. I was a little embarrassed, like ‘why don’t I know this?’ And it’s such a beautiful place. The people have such beautiful and just honest spirits that I thought, I really want to catch this on film.
They’re a people who don’t mind living a simple life, very connected to the land and the water, and they’re a humble people. And they just seemed so honest and true, I wanted to put their story in a documentary. And once I realized that – you know, just learning about the community, that it could possibly vanish because of the oil spill and everything that has happened over the years, I thought it was even more urgent that we tell this story and get it out.
PE: It’s been four years since the spill. What have been the lasting effects, and are there any improvements?
NJ: Initially, you know – and I have to say, across the board, everybody hoped that it would be not as bad as it has been. BP hoped that they could clean it up quickly, get it out of the way and move on. But because that was the attitude of BP and the government, and because they didn’t make long term plans – they didn’t have maybe a Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work and we’re not able to quickly clean up and see a recovery – I think it has left us in a bad place four years later.
The government kind of dropped the ball, I feel, as far as compensation, and science – late December we finally got the NRDA [Natural Resource Damage Assessment] report – a little bit of the NRDA report – it hasn’t even all been completed – and we’re finding out that now they’re saying dispersants did have an effect on the regeneration of Louisiana oysters, the outflow of freshwater did have an effect on the oysters – which we all knew, but for years and years they were denying that the dispersant had an effect.
And because of the dispersant’s effect, we’re not seeing recovery in the oyster grounds where the Point à la Hache fishermen fish. The BP oil spill was really more on the east side of the state, and that’s where Point à la Hache is, on the east side of the Mississippi River. That’s where the most plentiful oyster estuary was for years and years and years, and that’s where they ultimately let loose the fresh water, that’s where they ultimately sprayed more of the dispersant, so that’s a place that we’re not seeing recovery now.
Again, because they didn’t put measures in place, they had no way to try and fix it. There weren’t efforts put in place to put more cultch material down if we need it, there weren’t plans to say, ‘Okay how can we try and help these oysters that are buried on the bottom of the sea, and not reproducing because of the dispersant, and how can we clean them?’
So nothing has happened. I feel like the ball was dropped, the fishermen are in a worst place than they were four years ago, there hasn’t been much recovery and they still cannot fish, which is very much not only tied to their economy but also their history and their identity.
PE: In your interview with Indiewire, you talk about speaking to Kenneth Feinberg, the Director of the Gulf Coast Claims Fund. You mentioned that he wasn’t very helpful and said, “We did what we thought was needed to come up with these formulas. People just need to move forward and move on from the spill and not rely on these claims.” That sounds to me like someone who’s tired of fighting.
NJ: I do think they just want to move on – they want everyone to move on. People like Feinberg are sitting in an office in D.C. – or BP, they can move on. But these fishermen cannot. And that’s a problem. The people who actually have to live with the reality of the oil spill and live with the consequences, they cannot move on. A lot of these fishermen are in their 50s and 60s. How do you rebuild a life then? It’s part of who they are.
One of the fishermen in the film, Byron’s brother, Stanley, he deals with depression as a result of losing this way of life. It’s something that he’s done since he was twelve-, thirteen-years-old. He dropped out of school and never did anything else, and he was a great fishermen – and he loved this way of life. But now he has to start over, he takes on little jobs here and there.
But back to Feinberg. When Feinberg came in, he said his hope was to have at least 90 percent of fishermen who are affected by the spill take these settlements that they were offering. I think that right there shows you that the goal wasn’t, ‘Okay we’re going to try to identify what’s best for whoever on a case-by-case basis.’ It was, ‘I have this goal in mind and this is what I want to do.’ You know, in the beginning Feinberg seemed very much to be a friend of the fishermen and he said, if our expectations of recovery don’t come to pass, then sure I’ll look into shoring up payments and reopening claims, and ultimately he didn’t do that.
I was able to interview him for ‘Vanishing Pearls,’ which I was very happy about, and he says it, he makes it plain. One thing that he and Dr. Tunnell – who was the scientist behind the methodology that the GCCF [Gulf Coast Claims Facility] used for the claims – always said was ‘it’s reasonable.’ ‘Oh, it was reasonable to think this,’ or ‘It was reasonable to think that.’ If they were in these fishermen’s shoes they would know how unreasonable that they were actually being and how unreasonable it is to not reopen these claims when these people are now four years out of work.
PE: BP was recently found by the US District Court as ‘grossly negligent‘ for the oil spill in the gulf, shouldering the lion’s share of the blame. Do you think this will help Point à la Hache at all or will it really matter? Has the damage been done?
NJ: I think the damage has been done. However, I think it could possibly be helpful. Some fishermen were kind of forced to take settlements, the fishermen who were less economically sound. Byron did not take a settlement – he’s been holding out – but he was able to do so because he was a businessman. He was able to sell off assets here and there. He liquidated his company early on and that’s what he’s living off of. And he also gets some funds from the VA. But others were not able to do that.
In Byron’s case, he was able to hold out. So that means that now when he does get a settlement from BP, it’ll be – I want to say triple? – what it could have been, because they were found grossly negligent.
PE: In the course of your filming, what came as a surprise to you?
NJ: I knew we were an oil and gas state, but I still was very ignorant to just how much that industry impedes on the life and the culture of these fishermen. So to see that and to see how over the years different legislation has been put in place that definitely strengthens the oil and gas industry, but to the detriment of the seafood business, that’s unfortunate because the fishing industry, the seafood industry, is so much a part of our identity.
If we don’t have that, people aren’t going to come to Louisiana. It’s really a tourist state. They come down for that, they come down for the jazz and New Orleans and the food. So I can’t believe that the state isn’t doing more to protect it. And they really feel like they have to choose one or the other, whereas I don’t believe they do. I believe they can coexist – because they have to. We just have to force oil and gas to be more responsible and to be safer because it really is leading to the eradication of these small bayou communities.
People should come before profits. They should come before politics. Not sometimes – all the time. I think this heritage has much more value than oil and gas.
And I know we’re a capitalist society, people aren’t really buying into that. But that’s just my personal thought. These people and the legacy that they’ve created – over more than a century their families have been in this industry. I think that’s a lot more important and we should not have to sell out our cultural jewels in the name of making a dollar.