Some of the inequities arose from the chaos that followed the April 20 spill. But in at least one corner of Louisiana, the dramatic differences can be traced in part to local powerbrokers.
To show how the money flowed, ProPublica interviewed people who worked on the spill and examined records for St. Bernard Parish, a coastal community about five miles southeast of downtown New Orleans.
Those documents show that companies with ties to parish insiders got lucrative contracts and then charged BP for every possible expense. The prime cleanup company submitted bills with little or no documentation. A subcontractor billed BP $15,400 per month to rent a generator that usually cost $1,500 a month. Another company charged BP more than a $1 million a month for land it had been renting for less than $1,700 a month. Assignments for individual fishermen also fell under the control of political leaders.
“This parish raped BP,” said Wayne Landry, chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Council, referring to the conduct of its political leadership. “At the end of the day, it really just frustrates me. I’m an elected official. I have guilt by association.”
The economic benefits rippled throughout the gulf. In the six months after the spill, sales tax receipts, a key measure of economic activity, rose significantly in eight of the 24 most affected communities from Louisiana to Florida. In only one community, in Mississippi, did receipts dip significantly.
Sales tax collections from Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish rose more than 71 percent. And St. Bernard had a bigger jump than anywhere. That parish collected almost $26.8 million in sales and lodging tax receipts in the six months after the spill, almost twice as much as over the same period in 2009. Flush with cash from cleanup and claims, many fishermen bought new boats and trucks. Sales at the nearest Chevrolet dealer rose 41 percent.
Parish president’s powers
Just days into the crisis, St. Bernard’s parish president, Craig Taffaro Jr., invoked a Louisiana law to declare a 30-day emergency and handle the crisis without most normal government checks and balances. He chose the prime contractor that supervised the cleanup. He and people close to him decided which fishermen would be hired to put out booms and search for oil.
In some ways, parish residents seemed to view the disaster and BP’s culpability as an opportunity to recover from earlier blows. St. Bernard bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded almost every home in August 2005. Population dropped almost in half, from about 67,000 in 2000 to 36,000 in 2010, largely because people didn’t go back after Katrina and the hurricanes that followed. Before the spill, the parish slashed its budget by 11 percent, cutting garbage collection, the fire department and mosquito control. There was just no money.