Fishermen and media packed a meeting room at Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, Wednesday, Dec. 15. The organization is tucked away behind a strip mall of Vietnamese shops in New Orleans East. MQVCDC had called a press conference to call attention to a problem with the BP claims process. In order to appeal a claim decision, a claimant must be able to show an annual income of $250,000 or more. The Vietnamese fishermen who jammed the room believe that this amount should be reduced since it leaves out hundreds if not thousands of people affected by the spill.
While TV cameras hugged the back wall of the meeting room, a panel of three representatives addressed the crowd in Vietnamese. The three men, Thien Nguyen, Ve Nguyen, and Phoung Nguyen, spoke about their concerns and frustrations with the process. Ve Nguyen explained that barter for subsistence purposes is a tradition in the Vietnamese community. Phuong Nguyen agreed. He said that he has been crabbing for 20 years, and that he often trades part of his catch with friends who shrimp. This practice, though, leaves him without documentation or income for part of the catch he makes. Additionally P. Nguyen noted that the community has a strong commitment to tithe to the church. "What we give is not a small amount," he said through an interpreter. "BP should compensate use for that."
Daniel Nguyen is the Environmental Justice and Workforce Development Coordinator at Mary Queen of Vietnam. He has helped scores of people navigate the BP claims process, and he says that it is arbitrary. "It's hard to predict the outcome of a claim. Two people from the same household with the exact same documentation" had different outcomes. In this case, one person was awarded compensation and the other was denied. D. Nguyen agreed with P. Nguyen about the importance of the subsistence element of the Vietnamese catch. "They should take the part of the catch that feeds the family into consideration," asserted D. Nguyen.
According to a statement issued by Gulf Coast Claims Facility spokesperson Amy Weiss, any claimant has the right to take an interim payment and not waive their right to sue. The statement continued to say that anyone unhappy with the award amount can appeal to the U.S. Coast Guard (under OPA) or if they are still not satisfied, they can sue.
Along with the unpredictable outcomes, D. Nguyen also says that the amount of documentation required to file a claim can be onerous and that the wait time for a response can be very long. The issue with the time lag for ordinary working people is that they often have little savings or other resources to fall back on.
During the question and answer session following the fishers' statements, May Nguyen, a social justice consultant who was one of the founders of Mary Queen of Vietnam CDC, said "We would like Feinberg to remove the cap." Thien Nguyen agreed with her. "It should be removed as soon as possible...I don't trust what [Feinberg] says. They delay the claims, and delay and delay again. We can't wait six months or a year. We don't have income to live on."
Clint Guidry, a representative of the Louisiana Shrimp Association spoke up with a comment during the Q&A. He said that in spite of various meetings with Feinberg, nothing that his people need ever gets done. Guidry's comments were met with an outburst of applause from all the assembled members of the Vietnamese fishing community, reflecting their shared frustration.
As the press conference broke up, May Nguyen spoke with The Louisiana Weekly. "We assist people at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, so [repealing the cap] means a lot to people," she said. M. Nguyen said that Mary Queen of Vietnam has been working with approximately 400 claimants many of whom are deck hands or shuckers who make nowhere near $250,000 a year. She also said there are many more across the Gulf Coast in similar positions.
Small clusters of reporters and fishermen dotted the room as media members tried to learn the details of people's stories. An Nguyen, a staff member at Mary Queen of Vietnam, interpreted a conversation with Thieu Tran who has been living in New Orleans East since 1992, and lived in Alabama prior to that. He has made his living on the water for over 20 years, working as a captain, a deck hand, and doing long-line fishing. "Why are they asking us for receipts for subsistence claims?" Tran asked. He also wondered: "Who's going to be able to meet that [$250,000 cap] besides captains who earn more?" As the conversation wrapped up, when asked if the community was working alone or collaborating with others, An Nguyen replied "We're also working with the Louisiana Shrimp Association and African-American fishermen."
"People are getting more worried about the future," Daniel Nguyen confessed. Mary Queen of Vietnam is conducting seafood and water quality tests, and they have found a black substance in shrimp that the shrimpers have never seen before. This contributes to fears not only about the fishermen's livelihoods, but also that the environment may be compromised, and with it, their health.
Zoe Sullivan is a contributing writer to The Louisiana Weekly.
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