Universities are developing more strategies for students and faculty to engage with each other and communities outside of traditional educational settings. Right now I am traveling with students from my university “down the bayou” in Dulac, Louisiana, introducing them to the environmental story of disappearing wetlands and an estuary in crisis. The trip is part of an alternative spring break option — a competitive program at my university where students choose between either national or international trips that take them to communities with critical issues such as poverty, housing or the environment. Since I recently completed a documentary on the environmental crisis in southern Louisiana, I was asked to join the group.
My university subsidizes the costs of these trips so that students pay nominal fees for travel and food. The goal is to have the students experience places that transcend the stereotypical debauchery of college spring break vacations. Non-profits arrange the trips with schools, generally as part of their mission or connected to grant expectations. My own participation was voluntary, but students may connect their trips to a separate, one credit hour service learning option if so inclined.
Students in my group went first to LUMCON — the Louisiana University Marine Consortium—in the midst of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary. We heard about the wetlands loss in this area--Southern Louisiana is the fastest disappearing landmass on Earth. And we learned about different research projects surrounding the marsh, seafood and other coastal issues since the B.P. disaster.
We paddled around in canoes, taking pictures and snaking through canals in the marsh. Students traveled to Grand Isle to plant marsh grass and experience restoration work. They visited a devastating Katrina exhibit in New Orleans today, and plan to track invasive species tomorrow. As students develop their suntans while exploring the wetlands, their knowledge about environmental issues in the region grows.
We arrived in southern Louisiana at a time when this relatively small, geographic area is—yet again—in the midst of a national news story. Last Monday the first B.P. trial just reached a class settlement for individuals and businesses whose health and economic situations were damaged by the spill. But, as the students learned, this case is only the first of several investigations that will assess B.P.’s liability and the spill’s long term effects.
The politics surrounding the compensation of B.P.’s environmental costs to the Gulf Coast (and the government) is certainly an education for these students. Consortia of universities and individuals are actively pursuing RFPs for large sums of research dollars to assess the damage. Just learning the procedural acronyms that are involved requires a degree:
N.R.D.A .— Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a federal, legal process developed from the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that involves multiple government, university and oil industry representatives who research, assess and remediate the damage from a spill. B.P. is giving $1 billion dollars towards the N.R.D.A. early restoration efforts.
GoMRI — Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, independent research groups evaluating the health of the deep water and coastal communities since the B.P. spill and the use of dispersants. B.P. is giving $500 million for environmental research over 10 years, primarily to Gulf Coast research institutions.
With the announcement of the first $7.8 billion settlement awards on Monday, there were numerous reports regarding the questions of just how transparent and direct the transfer of monies will be to the plaintiffs, as well as concerns that the funds will be inadequate for the damages. In terms of future environmental remediation, there are concerns that money awarded under the Water Pollution Act will simply go into the general government coffers instead of to the Gulf States, because the Act does not require direct repayment of assessed damages to the states, but only to the federal government. Louisiana politicians have proposed the RESTORE bill to require that 80% of damages actually go to restore the gulf. So far the bill is slowly making its way through Congress, but is loaded with politics…
As a part of this trip, I screened my film, Veins in the Gulf, at Nicholls State in Thibodaux with many of the interview subjects present at the screening. Students got to witness firsthand my own research process, the people surrounding it, and, perhaps most importantly, the feedback on the results. Students seemed pleased to share this moment of fruition with me and the affected Louisiana communities.
I believe that the students are having a positive, and certainly an educational alternative spring break experience. They look tan and happy. (I may need to have another break by the end of it, though…)