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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona grad witnesses oil spill

Embedded in a Mississippi community of offshore oil workers and their families at the time of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, UA anthropology graduate student Preetam Prakash saw firsthand the burgeoning socioeconomic effects of the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Prakash was conducting research for a UA-backed anthropological study on the socioeconomic impacts of the offshore oil industry on the Gulf Coast region when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 platform workers and casting a pall over the futures and livelihoods of a group of Gulf Coast residents.

At the time of the explosion, he was stationed in Meridian, Miss., a south-central city noted for being an inland hub of offshore oil workers.

“”In that part of the state, a lot of local communities are pretty heavily dependent on offshore oil work because there aren’t a whole lot of other industries in the area that you can easily get into,”” Prakash said. “”They’re afraid that the explosion is going to shut down the offshore oil industry in the region, depriving a lot of people of their jobs.””

Prakash’s research first brought him to the Gulf Coast region in 2008, when he was stationed in Mississippi for the summer to study the socioeconomic impacts of the shipbuilding and fabrication industry, which is deeply intertwined with offshore oil.

He returned to the region in April of this year to work on a new study that aims to document and investigate the history of the offshore oil and gas industry during the deepwater era, which began in 1974 when oil companies first started to acquire leases on deepwater drilling territory.

Both studies, along with a series of related studies that the UA’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology has been involved with for the past 13 years, were notably funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Mineral Management Service. The Mineral Management Service, an organization responsible for regulating the oil industry, has been implicated in a series of errors and lapses in oversight that may have contributed to the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20.

Prakash’s work largely consisted of collecting oral histories from retired oil workers and their families. He also spoke to current oil workers and people who are involved in the industry in a managerial or regulatory capacity. Many of the people he spoke with knew workers who were on the Deepwater Horizon rig at the time of the explosion.

“”I talked to people who knew people who died out there. Most of the communities there are pretty small, so chances are if you worked offshore, then you knew most of the people who were out on the rigs,”” said Prakash.

Many of the workers Prakash spoke with expressed dismay that news coverage of the spill seemed to allow the environmental impacts to take precedence over the loss of human life.

Prakash spent his last week in the region on the Alabama coast. He was there when the oil slick first touched down on Alabama’s barrier islands and he noted a difference in the perspectives of people who live near the coast and people who live further inland in places like Meridian.

“”People on the coast that are really close to what’s going on right now are a lot more concerned about environmental impacts, things like what the environmental effects of the dispersants are going to be,”” said Prakash. “”But the people who are farther in are more concerned about how the spill stands to impact jobs and the local economy.””

Prakash also talked to people who he felt were at risk of being marginalized when compensation for the damages caused by the oil spill eventually arrives.

“”A lot of newspapers are focused on fishermen and shrimpers and how the spill is affecting them. That’s important, but there are also a lot of people who are going to be affected in less obvious ways: shipbuilders and people in the tourist industry, people whose ships are covered in oil,”” Prakash said. “”Right now it’s not clear what legal channels they’re going to have to go through to get compensation and how compensation is going to be divided among people who are obviously entitled to something and people who are affected in less direct ways.”” 

The oil spill has made the anthropological research that the UA has been conducting on the Gulf Coast region for the past 13 years newly relevant. Plans to study the still-developing socioeconomic impacts of the spill are already underway.

“”The oil spill happening definitely shifts our focus to more contemporary kinds of issues. We’re going to continue gathering oral histories but we’re going to be focusing on the social impacts of the oil spill on the area,”” said Prakash.

Prakash will return to the Gulf Coast in August to continue his research. He plans to stay there for close to a year. 

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