A Few Drops from an Oil Spill Story

by Becky W. Evans

A decade ago, I had never heard of Buzzards Bay, a finger-shaped estuary in southern Massachusetts ringed with rocky beaches, salt marshes and winding tributaries that provide critical habitat for juvenile fish, bay scallops and a variety of bird species, including the endangered roseate tern. When a large oil spill threatened the sensitive bay exactly ten years ago today, I was here in Boston completing a master’s program in print journalism.

Today, as SouthCoast residents remember the environmental and recreational destruction wreaked by this spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of home-heating oil, I am once again far from the scene, completing assignments for another master’s degree program at Boston University.

But in the ten years between my schooling, I spent six years living beside Buzzards Bay, reporting on its oiled ecosystem, kayaking though its meandering inlets and even celebrating my wedding beside its shining waters.

On Sunday, April 27, 2003, the Bouchard 120 barge operated by Bouchard Transportation Co. entered Buzzards Bay on its way to the Mirant Canal Station power plant in Sandwich.  At approximately 4:10 p.m., the barge was negligently towed outside of the navigation channel and dragged over rocks that gouged a 12-foot hole in one of its starboard tanks providing an escape for the heavy fuel oil.

In the days after the spill, winds and tides pushed the oil ashore, where it washed up on more than 90 miles of shoreline encircling the bay. The black, sticky oil clung to bird feathers and beach rocks and fouled hundreds of thousands of acres of shellfish beds.

When I became The Standard-Times environment reporter in 2005, I inherited the Bouchard 120 beat. For years, I chronicled beach cleanups, oil spill response drills, class-action lawsuits, legislative battles and regulatory changes—all part of the spill’s toxic legacy.  When I left The Standard-Times in 2009, I was determined to write a book on the historic spill and its impact on what had become my beloved bay. The goal was to have it published in time for the spill’s tenth anniversary—today. Well, there is no book; only this blog post. But I do want to share a few “drops” from this oil spill story that I’ve continued to chronicle as a freelance writer.

Breakfast for Birds and Beach Crews

In May 2010, while reporting on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I visited a bird rescue center where veterinarians used toothbrushes and Dawn liquid soap to scrub oil from distressed pelicans. One of the veterinarians, Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue, said she had also responded to the Bouchard 120 spill, where she employed the same methods to save oiled seabirds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls. (Her team saved over 100 birds, but another 450 federally-protected birds died in the spill.)

Miller said the Bouchard 120 spill was the only time she has washed oiled horseshoe crabs. “It’s really difficult to remove the oil from all those gills on the underside,” she said. New Bedford’s chlorinated city water proved an added challenge since it was toxic to horseshoe crabs, though not birds. So Miller and her team took turns filling buckets with seawater that better maintained the “physiological balance” of the horseshoe crabs.

During her month-long stay in SouthCoast, Miller slept at a Holiday Inn Express with a complimentary, self-serve breakfast bar stocked with hardboiled eggs. She soon learned that seagulls had an appetite for this human breakfast food. With no kitchen stove to boil her own eggs, Miller relied on the breakfast bar.

“We kept sneaking them out and mixing them with the fish and they really liked it.”

While Miller was busy feeding eggs to oiled seagulls, Fairhaven resident Cathryn Brower was feeding beach clean-up crews hot coffee and day-old pastries from the local supermarket.

“It was such a freezing cold, windy, raw April and May … and these guys were freezing,” she said. “When they left, they sent me this beautiful big card. It said: ‘Thank-you, from all of us.’”

She said the workers, who wore protective suits, spent weeks “picking up pebbles” from Fairhaven’s oiled beaches, including the one deeded to her family home.

“I never swam on my beach ever again,” said Brower, who sold her house three years after the Bouchard 120 spill. “I just didn’t have the confidence.”

Now that I think of it, Brower baked me homemade blueberry muffins the morning I interviewed her years later at her New Bedford apartment. They were delicious, but I now realize that I never sent her a thank-you card. I hope this counts.

Chasing the local connection

What brought me to Louisiana was not so much the BP oil spill that began on April 20, 2010, but rather, the woman charged with managing its response: Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. You may remember her from the daily press conferences where she joined BP executives to update the media about the latest “top kill” effort to plug the leaking Deep Water Horizon well. I wasn’t so interested in talking to Landry about the “top kill,” but rather, her role in managing the response to the Bouchard 120 oil spill, for which she was also the federal on-scene coordinator.

As soon as I arrived in Louisiana, the daily press briefings suddenly stopped, foiling my plan to find Landry. I knew there was no hope of getting her to return my calls when I, a blogger for ThreeBeats Media, was competing with hundreds of reporters from respected national and international media outlets. My only chance was a press conference at the command center in the rural town of Robert, La. about an hour’s drive from my hotel in New Orleans.

For the first two days, I found other stories to cover: the oiled pelicans and a speech by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. On the third and final day of my trip, I headed to the Garden District and ordered eggs and grits at a small cafe. As I read the Times-Picayune, I monitored my email for news of a press briefing at the command center. Within an hour, the announcement arrived in my inbox, and I drove my rental car out to the Shell Oil training facility that housed the command center.

I waited for hours outside the facility, talking to reporters from The New York Times and the local TV stations. During that time, I thought to scribble a note on the back of my business card in case I had the opportunity to hand it to Landry. During the press conference, I managed to get the floor. I identified myself as a Boston reporter and asked Landry to compare the management of the B.P. spill (172 million gallons) to the Bouchard 120 spill (100,000 gallons). There was a spark of recognition in her eyes before she answered me.

“I remember with the B-120 we had the risk of an endangered species, the roseate tern, and we sat there thinking we do not want to lose this species,” she said. “Well, now we have an ecosystem at risk, so the scale and scope of this is so much more significant.”

At the end of the press conference, Landry was quickly ushered away from the podium. But I did slip my business card into the hands of one of the Coast Guard public affairs officers. The next day when I returned to Boston, I received the following email:

Becky,

It was great to see you at the press conference yesterday and I apologize that the demand of this operation did not allow me any time to visit or shake your hand … I read your note and look forward to sitting down with you sometime to discuss the book you want to write about the 2003 oil spill.

Warm regards,

RADM Mary Landry

Meticulous Mitt Romney

A year after the Bouchard 120 oil spill, state legislators responded with the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act (MOSPA), which introduced a series of protective measures including requirements for oil transport companies to hire tug escorts and state-licensed pilots to assist in navigating the shallow waters of Buzzards Bay. A year and a half later, the federal government challenged the constitutionality of these and other provisions of the state law.

One provision that escaped the federal suit was the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Trust Fund, which set a fee of up to 5 cents for each barrel of petroleum product. Oil transporters had to pay the fee when their products were received at a marine terminal within the Commonwealth. The fund’s proceeds have been used to purchase oil spill response equipment and training for state municipalities.

State Rep. William Strauss, a Democrat from Mattapoisett, was among the many SouthCoast legislators who helped draft MOSPA. Strauss said he was unsure at the time how Republican Governor Mitt Romney would receive their bill, particularly the fee for petroleum products. “I am happy to say he viewed the per barrel fee … favorably and agreed to it,” Strauss said. “When there was an important local issue, Romney was willing to make the [oil] industry pay.”

Strauss recalled the signing ceremony for MOSPA that took place in August 2004 along the Boston waterfront. “Why he signed the bill near Boston Harbor, I will never understand,” said Strauss, who thought a Buzzards Bay backdrop would have been more appropriate. He said Gov. Romney’s well-planned signing events were “amusing” when compared to those of previous governors who “had been pretty laid back.” The signing of MOSPA proved no exception.

“We got there and he wasn’t there yet but there was a desk and a chair where he was going to sit,” Strauss said. “His advance team had so much practice for presidential campaigns. His staffers had put pieces of masking tape in a semi-circle and written our names on them to show where we were supposed to stand. I switched the location of my tape with a rep that had not arrived yet so that I could stand where I wanted— closer to the center.”

At the Helm of a Tug Captain’s House

Arthur Fournier is everything you’d expect of a tugboat pilot who has spent five decades pushing and pulling barges through New England harbors at all hours of the night. The short man with a weather-beaten face and gravely voice revels in telling stories about his many misadventures at sea and on land, including the time he survived twelve gunshot wounds during a dispute over his towing business.

Fournier was a frequent source in my stories about tug escort provisions in Buzzards Bay. Most of our interaction took place over the phone, but two summers ago, I paid the 80-year-old, retired pilot a visit at his modest home, which sits appropriately on the northern edge of the Cape Cod Canal tucked in between the US Army Corps of Engineers field office and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he docks his fleet of tugs. Fournier was late for the appointment and when I called his cell phone, he told me he was about 20 minutes away in Fairhaven. “Just let yourself in,” he said. But I waited outside until he pulled his black SUV into the driveway and shuffled us into the house.

We sat in his office, which resembled a tug’s wheelhouse, complete with a blaring marine radio scanner and a wide view of the canal. A salty breeze blew in through the open living room slider as we discussed the economics and logistics of escorting oil barges up Buzzards Bay and through the canal.

My favorite memory of the visit is when we heard the blast of a tug whistle and Fournier raced onto the back deck and stared at a smoke-shrouded tug towing a barge up the canal from Buzzards Bay.

“Guess what tug that is!” he shouted. “I can smell it! It’s the Doris Moran. I love that class of boat. It’s the best in the business.”

I waited several minutes for confirmation and wasn’t surprised to see the words “Doris Moran” printed across the bow. My ears buzzed from the pulsing groan of its engine.

“God, I love that drone,” Fournier said.

A View from the Exxon Valdez Spill

With a doctorate in marine biology and a specialization in oil pollution, Riki Ott was well-placed when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled at least 11 million gallons of black crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. She was living in Cordova and working as a fisherman when the oil spill—at the time the nation’s worst environmental disaster– devastated the Sound and Cordova’s fishing-based economy.

For 20 years, Ott used her scientific training and family-bred activism to force Exxon to compensate the losses suffered by her community, which included environmental destruction, sick clean-up workers and a broken economy and community spirit. As she explains in her book, “Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” she found that healing and recovery would ultimately come from the people of Cordova working together, not from the corporation responsible for the mess.

I first met Ott in October 2011 when she stopped in Boston during a cross-country book tour. Ott delivered an impassioned lecture about oil spills and corporate personhood at Lasell College, where I teach media writing and communication courses. I approached Ott after her talk and asked her to sign my copy of her book. She took it in her hands and started beaming when she saw the dog-eared pages and underlined passages accented with stars and exclamation points. I explained that they were notes for a book I was writing about the Bouchard 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, which she said she had heard about. She signed the book:

To Becky

In solidarity

Riki Ott

A month later, I interviewed Ott by phone for an article I wrote but never published. Here are some of my favorite moments from our conversation about the Exxon-Valdez spill and her life as an environmental activist.

BE: Can you describe the visioning process that helped transform Cordova’s economy after the oil spill?

RO: Basically, Cordova became a case study in disaster trauma. What happened in Cordova was that we were naïve enough at the beginning to believe Exxon when it promised to make us whole. It didn’t dawn on us until four years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster— when the economy completely collapsed because the fisheries collapsed— that nobody, except us, was going to help us.

Really what I’ve been doing in my tour around the country is sharing an exercise that we came up with after our economy collapsed. Basically we had to figure out how to diversify our economy. As long as we had to figure out how to diversify it, why couldn’t we bring in businesses that actually matched our values, human values. To do that, we had to figure out what it was that we liked about our community, what it was that we wanted to change, what action steps would be taken to make those changes, and how could we prioritize those action steps.

What came out of it was that our vision was to be a commercial fishing town. We wanted to diversify our economy in ways that were compatible with that vision. People came to realize of their own volition that strip mining and clear cutting and industrial tourism really weren’t compatible with that vision. Once people realized that, we then thought, “What is it that we can agree on?” We were able to start ecotourism and Copper River Wild, a massive marketing campaign for the only fishery on the West Coast. It was a huge success story.

BE: What role did your father, a student of Aldo Leopold, have in shaping your passions for community activism and environmental advocacy?

RO: My father’s role was huge and greatly underappreciated as a kid. I think as a kid your mom and dad are just your mom and dad, and you don’t really make heroes out of them until much, much later in life when you learn how hard it is to be a hero. With my dad, it was really role-modeling. We didn’t use the word environmentalist in our house.

When I was 13-years-old, the robins were dying. I would walk to school and literally birds would fall out of the sky at my feet. So I went home and called to my dad and said, “Why? Why are these birds falling out of trees, dying? What is going on?” He picked up one and put it in my hand and explained about the neurotoxin DDT. Then he gave me Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,”  and he explained that he was doing something about it. What he was doing was suing the state of Wisconsin to ban this toxic chemical.

It was a shoestring operation. I saw him going off to work in the morning and earning money and then making phone calls for his friends at night to raise money for this. We had this biologist that was working for Environmental Defense Fund stay at our house and an attorney. I would race home every day after school to see this trial unfolding on our dining room table, practicing the arguments and everything.  To me, that was a huge teaching of my father’s. Wisconsin banned DDT in 1971, and the nation followed suit in 1972, the year I went off to college to be a marine biologist.

When I flew over Prince William Sound in 1989 and saw this huge mess in my backyard, I literally had this flash back. I flashed all the way back to Wisconsin, and I saw how my life had kind of hip-hopped through all these generations to land me at this place, at this time, with this critical knowledge in marine toxicology that my new adopted home community would need. I could see it all, and I realized it was my turn to step up just like my dad stepped up.

In Conclusion

As I was sifting through paper and audio files from years of reporting on the spill, I was struck by something else Dr. Miller, the bird rescuer, said during our interview in Louisiana. I think her answer to my question, “Why do you do what you do?” is the best way to end this long tale of an oil spill:

“I think it’s because of guilt…most of the impact that we see to the wildlife is something that we, as a people, have done,” she said. “No, I didn’t cause the spill out here, but I drive a car. My home is heated by oil. I’ve got a propane gas stove…I’ve got a lot of plastics, I’m drinking water out of a plastic bottle right now. They’re all petroleum and they’re all things I want. I want to be able to drive somewhere; I want to be able to go in a plane somewhere…I kind of feel this obligation. I know we have the skills and knowledge and training and experience to rectify it, so I can’t just walk away.”

Maybe that’s why I can’t walk away from this story.

Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)
The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)
The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)
The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)
Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)
Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)
A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, Louisiana (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photography by Becky W. Evans)
The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)
Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crow following a lecture at Lasell College. Photo by Becky W. Evans
Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crowd following a lecture at Lasell College. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Finding Fellowship in a Virtual Newsroom

by Becky W. Evans

I’ve really missed being part of a newsroom this week—the drama, the camaraderie, the storytelling. When the bombs exploded on Boylston Street, I kept waiting for my iPhone to vibrate with orders to head to the finish line with notebook and pen. Instead, I remained on the couch, a passive consumer of the news breaking on the three screens before me.

The following day, I read accounts of Globe, Herald and Times journalists who had taken the day off to run the marathon only to find themselves reporting from the frontlines in their running shoes—some taking notes on bar napkins and filing stories on borrowed cell phones. And the stories they were telling- oh, the stories! Stories of heartbreak. Heroism. Humanity. Stories that write themselves!

And here I was on the couch, hostage to a bad cold and the 24-7 local TV news coverage, which was growing more sensational, erroneous and repetitive by the minute.  So I turned to Facebook and surprised my Friends with more status updates in a day than I had posted in a lifetime. Most of these updates related to my husband’s work as the pastor of a downtown church just a block away from the crime scene’s eastern-most boundary. The noontime prayer vigils had attracted media attention resulting in a beautiful photograph of Rob lighting candles in memory of the victims (John Tully of the Wall Street Journal) and a snarky Slate article by Justin Peters who likened Rob to Hollywood actor Bill Pullman. This provoked a lively debate on Facebook.

While on Facebook, I helped break the tragic news of the third victim’s identity to some of my fellow BU grad students, who were confused by the vague and mournful status updates from our Chinese classmates that popped up Tuesday evening. In keeping with the wishes of the victim’s family, BU administrators would not release the student’s name, but the Chinese media did, and so our classmates knew before the rest of us that their friend, Lingzi Lu, was dead. To help clue the rest of us in, I found and posted a link to a Globe story naming Lu.

In my virtual newsroom, I was not only breaking news but reading and reflecting on it thanks to friends and former co-workers who posted links to the best stories and praised professional news organizations for their “thoughtful” and “well-reported” coverage of the bombings. Someone posted a Wall Street Journal story written by a reporter friend I had lost touch with. We reconnected through Facebook and I learned she was here in Boston, camped out at MGH. We made plans to meet for dinner, which got bumped when the FBI called a press briefing.

Today, I left Facebook and the couch and made a visit to the sprawling memorials at Boston’s Ground Zero, where hundreds have left flowers, marathon medals, running shoes, stuffed animals, crosses, flags and messages of hope and strength for the city and its fallen. I lunched with friends at a crowded sidewalk café on Newbury Street. As my hands rested in my lap, I was newly aware and grateful for my limbs and the heavy police presence that covered each block. I saw reporters with their notebooks and pens in hand, combing the streets for the stories that will continue to write themselves. I didn’t have a notebook or a press pass, but I had my iPhone and documented what I could to share with my Friends when I got back to the newsroom.

Boston's Ground Zero
Boston’s Ground Zero

Revisiting the Raid: 6 Years Later

photo(1)
Covering the Bianco Beat

Six years ago today,  I was driving to work along the New Bedford waterfront when I received a frantic call from my editor: Federal immigration agents were raiding a local garment factory.  Could I go check out the scene?  I pulled a U-turn and headed south toward the Michael Bianco factory, which I would soon learn was employing undocumented workers to fulfill a government contract for military backpacks used by U.S. troops in Iraq.

As I approached the factory, now on foot, I saw federal agents dressed in Navy blue “POLICE ICE” jackets and baseball hats herding hundreds of handcuffed workers onto coach buses. Across the street, crowds of co-workers and family members huddled against the frigid March wind. Some sat crying on the ground. Others shouted at the buses in Spanish and Portuguese.

I left New Bedford three years ago when I stopped reporting for The Standard-Times. But every March 6, my mind returns to that scene in the south end of the city– and to the 362 Bianco workers who were hauled off in buses and flown to detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, while their orphaned children and relatives gathered in church basements awaiting phone calls, legal updates and in the case of some infants– breast milk.

Some of the detainees, mostly women, returned to New Bedford to begin immigration proceedings, while others languished in prison for months before being deported to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil, Portugal and Cape Verde. The former group I shadowed for years, visiting Boston courthouses, New Bedford triple-deckers, cultural festivals and rallies for immigrant rights. The latter I tracked down on a 2008 reporting trip to the dusty hamlets of rural Guatemala where the campesinos were as familiar with New England’s geography and economy as any Yankee.

When I left the newspaper and the “Bianco beat” in 2009, many detainees were still slogging through the murky wetlands of federal immigration proceedings. A frustrating life of limbo that drove a few to voluntarily return to their native countries. Still curious about the status of these immigration proceedings, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement last spring. In August, I received a CD-Rom with my answers hidden in the dense columns of an Excel spreadsheet. Based on my calculations, the following statistics summarize the case status for the 362 Bianco detainees as of May 26, 2012:

  • 166 Excluded/removed-inadmissibility
  • 16 Deported/removed
  • 20 Voluntary departure confirmed
  • 132 Active cases
  • 22 Granted relief
  • 1 Permanent residence granted
  • 1  Detained at a Bristol County detention center
  • 13 Terminated proceedings
  • 2 Warrant of arrest/Notice to appear
  • 2 Notice to appear/Released
  • 2 Charging document canceled by INS
  • 1 Not in ICE Custody-ICE fugitive
  • 1 Not in Custody: B-2 visa valid; Released
  • 1 Withdrawal permitted

(Note: Total =380 due to duplicate records for some individuals with additional cases and detention periods after the raid.)

It appears as many as 132 of the original Bianco detainees (36 percent) had active court cases five years after the raid– and are likely still living in limbo today. Immigration reform legislation has also stalled in the years following the raid. The Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 foundered in Congress during the Bush Administration. And only recently has Obama made another serious push for comprehensive immigration reform. Even that could be derailed by the latest fiscal crisis.

I have to wonder which way the March winds will be blowing during next year’s Bianco raid anniversary. Will the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants– including the 132 limbo-living Bianco detainees –have a clearer path to citizenship?

A Vigil for ICE Detainees

Detainees at Suffolk County House of Correction react to an immigrant rights rally.

BOSTON– As a new shift of prison workers parked their pick-ups and strode into Suffolk County jail last Sunday afternoon, they walked past a group of activists who prayed for the release of federal immigration detainees locked inside the 11-story jail in Boston’s South Bay.

The May 6 prayer vigil, attended by a spirited crowd of about 40 local church-goers and clergy, was organized by the New Boston Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders and lay people who support immigrant rights.

“We are here to offer a community of support to the immigrant community and to establish a kind of society where we wouldn’t have this question of documentation and these divisions,” said Peter Lowber, who sits on the group’s steering committee and is a member of Arlington Street Church.

Suffolk County House of Correction is one of three state prisons that rents a portion of its beds to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The agency uses the space to hold undocumented immigrants as they await deportation proceedings.

ICE has been housing detainees at the Suffolk County House of Correction since July 2003, according to ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein. The agency can hold as many as 235 detainees in the prison, which has 1,892 beds. As of last week, ICE was holding 235 “illegal aliens on administrative immigration violations,” meaning they violated federal immigration laws known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, Feinstein wrote in an email.

While he didn’t have specific data for Suffolk jail, Feinstein said nationwide statistics show ICE detainees are held for an average of 26.6 days before being deported. In 2011, ICE deported a total of 396,906 individuals, according to the agency’s removal statistics.

Since May 2009, the New Boston Sanctuary Movement has organized prayer vigils on a side-street outside the prison. Lowber said each vigil brings its own surprises, particularly when the group makes contact with prisoners.

Sunday’s vigil began with prayer, singing and a somber reading of the names of 123 immigrant prisoners who Lowber said died during detention at U.S. prisons. Then the group marched along a sidewalk and up onto a highway overpass where they faced one of the windowed prison walls.

As the protestors waved American and Guatemalan flags and chanted “Free undocumented people now!,” prisoners began to appear in the barred windows, waving white towels and t-shirts and pounding their hands against the plexiglass. Then messages from the prisoners unfurled– a single letter scrawled in red on each piece of yellow paper, spelling out: “Free Us” and “Help.”

A woman wearing a Guatemalan soccer shirt, who took the megaphone and started chanting “No More Deportations!” in Spanish, said her fiance was locked inside. According to Lowber, occasionally relatives who are undocumented and afraid to enter the prison for visiting hours might catch a glimpse of a loved one through the prison window.

“This is why we do it,” he said. “To make this connection with the people inside.”

The group plans to reassemble for another vigil outside the prison in November.

“We’ll be there until the deportations and the detentions stop,” Lowber said. “But unfortunately, I think we’ll be there for a while.”

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Photographing A Moving Planet

After discussing photojournalism with my Lasell students last week, I felt an itch to get behind the camera. So on Saturday I geared up to shoot a climate action event in downtown Waltham, where Brandeis and Bentley students joined local faith leaders in urging their community to get “moving beyond fossil fuels.” After a short rally, the group moved by foot, bicycle and commuter rail to a larger rally in Boston. Both Moving Planet events were part of an international climate action day involving 2,000 similar-themed rallies in 175 countries. My camera was drawn to the colorful posters that best illustrate the passion behind this movement. Here are a few photos from the day:

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Summer School

By BECKY W. EVANS

In my first summer break as a college educator, I’ve used my flexible schedule to take part in some unique opportunities for mentoring students in non-traditional settings. Two weeks after grading my last exam for Lasell College, I traveled to the flood-ravaged Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. Here, I participated in the Eco-Stewards Program, which helps young adults explore the connections between environmental stewardship and their faith. As a journalist, my role was to teach students multimedia storytelling skills so they could document the stories of the people and landscapes of Big Sky Country.

Student reporters conduct an interview for a multimedia slideshow. Photo credit: The Eco-Stewards Program

My crash course in digital photography and audio recording recruited a handful of students curious about multimedia journalism. Each morning, we met to discuss strategies for asking compelling questions, photographing defining moments and capturing descriptive sound. At the end of the day, it was a pleasure to unpack the treasures the students had collected with my crude recording equipment and bottom-of-the-line digital camera. The resulting 8-minute multimedia slideshow is well worth your time.

The author takes notes during a guided hike through the Montana prairie. Photo credit: The Eco-Stewards Program

Since returning from Montana, I have served as editor of the Eco-Stewards blog, helping students craft reflections about the Montana program and their summer internships at organic farms and summer camps. Now that my students are scattered around the country, we use email to discuss revisions and exchange drafts. Communicating virtually about the writing process has its challenges, but it’s a skill I acquired this winter while teaching my first online writing course for Boston University.

In addition to editing blog posts, my school-free summer has allowed more time for reading them. A favorite on my summer blog reading list is Pedal Posts from the Road, which chronicles the biking adventures of New England Climate Summer riders as they travel from town to town to support and promote community efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption. I’ve witnessed how they are living out these values: I offered one of the riders a lift in my car when I heard her bicycle was in the shop, but she declined, saying she was dedicated to a carbon-free summer and would walk instead. She and her friends from Team MAss Acceleration did, however, accept my offer of showering facilities. So, during their week-long stay in Waltham, they biked to my apartment one afternoon for some well-earned showers and naps. While the college students refueled with pretzels and cookies, we traded blogging tips and discussed the challenges of educating a divided public about climate change. At the end of their visit, I hopped on my commuter bike and joined MAss Acceleration (see their team photo here) for a short, peaceful ride along the Charles River.

The last week of July brought me to another river– the Connecticut– where I spent three days paddling, swimming, cooking and camping in New Hampshire and Vermont with a group of high-schoolers from two summer camps. Our 30-mile stretch of the Connecticut (which I learned comes from the Mohegan word “Quinnehtukqut” meaning “beside the long tidal river”) afforded bucolic views of dairy farms, cornfields and covered bridges and abundant wildlife sightings: bald eagles, belted kingfishers and bank swallows in the blue skies above and water lilies, juvenile fish and snails in the sunlit waters below. At the beginning of our journey, I had led a discussion about some of the threats to the health of the river ecosystem, among them: human waste from sewage overflows; pesticides, animal waste and other agricultural runoff; chemical waste from local industries; and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, where a radioactive fish was just found nine miles upstream from the plant.

Paddling our way down the Connecticut River from Bradford, VT to Pompanoosuc, VT. Photo credit: Camp Wilmot

While paddling down the Connecticut, my thoughts returned to my earlier summer adventures in Montana, where rivers played a major theme. The flooding of the Little Bighorn River in June– the result of unseasonable, heavy rains– paralyzed Crow Agency for days, closing highways and bridges, damaging homes and businesses, and shuttering the hospital. The high waters also canceled our Eco-Stewards canoe trip down the Little Bighorn.

Though the waters receded somewhat during my two-week visit, we kept a wary eye on the snow-capped mountains in the western sky, fearing that warm temperatures would melt the snow cap and send the rivers surging anew. The swollen banks of the Yellowstone River were noticeable as we drove out to Yellowstone National Park on Interstate 90, which hugs the river. On our return trip, we picnicked on a bend in the river with views of the still snow-covered Absaroka Range to the west and a stand of cottonwood trees to the east.

A perfect place for a picnic on the Yellowstone River. Photo credit: ThreeBeats Media

A few weeks after our picnic, when I had returned to Massachusetts, the news media reported a major oil spill on the Yellowstone River in Laurel, a town about 60 miles east of our picnic site. An Exxon Mobil pipeline buried below the river had ruptured and dumped an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. The oil spread at least 30 miles downstream, fouling the shoreline, killing fish and oiling birds, among them a bald eagle and a Cooper’s hawk. As an environmental journalist who covers oil spills, I wish I had still been in Montana when the pipe burst. As it was, I was not as fortunate as Matthew Brown, an environment reporter for the Associated Press who had planned a Yellowstone fishing trip for the Fourth of July weekend. When he learned of the July 1 spill, he scrapped his plans and headed to the scene to question Exxon officials and interview affected residents. His aggressive coverage won him a $500 reporting award for the AP’s “Beat of the Week.”

Though I missed my opportunity to cover the Yellowstone oil spill, there is still plenty of reporting to be done on an oil spill closer to home: the Bouchard 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay. In May, a federal appeals court issued a major ruling related to the spill, which dumped up to 98,000 gallons of oil (more than twice as much as the Yellowstone spill) into this productive estuary on Massachusetts’ southeastern coast. I’m planning to spend the rest of my “summer school” researching the impact of this ruling, so let me get you up to speed.

In April 2003, the Tug Evening Tide was towing the Bouchard 120 oil barge up Buzzards Bay, when the barge drifted out of the shipping lanes and struck a submerged reef, tearing a twelve-foot wide gash in the bottom of its hull. For days, thick, No. 6 fuel oil bound for a Cape Cod power plant leaked instead into the fragile estuary, polluting more than 90 miles of shoreline. Cormorants, loons and terns were among the feathered casualties.

An oiled bird from the Bouchard 120 spill. Photo credit: Massachusetts Natural Resource Damages Assessment and Restoration
The Bouchard 120 barge leaking oil into Buzzards Bay. Photo credit: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

A year after the spill, state legislators passed a score of safety provisions– known as the 2004 Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act–aimed at preventing another devastating spill in Buzzards Bay. One of the provisions required both single-hulled barges (such as the Bouchard 120) and double-hulled barges carrying 6,000 or more barrels of oil to hire tug escorts to guide them up the long, narrow bay. The tugboat, operated by a federally-licensed pilot with knowledge of the shallow waters, would escort the barge safely from the mouth of the Westport River to the Cape Cod Canal. In the event of an emergency, such as a barge drifting out of the shipping lanes, this additional tugboat would be on hand to push the barge back on course. Sound reasonable? Stay with me.

Two years after the state law was enacted, it was challenged in court by the Coast Guard and the oil transport industry. A federal judge ruled in their favor, determining that the Coast Guard had federal supremacy when setting regulations for oil transport in Buzzards Bay. The following year, 2007, the Coast Guard issued its own safety rules for oil transport in the bay. The Coast Guard rule required tug escorts for single-hulled barges, but not for double-hulled barges. The agency argued that double-hulled barges were less likely than single-hulled barges to rupture if they ran aground given their added layer of protection. In the following years, Massachusetts battled the Coast Guard and oil transport industry in court, trying to reinstate its tougher protections for Buzzards Bay.

Now we return to the recent appeals court decision. Here, the court ruled that the Coast Guard, when it decided that double-hulled barges should be exempt from tug escorts, failed to conduct an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Now, the Coast Guard must show proof that no environmental harm will result if double-hulled barges navigate the bay without tug escorts. While the Coast Guard conducts its study, the 2004 state law is back in place. And so far, double-hulled barges are adapting. “To our knowledge, all units have complied with the newly reinstated state requirements and have hired a tug escort,” according to Edmund Coletta, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Becky W. Evans teaches writing and communication courses at Lasell College and Boston University. She is a freelance multimedia journalist who covers the environment, commercial fisheries and immigration while living in Massachusetts and traveling abroad. She is passionate about teaching journalism in both traditional and non-traditional settings.

Judge signs off on $12.4 million class action suit

By BECKY W. EVANS

Judge Brassard hears from a plaintiffs' attorney during a final fairness hearing at Suffolk County Superior Court.

On the eve of the eighth anniversary of the Bouchard 120 oil spill, a state judge has granted final approval for a $12.4 million class action settlement that requires Bouchard Transportation Co., Inc. to pay damages to hundreds of Mattapoisett property owners whose beaches were contaminated with No. 6 fuel oil from the April 27, 2003 spill in Buzzards Bay.

Judge Raymond J. Brassard signed off on what he called a “carefully detailed” and “thoroughly negotiated” settlement during a final fairness hearing held Monday at Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston. No objections were heard, because none were filed by class members.

The parties reached a settlement in January, nine months after a two-week jury trial determined that Bouchard owed varying amounts in damages to eight Mattapoisett property owners who lost the right to use or enjoy their beaches for months or years after a Bouchard barge spilled up to 98,000 gallons of oil into the bay. The trial was part of a broader class-action lawsuit involving 1,104 Mattapoisett property owners.

Settlement payments, which range from about $5,000 to $30,000 per property, were calculated using a complex formula. To date, 873 class members– nearly 80 percent of the class– have submitted claims for settlement payments, said plaintiffs’ attorney Martin E. Levin of Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin LLC.

“We anticipate that the number will continue to rise as the summer goes forward,” Levin said. The final deadline to file a claim is July 1. According to the settlement, if a portion of the $12.375 million maximum distribution amount is not claimed, Bouchard does not have to pay that portion.

Levin said the case is the first environmental class action lawsuit to be certified and settled in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the event of another major oil spill in Massachusetts waters, Levin said he hopes the court would “look to it as a precedent.”

The lawsuit was filed on September 29, 2004 by class representatives Kim DeLeo, Francis Haggerty and Earl Cornish. Levin praised his clients for initiating the suit and “following through” so that the people of Mattapoisett could be fairly compensated for the lost use and enjoyment of their beaches.

After the hearing, a handful of class members gathered outside the courtroom for the last time, exchanging hugs and victorious smiles.

“We fought the good fight, and we did it for our kids,” said Joseph DeLeo, who carried his young daughter on his shoulders.

Channeling O’Keeffe and Adams in New Mexico: A Photo Essay

By BECKY W. EVANS

Like painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams, I found the light in New Mexico captivating, whether shining on an adobe wall, an evening songbird or a juniper bush in the high desert. After days of hiking in the hills outside Taos, I delighted in viewing O’Keeffe’s paintings of the same sprawling vistas in a new exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. O’Keeffe, who lived in New Mexico from 1949 to 1984, said she often featured the blue sky in her paintings “as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world.”

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ThreeBeats Returns with Multimedia Showcase

After a quiet fall, ThreeBeats is back with three audio slideshows that will take you on a musical, cultural and spiritual journey from South Africa to Southern Appalachia to Nashiville, Tenn. It was here in Music City that journalist Becky W. Evans learned multimedia storytelling techniques during a workshop sponsored by the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute. She took these skills on the road and experimented with them during her travels through the Southeastern United States and South Africa. Please enjoy the show, by clicking here or visiting the “Multimedia Projects” tab above.

Bergsig Farm School: A Photo Essay

By Becky W. Evans

Bergsig Primary is a small, rural farm school serving 61 students whose parents work on farms in Winterton, South Africa. The students line up by grade each morning and afternoon to sing songs such as the national anthem, which incorporates five of the country’s 11 official languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. Last week, I visited Bergsig (meaning “mountain view” in Afrikaans) with my husband, who taught English at the school 17 years ago. He was invited to join the students for their morning songs, while I kept busy with my camera.

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