For these spill victims, legalese is just one language barrier

CHAUVIN, LA. – Even the lawyers and accountants poring through the 1,200-page Gulf oil spill settlement sometimes grumble about deciphering the intentions in its legal language, and Vietnamese immigrant crabber Dung Tran faces an even more daunting language barrier.

For him, the proposed settlement unveiled in March represents only the latest chapter in a legal ordeal made even more confusing by his limited English.

Since the 2010 spill from BP’s Macondo well, times have been hard for Tran, 46, of Chauvin, La. The spill damaged his 300 crab traps beyond repair, and now he struggles with a greatly diminished crab harvest and high fuel prices.

“Before the spill, the crabbing was decent, but now I only net about $50 for a day of work,” Tran said. “If a hurricane or another natural disaster happens next year, it will wipe me out.”

Tran, who supports a wife and three children, has been living off of savings and his reduced income as his damage claim has worked its way through a previous process and now the one created under the March settlement.

Hundreds waiting

He is among hundreds of Vietnamese immigrant fishermen waiting to be compensated for their losses by the $2.3 billion Seafood Compensation fund – part of the larger proposed settlement between BP and Gulf Coast residents who suffered economic or health damages from the spill.

A New Orleans federal judge tentatively approved the deal and is expected to give it final approval soon.

The seafood fund would compensate vessel owners, commercial fishermen and their crews for damages suffered from April 20, 2010, when the Macondo well blew out, to last April 16.

About 3,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the Gulf Coast area are in the fishing industry, said Anh-Dao Nguyen, director of the Southeast Asian Fisherfolk Association, an organization formed in 2011 to provide outreach and education for Asian fishermen struggling to understand their legal rights after the accident.

They find the many legal documents and notification letters perplexing, while their language limitations have made it equally difficult to find other employment.

“I don’t know what to do other than what my lawyer tells me,” said Tran, with Anh-Dao Nguyen translating his Vietnamese.

John-Hoa Nguyen, a community organizer who works with the Southeast Asian Fisherfolk Association, said that the language gap left the Vietnamese especially vulnerable immediately after the spill, when many were coaxed by lawyers to sign up for representation without understanding their rights or what they were signing.

“There were a lot of lawyers who flew in out of space and they took advantage of the ignorance of the fishermen,” John-Hoa Nguyen said.

Vietnamese residents say the language barrier also resulted in preferential treatment for native English-speakers when BP hired boats and crews to clean up after the spill.

“Even if I wanted to do clean-up work, they are not going to hire me because I don’t speak English,” said Tran, who went through the training to do clean-up after the spill, then spent a year waiting for a call that never came.

“I don’t have enough education to make a living on shore,” he said. “If I am unable to continue crabbing, I have no idea what I will do onshore.”

A key deficiency

That underscores what the advocates for the Vietnamese see as a key deficiency in the settlement.

“For the Vietnamese fishermen who are 40 and 50 and older, the BP proposal is to train them for another skill, but it is very difficult when there is a language problem and a different mindset,” John-Hoa Nguyen said.

“To teach them another skill is very difficult. Fisherman who do not even know how to write in their own language and their thoughts are very simple – if they can’t fish, what would they do?”

Many Vietnamese fishermen have complained that the reductions in the catch and the long wait since the 2010 accident are forcing them to accept the offer on the table now because they cannot afford to wait out a fight.

“We have no income and we have no choice,” said Harvey, La., shrimper Thien Le, “We have about 60 percent of what we had before.”

“If you don’t have money, you are going to be pressured into accepting a payment,” he said through Anh-Dao Nguyen, “even though you know it is not enough.”

Tran said five of the six Vietnamese crabbing families that live in the Chauvin community took $25,000 in a quick-pay settlement that was offered in the months after the spill.

Tran, who waited two years and received an offer of $50,000 – about a year’s pre-spill income – said that his neighbors regret their decision, but believe they had no realistic choice.

Tran plans to accept the offer, because his lawyer told him he otherwise might wait years with little chance of getting any more.

“I heard that the judge emphasized the fairness between BP and the fishermen,” he said. “But I don’t see any fairness for the fishermen in this.”

‘They need one voice’

With the process of compensating fisherman for their spill losses now in its third year, the Southeast Asian Fisherfolk Association provides translation services on the litigation and helps the fishermen understand and protect their rights.

“We know that we have to assimilate and excel in order to survive,” John-Hoa Nguyen said. “In the past, it would be very difficult to get the fishermen together, but now, they see there is a need for it, that they need one voice. They know the ocean very well, but when it comes to onshore, they knew nothing. But now, they are learning what is happening to them and what they need to know to make it in the future.”

But while the association and other community groups have raised the fishermen’s awareness, their concerns about the long term damage persist.

“The Vietnamese community is historically an extremely self-reliant group and community and this spill has eroded their ability to sustain themselves,” said Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans attorney whose clients include several of the fishermen.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, he said, Vietnamese immigrants were among the first to rebuild.

“But the oil spill is more pernicious because it does not give something that is so readily fixed,” Waltzer said. “They can fix their homes, boats, road, but they can’t fix the water.”

emily.pickrell@chron.com