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The Devil Went Down to Louisiana: Disaster in the Gulf

(page 3 of 5)

 

 

The Cone Of Silence

Just days after the Deepwater explosion, journalists were already beginning to wonder why BP was spending so much time, money and manpower to prevent them from covering the unfolding disaster

After learning about a Mother Jones reporter who was prevented from visiting Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge, by local cops and BP representatives, Fast Company complained, “BP is doing its damnedest to keep reporters out of the hardest hit areas.”

The Coast Guard threatened CBS reporter Kelly Cobiella with arrest, claiming they were “acting under the authority of BP.” () And later, the Coast Guard reportedly refused to allow a small group of journalists to accompany a visit by Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.

 

 


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Even the U.S. military has allowed embedded journalists to document the war in Iraq, but BP has repeatedly refused reporters to access impacted areas and has even prevented airplanes carrying photojournalists from flying over the spill. It begs the question: what is BP trying to hide?

Former EPA Administer Carol Browner

Former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Carol Browner and Congressman Ed Markey (Democrat from Massachusetts) think they know the answer. They accuse BP of having a vested financial interest in downplaying the size of the leak and preventing anyone from documenting the extent of the damage.

Fast Company also learned that BP was offering fishermen thousands of dollars in compensation but only if they signed extensive non-disclosure agreements.

In addition to turning away nosey journalists, BP has also declined the assistance of everyone from Avatar director James Cameron (who helped create deep-sea submersible equipment and other underwater ocean technology in his quest to film the Titanic) to thousands of individuals who signed up on OilSpillVolunteers.com. By May 12, when the website closed with the recommendation that potential volunteers contact state agencies, they had registered nearly 8,000 individuals. A telling plea remains posted.

 
“If any BP management person is reading this, please contact us. We’re eager to help you but we’re unable to get through to the right people via the toll-free numbers. The automated response I received from your Horizon Call Center indicates that you have ‘hundreds of people willing to volunteer.’ We have thousands.”

CNN reported June 15 that BP had hired private security contractors to keep the public away from oil cleanup sites.

And when Matter of Trust  and other organizations donated booms made from human (and pet) hair stuffed in nylons, BP rejected their use on the grounds that they weren’t as effective as their own synthetic booms.

At the same time, there were reports that containment booms were in short supply and there weren’t enough available to protect the miles of coastline. 

Still, the official response has rejected hair booms, which by the way, were used quite effectively in the 2007 Costco Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay.

If BP was being successful in their efforts to prevent oil from washing up on beaches or entering Louisiana wetlands, perhaps their argument would hold water. But when they are failing to both shut off the source of the oil and prevent its landfall, it’s baffling that they would continue to outright reject assistance.

 

Controlling the Spin or Spinning out of Control?

In June, when stock prices plummeted nearly 50 percent amid protests and boycotts of BP products and talk of a government take over, BP responded, that they were “Not Aware of Any Reason for Share Price Movement.”

Was that evidence of their ignorance or an attempt to maintain investor faith?

Earlier, in response to negative public opinion, BP launched a new ad campaign featuring an apologetic CEO Tony Hayward taking “full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf.” Hayward also maintained that BP has been doing all it can, and has “helped organize the largest environmental response in this country’s history.” 

CNN reported that the television spot cost the oil company $50 million dollars. As a note of comparison, that’s just shy of the $62 million BP paid in claims to 26,500 residents.

In addition to the TV ads, BP purchased advertising in the nation’s top newspapers including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.

Another element in their PR campaign is altering the landscape on the search engine Google, where BP has bought pretty much every word remotely associated with the disaster. Type in “top kill” or “Gulf Oil Disaster” and the sponsored link will direct you to BP’s website.

Reporting on BP’s efforts to sway political and public opinion, The Wall Street Journal,

reported that Hilary Rosen, who founded the lesbian networking site OurChart had been brought on by BP, “after the spill” as part of an effort “to shore up congressional opposition to measures punishing oil companies, and…position BP as an ally with the government to manage the crisis.”

Rosen a former director of the Human Rights Campaign, and former Huffington Post editor-at-large, now heads the Washington office of the Brunswick Group, a British communications firm.

Speaking to Curve, Rosen clarified the situation, “BP was a client of Brunswick Group in London long before I came to the D.C. office. I didn’t pick it, I don't lead it, I try to stay out of the way. Mostly my client base is media and technology companies and one or two fun things like the WNBA.”

 

So How Big is it, Really?

Unfortunately, the exact amount of oil spilled may never be accurately determined. That’s because just as BP has kept journalists at bay, they have also, consistently refused to allow independent scientists into the oil spill area.

From the start of the disaster BP has insisted that calculating the flow of oil is “not relevant,” and “might even detract” from their clean-up response.

Pro Publica begs to differ. The independent newsroom reports that this argument contradicts the oil giant’s own 582-page Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico region which clearly states that determining the size and volume of a spill would be “critical to initiating and sustaining an effective response.” 

The document continues, “the priority issue will be to estimate and report the volume and measurements of the spill as soon as possible.”

So, why is BP backpedaling on their official statements? Perhaps they fear revealing just had bad the spill is.

The estimates of the size of the spill have certainly skyrocketed since BP’s original estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

Even though BP has prevented independent scientists from going onsite to estimate the size of the spill, there are two sources of information that scientists have been able to use in making estimations. The first is satellite images that show the spill had covered at least 2,500 square miles of ocean as of May 15. Of course, the exact size and shape of the oil slick changes daily due to weather and ocean conditions like winds, tides and currents, so this data is less reliable.

But, after May 12, when BP finally released video of oil pouring from the broken pipe, experts were able to use those images to determine flow volumes. That day, experts contacted by National Public Radio (NPR) and shown the footage estimated the volume at 50,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. 

Bowing to increasing pressure BP finally released more video, and Steven Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University testified before Congress, that by using particle image velocimetry he estimated the flow at 95,000 barrels (4 million gallons) a day.

If these later estimates more accurately reflect the reality of the disaster, there may already be 220 million gallons of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.

Since BP installed the containment cap on June 5, the company claims to have collected 127,000 barrels of oil from the leaking riser. 

However, Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara and a member of government Flow Rate Technical Group who originally estimated the volume at 100,000 barrels a day old Democracy Now on June 9 that once BP cut off the damaged riser pipe to install the containment cap, the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf dramatically increased. He said that while BP is now collecting more oil, there is simultaneously a greater amount spilling into the gulf. 

As of June 11, The New York Times reported that a government panel doubled their previous estimates of the oil volume. Still calling their numbers “preliminary,” the panel still raised it’s estimates from 12,000-19,000 to 25,000-30,000 barrels a day. 

Then, a few days later, the estimate went up again, to 35,000-60,000 barrels a day or (1.5 to 2.5 million gallons). While this estimate is alarming, it’s still up to 50 percent below estimates by Leifer and Wereley. Still it demonstrates that an amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every three to five days.

Partially impacting these increases is the fact that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finally confirmed that there are also immense underwater plumes of oil not visible from the surface or underwater cameras. BP’s CEO Hayward still denies their existence.