Horror and Heartbreak
The horror continues here on the Gulf Coast, as each day news of the oil spill becomes more and more dismal. Each day, another attempt to staunch the flow of oil fails. Each day, more coastline is covered in oil—more than 140 miles thus far. Each day, more “protective” booms fail. The heartbreak continues, as each day, more wildlife dies. Each day, the estimate of the amount of oil gushing forth into the Gulf seems to rise. I am so angry that I begin and end each day with a pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat. How can they do this to our coast? How can they do this to our wildlife? Why won’t anyone step in to say enough is enough?
So far, we don’t know whether the latest attempt to “cut and cap” the spill will work. Although the cap is in place, oil continues to spew. The Coast Guard now estimates that the amount of oil escaping is somewhere between 500,000 and one million gallons of crude per day. And here we are, on Day 46.
The message boards are filled with debates—is this Bush’s fault? Is this Obama’s fault? Is this our, the American public’s fault, a result of our all-consuming need for oil, our selfishness, our short-sightedness? The debate is a worthy one, but it’s not helpful to those currently living along the Gulf Coast who are devastated by what’s happening now and are fearful of what the future may hold.
Yes, offshore drilling holds risks, but this catastrophe did not have to happen. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was caused by greed on the part of BP, with help from Transocean, Halliburton, and the Minerals Management Service. In BP’s rush to cut corners, in their desire to speed up the drilling process, they gambled with the lives of the workers on the rig and with the future of the Gulf Coast.
It didn’t have to be this way, but BP does not hold all of the blame solely. I am furious that our government has allowed oil companies to drill deeper and deeper offshore in their quests for oil and yet requires no feasible plan for action to prevent a catastrophe like this one or to contain it once it occurs. As quoted in a USA Today article, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said that BP officials had to improvise because of the "unforeseen circumstances” of the event. "Nobody foresaw an incident in which something like this occurred," Rinehart said. How is it that no one could foresee this? Why are we allowing oil companies to drill for oil a mile beneath the surface of the ocean with no plan for how to respond when the unthinkable happens?
Each day, more and more evidence of BP’s outrageous safety record is unearthed—as noted in another post, BP has been cited for 760 “egregious, willful” safety violations in the last three years. The runners-up, Conoco-Phillips and Sunoco, each were cited for eight violations during the same time period.
Of course, this should come as no surprise from a company that once wrote up an analysis that compared its workers to the “Three Little Pigs” and advanced the use of cost savings over more costly safety measures. It’s maddening that this catastrophe, which has already cost hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup and containment measures with no end in sight, may have been prevented with the purchase of a $500,000 acoustic switch which, as you may recall, BP opted against.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Minerals Management Service could have required the acoustic switch, as do many of the other major offshore oil producing countries. However, the MMS decided “the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.”
And what were those back-up plans? Well, it appears that BP was allowed to just copy and paste its Gulf Coast emergency response plan from an old one it had lying around. Seals, sea otters, and walruses are listed in the emergency response plan as the animals that could be affected by an oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon—animals that must have somehow managed to migrate into the Gulf from the much cooler climes they normally inhabit. The emergency equipment provider BP lists for the “rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24-hour, 7 days a week basis” is, in actuality, a Japanese home shopping site akin to QVC. This is the emergency response plan that our government found adequate for deep water drilling.
On Thursday, Tony Hayward admitted in an interview with the Financial Times that it was an “entirely fair criticism” that BP was not prepared to deal with an oil leak of this magnitude and justified the lack of a response plan by saying it was a "low-probability, high-impact” incident. Hayward also commended BP’s containment efforts to date, saying, “Considering how big this has been, very little has got[ten] away from us.” The people of the Gulf Coast certainly don’t agree with this assessment.
And now that the worst has happened, now that the things that could not be foreseen have occurred, we hear over and over from the Obama administration, from BP, and from the Coast Guard about all of the hundreds of hours of manpower and thousands of feet of boom that have been deployed to prevent the oil from reaching our shores. And then we hear the real, heartbreaking truth of this situation—of the ineffective and ineffectual response. There are reports that BP bused in as many as 400 extra cleanup workers in advance of President Obama’s visit last week. Less than a week later, the workers had disappeared. “They’re all but gone,” said a local official. Several residents of Grand Isle called into WWL talk radio station on Friday morning to report that the hundreds of workers are back, again in advance of the President’s latest visit. One can’t help but wonder if this charade is only for the President’s benefit or whether it’s for the benefit of the nation at large.
BP contract workers are coming forward, stating that they have been required to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from talking to the press. And BP is apparently in charge of deciding which affected areas members of the press may visit. When a reporter from Mother Jones asked a BP representative why she was not allowed to see a local wildlife refuge where oil has come ashore, the response was because “it’s BP’s oil.” In an interview with the New York Daily News, a contract worker stated "There is a lot of cover-up for BP. They specifically informed us that they don't want these pictures of the dead animals [to get out]. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence.” Fortunately, as difficult as it is to view them, pictures of the devastation are making their way into the public eye.
On Thursday night, Rachel Maddow reported from Grand Isle, Louisiana on the “pitiful” response to the oil spill and on the ineffectual use of protection and diversion booms that neither protect nor divert. She showed miles and miles of boom that have not been maintained and have broken away from their moorings—moorings, by the way, that consist of nothing more than bamboo poles stuck in the water. This, in the 21st century, is BP’s response to an oil spill. Bamboo poles and booms. And of course, millions of gallons of toxic dispersants, which BP continues to pump into the Gulf, weeks after the EPA told them to find a safer alternative. Technology has advanced to the point that we can drill more than a mile underneath the surface of the ocean for oil, but nary a thought has been given as to how to respond to a catastrophe like this, once it actually happens.
In the meantime, BP has spent $50 million to launch a new commercial in which Tony Hayward says that BP “has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf” and again promises that the company will “honor all legitimate claims.” This is in stark contrast to a press release disseminated by the State of Louisiana, announcing that it has requested that BP give the state access to its procedures for approving or denying claims related to the spill. Not surprisingly, BP has refused. The state reports that of the “37 claims categories ranging from loss of income for shrimpers, crabbers, oyster processors and fishermen to loss of rental property income and damage to animals and property, 26 categories have 70 percent or more of unpaid claims. In 17 business categories, 71 percent of claims are still pending. For commercial loss of income, 57 percent of claims are unpaid. Less than 25 percent of business interruption claims have been paid.”
And so, we continue to watch, and wonder, and wait for the end of this catastrophe. For the oil to stop flowing in hopes that the cleanup effort can begin in earnest. And people in this area continue to wonder if they are watching the slow, painful death of life on the Gulf Coast.