Tuesday, August 17, 2010

If you can't dazzle 'em with cleanup. . . .

Some say the government is in complete disarray when it comes to dealing with the BPocalypse in the Gulf of Mexico.

I disagree.

The accusations of disarray and incompetence only stick if you assume the aim of the federal response is to protect the public and the environment. As this whole corporate catastrophe drags on and on, the less this assumption actually holds water.

From the start, though, BP's game plan has been clear -- cover up anything that will cost the oil giant money. But what one would think is the government's game plan only exists in some old textbook from high-school civics.

Instead, what we have is a federal government totally compromised by Big Oil and the political cash and Washington lobbyists in which it invests, as opposed to . . . safety measures. This means the top federal priority doesn't involve the American public or resources, but instead has everything to do with covering up its own complicity in the catastrophe.

BASICALLY, it's like this: If you can't dazzle 'em with effective regulation and governance, baffle 'em with bullshit.

Thus, the feds' whole
"Oil? What oil?" act as fishermen keep finding gobs of the stuff and researchers begin to laugh at the government's latest "science."

And now, from
The Daily Beast, comes the latest installment in our ongoing series, a little something we call If BP and the Feds Say It, You Know It's Not True:
While officials claim most of the oil from America's worst-ever spill has disappeared, fishermen hired by BP are still finding tar balls—and being instructed to hide their discoveries.

Two weeks ago, as federal officials prepared to declare that some three-quarters of the estimated 5 million barrels of oil released into the Gulf over three months had disappeared, Mark Williams, a fishing boat captain hired by BP to help with the spill cleanup, encountered tar balls as large as three inches wide floating off the Florida coast.

Reporting his findings to his supervisor, a private consulting company hired by BP, the reply, according to his logbook came back: "Told—no reporting of oil or tar balls anymore. Don't put on report. We're here for boom removal only," referring to the miles of yellow and orange containment barriers placed throughout the Gulf.

Williams' logbook account, which I inspected, and a similar account told to me by a boat captain in Mississippi, raises serious concerns about whether the toll from the spill is being accurately measured. Many institutions have an interest in minimizing accounts of the damage inflicted. The federal and local governments, under withering criticism all summer, certainly want to move on to other subjects. BP, of course, has a financial incentive.

The miraculous disappearance of the oil and the pending transfer of $20 billion to Ken Feinberg, who is independently overseeing the claims fund, have resulted in the oil giant cutting back its response operations. With a recent halving of the Vessels of Opportunity program, which hired fallow charter and commercial fishing boats, captains and deckhands are now less reticent to describe their experiences.

This includes Mark Williams, who worked in the program until he was deactivated last week. Williams' saga is typical. In May, he arrived in Alabama from Atlantic Beach, Florida, to captain a charter boat. He got one day of red snapper season before Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Southeast regional administrator, shut down the Alabama waters for fishing.

"That morning [June 1], we took a charter out to the 'Nipple' and saw what looked like a lot of grass," said Williams, referring to the part of the Gulf where the continental shelf gets very deep, a favored habitat for large fish. "When we got closer, we saw it was mattes of oil in solid slicks. By that afternoon, oil was getting in our reels. Crabtree shut down fishing the next day."

For the rest of June and much of July, Williams worked off and on as a deckhand on boats enlisted in the Vessels of Opportunity program, including a boat called Downtime that in early June first sighted tar balls and oil sheen in the Pensacola Pass.

Williams was also part of the skimming operations at Orange Beach when miles-long mattes of oil washed on to its shores the following weekend. Untrained, Williams remembers putting more than 100 pounds of oil-soaked absorbent boom in debris disposal bags that he was later told should have held no more than 20.

Subsequently, Williams saw seven large shrimp boats, with two Coast Guard vessels accompanying them, five miles off shore. "Plumes were everywhere," says Williams, referring to thin layers of crude oil floating on the water's surface. "Every time another boat would approach the shrimp boats, the Coast Guard would get on the radio and tell the boat to veer back to shore." Williams says he believes the boats were putting dispersant on the oil, even though the Coast Guard has denied using dispersant off the Florida and Alabama shores. "The plumes were gone the next day," Williams says.

Back in Florida on July 27, his boat, Mudbug, was activated into Vessels of Opportunity. While the media, BP, and the Coast Guard were reporting no more oil, Williams and other boat captains were assigned to find it.

Three days later, Williams found remnants of dispersant in a canal in Santa Rosa Sound north of Pensacola Beach. He reported it to his supervisor, who worked for a company that BP hired to help with cleanup, O'Brien's Response Management.

Williams wrote in his logbook, "Returned p.m. for check-out. [Supervisor] said, 'Oh, they sent someone out there and it was algae'—No fucking way—Idiots."

O'Brien's was founded in 1982 by Jim O'Brien, a retired Coast Guard officer, who originally called his firm O'Brien Oil Pollution Service, ironically known in the industry as "OOPS." Over the years the company has been acquired and merged with other response companies; it was hired by BP and Transocean prior to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig as an emergency-response consultant.

On Saturday, July 31, Williams found a "tea-type" stain on the water and followed it toward Fort Pickens, which is the western tip of Pensacola Beach. He wrote in his logbook, "We found massive tar balls—both in quantity and size, in small gulley. They ranged from ping-pong ball to coconut in size not 3' from beach line."

After that, Williams was taken off spill and tar ball watch and put on boom removal. In an inlet north of Pensacola Beach, his crew sighted more tar balls. He wrote in his logbook: "Middle of Sound to off-load boom. 1" to 3" tar balls—floating—must be old—told [supervisor] at end of the day." That's when he was told not to make the report, but rather to simply gather up the boom.

“We found massive tar balls–both in quantity and size, in small gulley.”
Williams was deactivated from Vessels of Opportunity last week. Last Tuesday, the day before he was dropped, the boat captain wrote, "Coming back p.m. from Ono Island. Counted 12 oil plumes small in comparison to offshore between range marker and decon barge." This was a week after Carol Browner, a top energy adviser to President Barack Obama, announced 75 percent of the oil had been contained, evaporated, or dispersed.
I HAVE long said the last casualty of the BPocalypse will be whatever legitimacy the U.S. government has. That day draws nearer with every official lie -- with every public-relations obfuscation aimed at a public Washington desperately hopes is otherwise occupied with the misadventures of Snooki. Or cable-TV cage matches. Whatever.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, famously quoted the book of Matthew when he prophesied that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Today, I'd like to think he would say the same about a nation buried in bullshit, because it's true.

You know the saying "You are what you eat"? Well, while we might well avoid consuming BP's finest Corexit-petroleum soup du jour, it's not so easy abstaining from the fragrant entrée every segment of our society -- most notably our leaders -- put before us daily.

And that's as deadly as anything BP can spew into the Gulf of Mexico.

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