Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 6: On Futility and Secrecy

         After having tried to oust some good news or at least some concrete predictions for the future from Tulane professor Adam Babich, unsuccessfully, I realized something. This disaster is unprecedented, in terms of our history on this continent and perhaps soon in all of human history. What on earth made me think that anyone would have 'the answers?' What answers could I possibly expect? And as for a legal precedent, forget about it. There is no tried way to deal with anything on the scale we are seeing in the south. 
           The truth is that every time we fill up our tanks, we are asking in the smallest way for something like this to happen. We contribute each and all of us to the demand for what now seems only like viscous, black poison, and it would take an act of political courage not seen since Franklin Roosevelt to even dent our furious thirst.

        Despite the chaos and destruction that BP and the Deepwater Horizon have caused, even the affected region cannot divorce itself completely from its relationship with the half dozen other companies just like BP, who are currently lobbying to prevent Obama's 6-month deepwater drilling moratorium. You see, almost all of the coastal economies of the gulf states are engaged, to one degree or another, with either the seafood and charter industries, which are in the process of tragic collapse, or, ironically, with oil companies.

        The large percentages of coastal residents who are employed by the oil industry are torn between the obvious destruction at their beaches and in the bays, and the deeply important need to provide for their families. I am vividly reminded of Upton Sinclair's musing about how difficult it is to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. In this case, the residents of the coastal Gulf States are literally being asked to stand by as their employer destroys their homes and puts their future on the butcher's block.

        So what can the affected region do to at least try to keep up with the disaster? Well, not a whole lot, is the short answer. British Petroleum has recently developed a reputation for insensitivity, as is evident in comments made by BP President Tony Hayward, but another reputation has developed that remains quiet. That reputation is of secrecy and of a single minded dedication to public relations damage control.

        Not only does every 'vessel of opportunity' job come with a nondisclosure agreement from BP, but to even access a facility run by BP, you have to contact and be accompanied by a media relations representative from BP.

        After I left New Orleans, I traveled along the Mississippi and Alabama coastline, and it was the same story at each of the dozen or so BP staging facilities I tried to visit. I had access to the beaches, where orange-vested cleanup crews work fifteen minutes out of every hour (due to heat conditions) for twelve hour shifts which run day and night. But each staging facility, which are the bases of all these cleanup operations, was strictly off limits. Chain link fences establish the perimeters of these 'bases,' and large-scale metal shipping containers and dumpsters also formed a secondary barrier in a majority of these facilities.

         Dump trucks, backhoes, and people moved in concert with each other in these places, and an ambulance was on standby in every adjacent public parking lot (usually near a public beach access).

         At a particularly large-scale facility in Orange beach, Alabama, on the western side of Perdido bay, I was given the same story as many of the other sites: I had to contact Ashley Babb, who was the media relations representative responsible for much of the region near the Florida/Alabama border. She was then, and remains, unavailable.

          Frustrated, I parked illegally on the shoulder of the ramp to the bridge which spans the bay. I climbed up the incline and onto the guardrail and managed to attain a top-down view of the facility, including what was behind the quasi-fortified staging area. I saw a pile of bagged oil which was equivalent in size to an Olympic swimming pool, and in the distance, I could see an oversized turbo-diesel dump truck, which was responsible for bringing bulldozer loads full of oil-sand from the affected beach areas to the main facility.
          The company which was contracted to operate this facility for BP is Moran Environmental recovery, whose makeshift field office is pictured here with several pallets of Fiji water.

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