< class="art-postheader">How to Cover Up a Global Disaster: Lessons from the Ongoing BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

A mere two weeks after the Coast Guard gave BP the okay to halt cleanup operations in the Gulf comes BP’s startling announcement that oil is still leaking from the Macondo field. This time, the oil isn’t leaking from the well head or the riser, but through fractures in the sea floor. Experts say this kind of leak cannot be stopped.

Organizations such as Sky Truth and On Wings of Care have been reporting miles-long oil slicks on the surface since March  2011, but the Coast Guard and BP have both repeatedly insisted there is no oil in the area. Despite BP’s insistence that nothing was amiss, they’ve had eight or nine work boats the size of football fields deployed over the site of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig for the past month, engaging in what appears to be some sort of very expensive operation. After persistent questions from watchdog organizations and attorneys, BP has finally admitted that oil is indeed leaking from the Macondo field through fractures in the sea floor.

Attorney Says There’s Nothing Natural About These Oil Seeps

BP told Sabrina Canfield of Courthouse News that they are engaging in studies attempting to “track oil flow from seabed to surface,” that the oil in the vicinity is a result of natural seeps. Wait. Natural  seeps?  Not so fast.

Environmental toxic torts Attorney Stuart H. Smith said it best in a recent blog post on the subject:  “If there are seeps in the area, they are not natural. I can assure you of that. BP was required to conduct a seafloor survey prior to applying for a permit to drill. If these seeps were not discovered during the survey – which they apparently weren’t – they must be related to the disaster and the heavy-handed methods used to attempt to seal the well.”

What is going on here, and why are we letting BP get away with it?

A Litany of Cover-Up Attempts

Most of the world is well-acquainted with the official story of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. First the explosion in April 2010. Then BP’s announcement that no oil was leaking. Then the discovery that not only was oil leaking, but that that the worst environmental disaster in the United States was unfolding. Then, President Obama announced “well capped, all-clear,” in September 2010. But many say BP went out of their way to keep the full story from being told. Following are some of the ways the oil giant has attempted to cover up the worst environmental disaster in American history.

Fascist-Like Media Shut Down in the Immediate Aftermath of the Spill

Remember that thing called a Constitution that guarantees the right to free speech and prohibits infringement on freedom of the press? Someone needs to tell Thad Allen and the Coast Guard about it. In the immediate aftermath of the spill, the Coast Guard issued an order stating that “vessels must not come within 20 meters [65 feet] of booming operations, boom, or oil spill response operations under penalty of law.”

“Penalty of law” in this instance means fines of up to $40,000 or one to five years in prison. CNN’s Anderson Cooper said of the ban, “In order to get closer, you have to get direct permission from the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans. You have to call up the guy. What this means is that oil-soaked birds on islands surrounded by boom, you can’t get close enough to take that picture. . . We are not the enemy here.”

Here is video footage of Cooper’s protest:

And here is an account from an anonymous member of the press who said access to the coast was virtually shut down. “It’s literally like a media blackout,” he says. “The media is not reporting one tenth of what is going on. . .I would probably think this was hyperbole, or overblown, exaggerated stuff, until I saw what I saw today. I couldn’t believe it. It’s like, it’s like BP. . . it made me really feel like the oil companies are running the whole government. That they’re calling the shots.”

DOJ Investigation on Deliberate Underestimates of Oil Flow

In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the oil spill for the purpose of determining whether or not BP deliberately underestimated the rate of oil flow. BP had every reason to downplay the disaster, since fines for illegal discharge of oil into United States waters can be as high as $4300 per barrel. According to Huffington Post journalist John Rudolf,  BP originally told the Coast Guard that the well was gushing 1,000 barrels of oil per day. But the real figure was closer to 53,000 barrels per day, according to the New York Times.

Rudolph writes:

Documents and interviews also indicate that BP, using reservoir data, computer modeling and imagery of the leaking pipe, may have had the ability to calculate a far more accurate estimate of the well’s flow rate early on in the spill than it provided to the government. The company either never fully ran those calculations or their results were not disclosed to federal responders.

“There was no lack of highly-coordinated work going on on that topic right from the beginning,” said an oil industry consultant directly involved in the effort to stop the leak, who requested anonymity because he may be called to testify in criminal and civil litigation related to the spill. “If all of those calculations were run, the flow rate could be fairly accurately predicted.”

As of this writing, the investigation is still pending.

Corexit Hide and Seek

From the beginning, many scientists and concerned citizens questioned BP’s use of the dispersant Corexit, fearing that it contained toxic chemicals even though many media outlets reported that it was as safe as dish-washing detergent.  In fact, in at least one Texas school that I am aware of, teachers have taught students about oil spills by demonstrating how oil can be dispersed by soap.

However, recent studies have shown that Corexit contains carcinogens and other harmful substances. Earthjustice, in collaboration with Toxipedia, released a report finding that of the 57 ingredients listed in various mixtures of Corexit:

  • 5 chemicals are associated with cancer;
  • 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes to burns;
  • 33 are linked to eye irritation;
  • 11 are or are suspected of being potential respiratory toxins or irritants;
  • 10 are suspected kidney toxins;
  • 8 are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms; and
  • 5 are suspected to have a moderate acute toxicity to fish.

Furthermore, dispersed oil is able to cross cellular barriers, which means Corexit-plus-oil is a toxic soup that is even more harmful to life than either one alone.  According to a report in the Herald Tribune, Corexit itself is more toxic to plants and animals than plain crude oil, which is saying something. We know that crude oil alone kills, and kills effectively. It contains substances like benzene, which the EPA classifies as a Class A carcinogen (meaning we know for a fact that it causes cancer). Benzene can also kill on contact at high enough exposures.

The use of Corexit is banned in various European countries. So why would we try to clean up a toxic oil spill by adding an even more toxic substance to it? Well, maybe because you don’t have to account for, take the blame for, or clean up oil you can’t see. Corexit doesn’t actually get rid of the oil–instead it sinks it to the bottom of the sea, preventing it from reaching the shore.

EPA Senior Policy Analyst and whistleblower Hugh Kaufman told DemocracyNow.org: “The sole purpose in the Gulf for dispersants is to keep a cover-up going for BP to try to hide the volume of oil that has been released and save them hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of fines. That’s the purpose of using the dispersants, not to protect the public health or environment. Quite the opposite.”

A Literal BP Cover Up

If all this talk of cover-up sounds a little conspiracy-theorist, consider one of the ways BP “cleans” up oil on Gulf beaches: they simply cover it over with fresh sand.

In this picture below, taken by Charles Taylor, you can see what is clearly fresh oil in the sand. Taylor took this picture on September 6, 2011 on Bay Saint Louis Beach, where fresh oil washed up after Tropical Storm Lee.

Oil on the Beach at Bay Saint Louis, September 9, 2011

Photo Credit: Charles Taylor

Lest there be any doubt that the substance in this photograph is actually oil, have a look at Taylor’s video of the same spot. You can clearly see the tell-tale rainbow sheen:

Hancock County sent out workers to bury the oil. In the video below, the worker burying the oil is under the impression that what he is covering up is actually algae, which gives rise to the question. . .did someone with a higher pay grade lie to him? When he finds out the substance is actually oil, he seems perturbed.

Video Credit: Charles Taylor

One might wonder why Hancock County would misinform cleanup workers about the actual nature of their task. After all, it’s no secret that a major oil-spill cleanup operation is underway. Could it be because the oil appears to be fresh and un-weathered, suggesting some sort of new or ongoing spill to which no one wants to admit? We don’t know.  But one fact is certain. Hancock County has a fleet of new trucks that all say “Funded by BP.”

Hancock County: Funded by BP

Photo Credit: Charles Taylor. Annotations added by Diane Castle.

Controlling the Science

When disasters as large as the Gulf Oil Spill occur, there are bound to be studies upon studies conducted by hoards of scientists from all over the world. And, true to form, BP has set up a $500 million dollar fund, which it will distribute to scientists at various universities.

But Greenpeace obtained a series of internal documents in which BP executives discuss ways in which they can control the direction of the studies and use these scientists for their benefit.

In these documents, one executive writes: Can we “direct” funding to a specific study (as we now see the Governor’s office trying to do?) What influence do we have over the vessels / equipment driving the studies vs. the questions?”

Another email details the agenda for a meeting which includes a “discussion around GRI and whether or not BP can influence this Long Term Research Program($US500million) to undertake the studies we believe will be useful in terms of understanding the fate and effects of the spill on the environment, e.g. can we steer the research in support of Restoration Ecology? . . . It may be possible for us to suggest the direction of the studies.

While some researchers have won the funding lottery thanks to BP, others are having difficulty gaining BP’s cooperation, according to NOLA.com. LSU Scientist Fernando Galvez told NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune that “it has been exceedingly difficult for researchers to obtain Louisiana sweet crude from Mississippi Canyon 252 or even comparable surrogate oil for toxicity testing under controlled laboratory conditions. As an example, my colleague, Dr. Andrew Whitehead, received a letter from BP confirming that shipment of surrogate crude had been approved and would be arriving soon,” Galvez said. “Seven months later, his group still has no oil, putting this federally funded research in serious jeopardy.”

At Least the Sea Food is Safe to Eat, Right?

Think again. Although the FDA reported in October 2010 that the sea food was safe to eat, a recent study revealed that the FDA was wrong. Fox News reports: Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC) said the FDA seriously underestimated the cancer risk from contaminants that can accumulate in seafood when the agency allowed commercial fishing to resume in the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill disaster.

While the revelation may have come as a surprise to many, anyone with a basic understanding of math could have figured this out.  The EPA says that an adult person who weighs 176 pounds may safely eat 13 grams of shrimp per day, 14 grams of oysters per day, and 49.9 grams of any type of finned fish (excluding shark) per day.  This amounts to:

  • 1.25 pieces of shrimp per day
  • 9/10 of an average-sized oyster per day, and
  • 1/4 of an average-sized piece of fish

And if you weigh less than 176 pounds or if you are a child, you can’t even eat that much without incurring significant cancer risk. Learn more about why the sea food is not safe here and watch registered nurse Trisha Springstead’s video illustration of exactly how much sea food you can and cannot safely eat. (Thank you to Trisha James for researching safe levels.)

Have a look at what people are pulling out of the Gulf these days

Apparently Mutated shrimp with no eyes:

Shrimp with No Eyes

These Shrimp were caught near Caminada Pass, Caminada Bay area in Louisiana on Sept.30, 2011. Picture by Branden Goldman, as seen on alabamashrimpfestival.com.

And how about catfish with skin peeling off? This particular catfish was actually caught alive:

Catfish with peeling skin, caught alive. Photo Credit: Captain Lori DeAngelis, as seen on alabamashrimpfestival.com.

This catfish was caught alive by Captain Lori DeAngelis in the Gulf of Mexico.

White Shrimp catches for 2011 are down by 99%, and shrimp catches across the board are down 80%, according to Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry. Yes, you read that right. Ninety-nine percent of white shrimp are gone, and the ones that are left have apparently genetically mutated and no longer have eyes. While the jury is officially out on what has decimated the shrimp population, experts now say the BP oil spill is likely the cause of sick, cellularly-altered  fish.

Meanwhile, Gulf Coast news reporters have been covering alarming independent studies which reveal that elevated levels of chemicals associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (including ethylbenzene)  are turning up in people’s blood. Have a look:

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the BP Oil Spill “killed 26,000 dolphins, harmed 82,000 birds, and killed 6,000 sea turtles. Only 25% of the oil was recovered. Two million tons of toxic dispersants were dumped on the rest.

The fish and shrimp population has been so decimated that surviving pelicans have resorted to eating sea-gulls–an almost unheard of phenomenon documented by Denise Rednour of Long Beach, Mississippi in the video below:

Video credit: Denise Rednour

 When Caught Red-Handed, Find a Scapegoat

With all this death in the animal population in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s tempting to jump the gun and blame BP, especially for the die-off of large numbers of endangered, soon-to-be-extinct,  sea-turtles. But of course, that’s not what the government did. Hesitant to point the finger at the powerful, corporate giant, they instead cracked down on small-business shrimpers for not installing turtle-excluding devices on their boats.

TheRepublic.com reports: “Since January, 468 sea turtles have been found dead along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, NOAA said. The crackdown on shrimpers was prompted by concerns that the spike in turtle deaths was linked to the shrimp industry, a link shrimpers deny.”

How can a spike in sea-turtle deaths be linked to an industry that has been all but decimated? Is the government really that stupid?  Is there something else going on here? Perhaps decoy lobbyists infiltrated the government ranks and engaged in some sort of misdirection campaign. (I kid. Sort of.)

About Those Lobbyists. . .

While speculation about BP-funded sea-turtle lobbyists is not likely to turn up any concrete information, what we do know is that the oil industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars on lobbyists and campaign contributions to your favorite (or not so favorite) politicians.  Who got what when?  Have a look at DirtyEnergyMoney.com to find out. Just enter your zip code, pick your politician, and wham. You get a graphic real-time representation of exactly how much money that person received and from whom. For example, Kay Bailey Hutchison has received over one million dollars of dirty energy money since 1999.

What Does all That Money Buy?

Power to Make The Law. Or at least influence it. While I won’t go so far as to say our politicians are bought and paid for by Big Oil, it’s naive to think that millions of dollars in campaign contributions wouldn’t influence decision-making at all. An entire book could be written about favor-swapping of this kind. Some people even believe that the second Gulf War was fought as a favor to Big Oil.

And how about the Media? While politicians are not necessarily for sale, the media definitely is. We call it advertising. And the amount of advertising a corporation buys can directly influence the type of media coverage they receive.  I was once a journalist for a major-market newspaper, and my boss was always hesitant to let me print stories that reflected poorly on our largest advertisers. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Dan Rather. In the video below, he talks about the character of news ownership in days past and today.

If you don’t have time to watch the video above, here’s the gist of it. Rather says: “Now, the more likely motto is, the news stops with making bucks.  …with entities whose primary business often has nothing to do with news.  Entities that may at any given time have literally hundreds of regulatory issues before multiple arms of government concerning a vast array of business interests that have nothing to do with news.   They are bound to produce profits. One might ask where news fits into this model. In the current model of corporate big international conglomerate corporate ownership, the incentive to produce good and valuable news is simply not there. American journalism is in need of a spine transplant.”

And Speaking of Ad Campaigns…

You’ve probably heard one of the ads. For several months now, BP has been running shiny, happy “Come down to the Gulf Coast, it’s all better” kind of advertisements, ostensibly to promote tourism in the area. Watching these ads, you get the impression that everything is a-okay and that nothing was ever amiss in the Gulf.  While I refuse to link to one of these actual ads to illustrate my point, I will link to this fun, satirical re-mix that intermixes photos of reality in with BP’s PR campaign:

But does anybody really believe the PR hype?

Do people really think everything is perfectly okay on the coast?

Well, have a look:

Here’s a picture of a toddler sitting in the middle of a toxic pool of what appears to be oil and dispersant–just like it’s not even there.  This is a current picture, taken on October 17, 2011 by John Wathen in Gulfport Beach, Mississippi:


Toddler sitting in Oil and Foamy Dispersant on Gulfport Beach

Toddler sitting in Oil and Foamy Dispersant on Gulfport Beach. Photo Credit: John Wathen.


And this one you have to see to believe–a  family cheerfully playing in the water right next to a beached, very dead dolphin. This photo was taken by the amazing Laurel Lockamy:

Playing in the Water with a Dead Dolphin

Playing in the Water with a Dead Dolphin. Photo by Laurel Lockamy.

Conclusion:  the advertising appears to be working pretty well for BP. Tourists are apparently in an outright state of denial.

Most of the locals, however, know the beaches and water are fouled and are likely to remain that way for some time.

How did BP try to rehabilitate its image locally?  By sponsoring the Alabama Shrimp Festival, of course!  BP was the official sponsor of the 2011 Alabama Shrimp Festival, where locals and tourists come to indulge in the fine flavor of Gulf shrimp.

Except there were no Gulf shrimp this year, so vendors imported shrimp from Asia instead and neglected to mention their origins, according to Michele Walker Harmon of AlabamaShrimpFestival.com.

When All Else Fails, There’s Always Harassment

Despite the millions of dollars spent on ad campaigns and corporate sponsorships, understandably, there are still those who are angry at BP and are seeking damages. And some of them say they have been harassed by BP after filing law suits against the Big Oil giant. Steven Aguinaga told Al Jazeera that after a visit to Fort Walton Beach, he and his friend Merrick Vallian became extremely ill. “After we got back from our vacation in Florida, Merrick went to work for a company contracted by BP to clean up oil in Grand Isle, Louisiana,” he said. ” Two weeks after that he dropped dead.”

Aguinaga filed a law suit against BP, hoping BP would make things right. Instead, he believes BP made things even more wrong. Within a month of filing suit, his house was broken into. He alleges that he and his wife are both being followed, and that a truck tried to run him off the road near a bridge. Furthermore, someone killed all four of his dogs (one was stabbed).

Aguinaga is not the only person complaining of suspicious activity. Activist Cherri Foytlin told Al Jazeera her email account was hacked and all emails were deleted after holding a press conference calling for more accountability from BP.  Activist Karen Savage said she has also had “‘oddly coincidental’ email hacks and other incidents that bring her concern.”

Incidentally, while corresponding with geohazards physicist BK Lim about this article today, someone also tried to hack into my computer–four different times–something that hasn’t happened to me even once in many months. I don’t know who it was, but the timing certainly made me raise an eyebrow.

Dodging the Clean Up Costs, Refusing to Admit Guilt

At least the United States is holding BP accountable for all this damage and nefarious activity, right?  They’re paying for the clean-up and the damages, right?

Um, well, not really.  According to an article on TheHill.com, last year “BP was able to write-off a whopping $13 billion of its clean-up costs on its taxes, forcing American families to pay the tab for the damage the oil company created.”

Meanwhile, countless claims have yet to be paid. Others are underpaid, and some may never be paid now that BP has announced they see no reason to continue payouts from their $20 billion fund . . .  and now that the Coast Guard has inexplicably declared the clean-up operations complete.

A quick and dirty Google search on “unpaid BP claims” brings up nearly one million results. It kind of makes you wonder why BP would rather spend millions on patently misleading advertising than actually make things right.

How to Make it Right

And there is a way to make it right, believe it or not. The answer is Bioremediation, Inc. Bioremediation’s product eradicates petroleum and petroleum products in minutes, and it is safe enough to drink. Watch it at work in this incredible video here:


The government has not allowed BP to use this product on the Gulf oil spill, even though it has been safely used on spills of smaller sizes.  I don’t know why not. If you know why, please leave a comment below.

Conclusion: Who You Gonna Believe?

Let’s go back to where we started. For months, organizations like Sky Truth and On Wings of Care have been documenting an ongoing oil spill in the Macondo prospect. For months, both BP and the Coast Guard denied its existence. Finally, BP admits that the oil is there and that it’s spewing out of cracks in the ground. BP insists these cracks are a product of Mother Nature, not of faulty and reckless drilling procedures.

This is not a story that you’ve probably heard on the national news, nor are you likely to hear it there, for the reasons we’ve discussed above. But in the off chance that a major media outlet picks it up and tries to tell you the oil out there is nothing but a natural seep, in light of all the evidence, who are you going to believe?

Diane Castle is the pseudonym of a former journalist and attorney with a background in toxic tort litigation. Her forthcoming legal thriller, Black Oil, Red Blood, explores the world of Big Oil graft and corporate corruption.

(c) Diane Castle, 2011.

Find out more about the legal thriller, Black Oil, Red Blood here. A portion of the proceeds benefits Gulf People Helping People. Read for fun and help out a good cause.