The truth behind the spin: What BP doesn't want you to know about the Gulf oil spill

The energy company insists the Gulf has recovered. The people who live there say it still has a long way to go.

Published May 4, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, April 21, 2010.          (Reuters)
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, April 21, 2010. (Reuters)

The best time to find tarballs on Louisiana’s shorelines is directly after a thunderstorm, when the waves churn up the oil carpeting the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and deposit its weathered remnants onto the beach.

That’s according to Jonathan Henderson, and he should know – he’s been tracking tar for four years now, ever since the day, back in April 2010, when he took his first flight over the Gulf of Mexico to survey the plume of oil shooting out from BP’s Macondo Prospect. He’s taken some 200 trips since. These days, he tends to travel to Grand Isle State Park and Elmer’s Island. The oil no longer covers those places, as it once did, but despite what you may have heard about the cleanup being complete, fresh tarballs keep reappearing. Especially after storms, Henderson’s liable to find them by the thousands.

“Every time I go down to these areas, I find lots of oil,” Henderson told Salon. And it’s not just the tarballs, either. As summer approaches, he describes, with horrified fascination, how liquid oil still buried in the marshy soil oozes up to the surface. Just last week, he came across a dead dolphin.

By this point, BP is all but ready to wash its hands of the tedious task of cleaning the oil up. In April, on the eve of the spill’s fourth anniversary, the company triumphantly announced that it was ending the “active cleanup” of the Louisiana shoreline, its last point of contact in the momentous cleanup effort. Barely able to contain his frustration, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Sparks, the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon Response, quickly stepped in to clarify the company’s PR-speak: No, cleanup is not over yet, he insisted, and yes, BP will continue to be held responsible.

“I had significant problems with some of the facts, a lot of the language, but most of all the overall tone and theme of the responsible party press release,” Sparks told the Times-Picayune. “I found it to be very misleading.”

BP denied suggesting that its work or that of the Coast Guard was completed. "Our announcement last month merely highlighted the end of active cleanup of the Gulf shoreline, not the end of the response," spokesperson Jason Ryan said in a statement to Salon. "BP remains committed and prepared to respond at the Coast Guard’s direction if potential Macondo oil is identified and requires removal.”

According to the most recent data from the Louisiana Coastal and Restoration Authority, nearly 15.2 million pounds of “oily materials” have been removed from the state’s shorelines since they began collecting data in June 2011. Over 200 miles continue to display some degree of oiling; 14 are classified as “moderately” or “heavily” oiled.

The problematic tone was classic BP, which has been pushing to cleanse itself of the disaster’s stain from the very beginning. In the weeks following the spill, the company tripled its advertising budget, spending more than $93 million on newspaper and television spots even as it was working to cap the still-gushing oil, and long before Gulf communities had fully grasped the extent of the cleanup effort needed. By June, President Obama had publicly chastised the company for the $50 million spent on television commercials to “manage their image.” Less than two years out, in another television ad, BP representative Iris Cross smiled into the camera and declared the Gulf Coast recovered: "I'm glad to report that all beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy.”

Even then, residents of the Gulf were questioning such sunny claims. Even now, residents continue to live the spill’s true impact.

“It’s a huge, everyday battle for us,” said Casi Calloway, the executive director of Alabama-based nonprofit Mobile Baykeeper. “We only have 56 miles of beachfront property, but every single day, there is oil washing ashore somewhere.”

“And in storms,” she added, echoing Henderson, “it’s a lot.”

When Cynthia Sarthou, the executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, hears about these campaigns, she laughs: “A lot of people here say that if BP paid as much money to people who were injured as it did on a PR campaign, we might be as restored as they say we are.”

* * *

What BP actually meant by its recent announcement wasn’t that the tarballs were gone, but just that the Coast Guard would no longer be actively patrolling for them. And following the end of “active cleanup,” getting BP to actually deal with the tarballs now often requires Sisyphean feats of patience.

When a volunteer, or an intrepid tourist, sees something, they’re meant to call an 800 number, which connects them with the National Response Center for Pollution Incidents (NRC). Calloway isn’t sure where the person on the other end of the line is located, but she notes that they’re never able to pronounce the names of south Alabama towns. The NRC then contacts a number of agencies, including the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard, which sends its own staff to investigate. If it can be confirmed that the oil can be linked to BP (while BP’s spill was the largest, it certainly isn’t the only one occurring there), BP will send cleanup crews to help – or, if it’s a small deposit, foot the bill.

“The burden, in most instances, has now shifted,” Sarthou said, “from being BP’s obligation to clean up, to being the obligation of the states to prove there’s a problem before BP has to respond.”

It’s an expensive obligation, not to mention inefficient. Susan Forsyth, who’s filed multiple reports of tar washing ashore with the Florida Department of Natural Resources as part of her work with Surfrider Emerald Coast, explains that the Coast Guard responders are located in Alabama. If a tarball is discovered in the afternoon, she says, they usually won’t make it to the scene until the next day, by which time tidal cycles and wave actions often will have moved or buried the oil.

Taking over the spill zone in Alabama, Mobile Baykeeper has launched its own advertising campaign, passing out flyers and posters to hotels and condos reminding people to report pollution when they see it.  Some, said Calloway, would prefer to forget – are tired of the view of machinery and of workers with trash bags cleaning up oil, spoiling their water views. She worries that continuing to drive attention to the oil could end up scaring tourists away: those 56 miles of beaches, she emphasizes, supply 30 percent of the state’s budget.

* * *

While all this has been going on, mostly away from the eyes of the public, BP’s been shouting as loudly as possible, hoping to get itself seen as the true victim. Last fall, for example, the company aggressively campaigned to free itself from the responsibility to pay all of the businesses claiming a share of its court-ordered compensation funds. And it put up a formidable fight, taking out full-page advertisements in national newspapers highlighting the absurdity of some of the claimants. (A $173,000 request from an “adult escort service” was one of its favorite targets.) In a more pointed attempt to make sure its message was reaching the right eyes, BP sponsored Politico’s Morning Playbook – a must-read for D.C. pundits and politicians – highlighting more of the supposedly outrageous offenses for which it was being forced to take responsibility. The company could be “irreparably harmed,” it argued in court, if forced to pay all of the “fictitious” and “absurd” claims that were submitted.

From the viewpoint of those working to clean up the Gulf, however, BP’s complaints of being victimized were difficult to stomach. “BP is spilling millions of dollars on a PR campaign telling us how corrupt we are, and how we’re just slackers, and how we’re just trying to get their money for nothing,” said Sarthou. “It’s pretty offensive to the people down here, who are still trying to come back, many of whom still haven’t been paid, who are still dealing with the impacts of this kind of stuff.”

BP's Jason Ryan defends the company's costly PR expenditures as a "way keep the public informed of our economic and environmental restoration efforts in the Gulf."

"Over the last 10 months, we have been running ads to inform our stakeholders about the serious concerns that we have been raising for months now about the way in which the settlement agreement is being implemented," Ryan said. "We hope that doing this will help people understand why the litigation over the settlement continues and the extent to which we believe that the company’s commitment to the Gulf is being exploited.”

Despite BP's rationalizations, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the claims settlement this past January, ruling that the BP had to pay regardless of the claimants’ legitimacy. That was the deal.

The company's attempt at damage control was characteristically aggressive: “BP’s fight to restore the settlement agreement to its intended purpose – paying the legitimate claims of those who suffered real financial losses from the spill – has caused some to say we no longer care about the Gulf,” it attempted to explain in an ad placed in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal at the beginning of April. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Calloway disagrees. Sure, there were cheaters, she acknowledges, but BP’s success in changing the narrative to focus on that one small aspect ended up obscuring the real problems going on in the Gulf. “This is an environmental disaster,” she said, her voice rising. “Not just an economic disaster, not just a personal issue – this has been regionally, massively impactful to our environment. And BP is fighting doing anything about that, every single day.”

* * *

When Jonathan Henderson’s done taking photos of oil and tarballs, he sometimes scoops up the refuse and collects its in jars. Those on the coast are worried about the potential health risks posed to cleanup workers, not to mention the tourists walking barefoot on the beach who might not be aware, for example, that the tarballs have been found to contain the deadly Vibrio bacteria. Henderson, who sometimes sees children playing with the tar, recently sent some of his samples to a lab to be tested for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHS) — a cancer-causing byproduct of burning oil. He’s still waiting on the results.

“If I had more resources, I would spend a lot more time finding impacts,” Henderson said. “I would go into more remote areas,” on Louisiana’s coastline, the ones only accessible by boat, “and I would find oil, and send it to a lab, and prove that it was BP’s. And I would go to areas that had been taken out of response, and find oil, and prove that it’s still BP’s oil impacting the area.”

In February, BP reached a settlement with the Gulf’s cleanup workers and coastal residents, benefitting a potential 200,000 people whose health may have been affected by contact with the spilled oil. It denies the importance of the Vibrio study, arguing that “there are far more common sources of Vibrio, such as seawater and oysters,” putting people’s health at risk.

Sarthou sees the need for mental health services in the communities that were most directly affected by the spill, and wonders if anyone outside of the region is even aware of the myriad health concerns cropping up. “Scientists generally don’t have a lot of money to put out their information,” she points out – and certainly don’t have the funds to compete with BP when it wants to challenge their findings.

"Some environmental advocacy groups have been pushing their political agendas in the media by cherry-picking reports, mischaracterizing their findings and jumping to conclusions that are not based on evidence," Ryan countered. "In doing so, they run roughshod over the legal requirement that damages be assessed in accordance with real science. Instead, they rush to judgment, ignoring reports showing that for many species and habitats, the environmental impact of the spill was less severe than originally feared. The accident was a serious event, and BP remains committed to restoration of natural resources that science shows were actually injured."

BP, of course, will continue to argue that it’s done everything it should. By its own account, it shelled out in excess of $26 billion responding to the oil spill and contributing to the Gulf’s economic and environmental recovery, and cleaned up over 100,000 tons of material from the shorelines. Depending on the outcome of the third and final phase of its trial – that is, depending on just how much oil it’s determined was spilled, and on whether or not the company’s found guilty of “gross negligence” -- it could be on the line for up to $17 billion more. That’s a lot of money – about $3.6 billion more than the company’s 2013 profits. But hey, they also spilled a lot of oil, coating over 1,000 miles of the Gulf’s coastline.

Yet at a certain point, that money ceases to matter. “No matter how many billions of dollars you spend, ultimately you’re not able to get all of this oil out of the water when you have a catastrophic spill like this,” said Bob Deans, the Director of Federal Communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the author of one of the very first books to come out about the spill. “That is why we need to invest everything we can in preventing it from happening in the first place.”

Along those lines, Deans points out one other way in which BP’s campaigning has unquestionably been successful: Since the disaster, Congress has not passed a single law to prevent something like the spill from happening again.

“They have done nothing to make offshore drilling any safer today than on the day of the blowout four years ago,” he told Salon. “That is a disgrace.”

“BP probably doesn’t care what the Gulf Coast thinks, because they probably think we’re going to hate them forever,” muses Calloway. “We probably will. But at the same time, their image, in all of our eyes, would increase dramatically if they would just settle, and go ahead and let us start doing environmental restoration here. And they should lead the charge. That would make a full impact on our community, and I think Gulf-wide.”

By Lindsay Abrams

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