BP working hard to keep the damage hidden

by Mark Floegel

May 5, 2010

The weather along the Gulf of Mexico finally cleared today, but with the wind backing around to the north and east, the spill remains out to sea.

Retired University of Alaska marine conservation expert Rick Steiner joined us today.  He’s worked on oil spills around the world, most significantly on the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound Alaska. 

Rick says that the fact that this spill emanates from the bottom of the gulf (5,000 feet down), where the water temperature is approximately 1 degree Centigrade (and the oil is hot) means that by the time the oil reaches the surface, it has thoroughly mixed with water and therefore does not appear to be the kind of gruesome slick that is so famous from previous disasters.

It’s a PR boon to BP that this is so, because it means that the oil spill remains hidden from public view.  It does not, however, mean there is not a tremendous environmental tragedy unfolding.  As we speak about this, we need to make that point clear.  It’s not just about what we can see from shore and that BP has been proactively taking steps to keep the damage hidden.

Aerial view of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead
Aerial view of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead

aerial view of oil spill

The dispersant being used at the wellhead – tradename “Corexit,” is nicknamed by Rick “Hidez-it” because the real reason it is used is to keep the damage out of sight.  He points out that oil is toxic to wildlife, dispersant is toxic to wildlife, but the toxicity of the two combined is greater than the sum of the parts.

A fisherman we spoke with also noted that if dispersants are used, it saves BP money because they can hire fewer fishing boats – at $1,500 per day each – to skim oil.

As we noted last night, when dispersants are not used, the oil comes ashore and kills birds, when it is not used, it stays in the water column and kills fish, but it’s worth noting that killing fish means killing birds eventually because of, y’know, that whole food web thing.

On another BP front, we hear that BP is demanding that fishermen who they hire in the cleanup sign gag orders, agreeing not to talk to the media.  Rick says it’s one of the many similarities to the Valdez spill.  BP’s reading from the playbook Exxon wrote.

The rules are:

1 – Understate the amount of oil spilled and environmental damage done.

2 – Overstate the effectiveness of the oil company’s response (or more accurately, the oil company’s “response theater”).

3 – Try to buy off the locals for a pittance in exchange for waivers that they will not sue.

4 – Get as many people under a gag order as possible.

We are warning the locals that it took 20 years of court battles to get Exxon to pay damages to the people of Prince William Sound and that the final settlement was only one-tenth of the original award.

Rick said, “Right after Valdez, someone told me, ‘Lawyers still unborn will be litigating this spill’ and I laughed at him.  Well, it’s been 21 years and the litigation is still not finished, so he may be right.”

Birds flying over oil spill



Mark Floegel

By Mark Floegel

Mark Floegel is the Research Director with Greenpeace USA. A former journalist, he's been working in public interest advocacy for 30 years, with Greenpeace since 1989. In his current role, Mark helps determine long-range strategic direction for Greenpeace and the execution of Greenpeace campaigns.

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