Jun
18
2010

Riki Ott & Tim Dickinson on BP Gulf disaster

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This week on CounterSpin, two angles on the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history, the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is trying to control what you know about the catastrophe.

What’s more, the company has enlisted federal and local government agencies to help censor information about the damage, the progress of the cleanup, and the safety of workers in polluted zones. We'll talk about that with Riki Ott, marine toxicologist, Exxon Valdez survivor and a contributor to the Huffington Post.

Also, the more you learn about BP’s track record and the governmental outfits that were supposed to be watchdogging them, the less appropriate the word "accident" sounds. We’ll hear about the series of failures that allowed for the oil spill with reporter Tim Dickinson, author of the recent Rolling Stone article, "The Spill, The Scandal and the President."

That's coming up but first, as usual, we'll take a look back at the week's press.

—A June 14 headline on the front page of the New York Times seemed to catch everyone's eye:

"U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan." The piece by reporter James Risen led with this:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan War itself.

Questions were raised immediately. What made this front page news, since, as other reporters and bloggers noted, these estimates have been circulating for years? The sort-of answer in the piece itself only invited speculation: Risen wrote that "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan," adding that "the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news."

So was this an attempt to bolster support for the war? That would seem to be a valid concern. But don't talk to Risen about it. When YahooNews reporter John Cook called him to ask some of these questions, Risen provided his view of media criticism, shall we say, saying, among other things, "The thing that amazes me is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people's stories." And adding, "Do you even know anything about me? Maybe you were still in school when I broke the NSA story, I don't know. It was back when you were in kindergarten, I think." That would be a reference to a story Risen wrote in 2005. He later apologized for his outburst, though not for the idea that a page-one story in the New York Times shouldn't be fair game for criticism.

—Many people believe it's a key job of journalism to serve as a check on official power; we may bemoan how rarely journalism really does that effectively, but it's especially disconcerting to hear how alien some journalists obviously find the very idea.

For instance, while some folks are concerned that fallout over Helen Thomas'

recent remarks might overshadow a long career of asking presidents tough questions, for the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, it was an opportunity to criticize precisely that. In both his June 14 column and the previous day's Reliable Sources program, Kurtz presented as evidence of Thomas' dangerous "bias and bile" her telling George W. Bush the Iraq War was a war of his choosing, noting its casualties and exhorting him to bring in UN peacekeepers. The New York Times also illustrated Thomas' "hostile and outlandish" style on June 7 by noting that she "repeatedly pointed out during White House briefings that the American-led invasion was costing civilian lives." Outlandish indeed.

Meanwhile CNN senior White House correspondent Ed Henry was nothing but proud to attend the party Joe Biden and the DNC threw for reporters, where Henry, Wolf Blitzer and others ran around the vice president's lawn playing with squirt guns. When NPR's Brooke Gladstone questioned him about the conflicts proposed by socializing with sources, it was clear he didn't know what she was talking about. Gladstone asked, "If these events don't influence coverage, why do you think the White House throws them? Do they just want to shoot you with a super-soaker?" Ed Henry's non-ironic response: "Maybe they wanna actually get to know us as people sometimes."

USA Today, as is its custom, published an editorial on June 11 about what to do about Iran's nuclear program along with an "opposing view," this one written by Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The problem was, the two editorials weren't very oppositional.

USA Today says that sanctions "plainly are not working;" Rubin says that "diplomacy has hit a dead end." Both stress the importance of maintaining the option of a military attack on Iran; Rubin insists that such an attack should go beyond Iran's nuclear facilities to its "command and control" centers, while USA Today presents the 1990 Persian Gulf War as a model of what an assault in Iran should look like. Both agree that a war would have negative consequences, and suggest that threatening to bomb Iran may force the country to comply with U.S. demands without the U.S. actually having to attack.

There is some daylight between the two on whether the U.S. could use a strategy of "containment," or what the paper calls "a new Cold War," against Iran. USA Today says that "history has shown that containment can work, however uncomfortably, if maintained until the regime's brutality and economic inefficiency cause it to collapse." Whereas Rubin states flatly that "Containment will not work."

But maybe the next time USA Today editorializes about the need to threaten to bomb some other country, they could get an opposing view from someone who would say, oh, that the use of military force against a country that is not about to attack you is a violation of international law...or that threats of such attacks aren't really a great way to discourage a country from building its own weapons...something like that.

—We've noted that in the wake of Israel's deadly raid on a flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza, some see that country's big problem as one of public relations rather than policy. In Time magazine's latest issue, an article headlined "Can Israel Learn How to Make Its Case?" tells us that,

the way Israelis see it, the failure of the commando mission was compounded by a failure to communicate the danger in which Israel finds itself. The Gaza Strip, besides being home to 1.5 million overwhelmingly poor Palestinians, serves as a launching pad for missiles usually fired by Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic group that does not shy away from terrorist attacks.

It's a theme of reporting to stress the threats to Israel posed by Hamas rockets. A June 11 New York Times piece stated that Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 "to stop a flow of rockets and destroyed thousands of buildings." That shorthand makes the invasion seem more defensible. But in 2008, the same reporter, Ethan Bronner, noted that Hamas had been "largely successful" in curtailing rocket fire from Gaza, citing Israeli and UN numbers showing a drop from 300 rockets in May to 5-to-10 in September.

If you describe the threat of rockets from Gaza in terms of lives lost, it might sound different. Such rockets have killed some 16 people in Israel, going back to 2001. It's difficult to present that as a legitimate rationale for killing more than 3,000 Gazan civilians over the same time period.

—And finally, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman argued on June 13 that when it comes down to it, we're all to blame for the BP disaster, and more:

We cannot fix what ails America unless we look honestly at our own roles in creating our own problems. We—both parties—created an awful set of incentives that encouraged our best students to go to Wall Street to create crazy financial instruments instead of Silicon Valley to create new products that improve people's lives.We—both parties—created massive tax incentives and cheap money to make home mortgages available to people who really didn't have the means to sustain them. And we—both parties—sent BP out in the gulf to get us as much oil as possible at the cheapest price.

It's telling that at this late stage of the game Friedman still thinks the housing bubble was mainly a problem caused by selling houses to poor people.

But more importantly, Friedman thinks "we" all belong to one of the 2 major parties, and that "we" participated in some sort of referendums endorsing ruinous Wall Street practices and reckless unregulated offshore drilling. But why stop there? If we're all to blame for those corporate disasters, why not also finger us for the Enron and Savings & Loan scandals, the collapse of the tech bubble, and the Exxon Valdez, just to name a few?

One thing we are not responsible for: Giving Tom Friedman a column and making him one of the most sought after corporate media pundits. That was done by people who routinely sleep through corporate scandals until they explode and can no longer be ignored.

RIKI OTT

CounterSpin: It's no secret oil giant BP is trying to keep a tight rein on information coming out of the ongoing disaster in the gulf. But is its strategy going beyond mere propaganda and PR to outright censorship?

Marine toxicologist and Exxon Valdez survivor Riki Ott has been monitoring BP actions and how they are affecting what we know about the damage the spill is causing, the progress of the cleanup, and threats posed to those working in the polluted zone. Riki Ott joins us by phone from the Gulf Coast to talk about the BP disaster.

Welcome back to CounterSpin Riki Ott!

Riki Ott: Thank you very much, Steve.

CS: Well, what is the evidence that BP is trying to censor information about the spill?

RO: Well, let's start right from the beginning, where we know that penalties are based on volume. So right off the start, there was an attempt to, basically, control the story of how much it was spilling—how much was the damage. And this story then went on to controlling images—so not only controlling the flow, but controlling the images, so restrictions were put in with the FAA. And I was literally flying with a pilot from New Orleans to Orange Beach, Alabama one day early June. And the pilot all of a sudden says, look at that, and he had just been telling me stories about, you can't believe how much oil is out there, if only the public could really see the amount of oil out there. He flies planes out to the service fields. He was saying those booms down there are not going to do anything to keep out this oil. And all of sudden he says, look at that, and I didn't know what he was talking about, and literally, the wavy red lines of the FAA flight restriction area had jumped from offshore to include the Barrier Islands and then the beaches of Alabama.

And he just looked at me, and he said there is only one reason for that. BP does not want pictures taken of the oil when it hits the Gulf Coast. He's an oil field service charter. He has to fly out to the oil fields. So it took him a couple days, but he actually got permission to penetrate that FAA flying zone. And he was like, he flat asked BP what up with this? And he says we don't want cameras out here. I mean, that flat telling him that we're controlling the images, we're censoring the images of how bad this really is. Okay, so we've got that going on. Then I started dealing with the cleanup workers. Next thing I know, we've got people who are getting sick. I'm trying to say, well, ask for respirators, so they do. And then BP says respirators are not required, we're not giving you respirators. The people come back and they say, what do we do now. And I say, okay, we've got nonprofit organizations that are raising money for respirators, they'll give you respirators. Fisherman go out with the respirators and they come back and they say, BP says if we wear these respirators, our jobs will be terminated. BP is still saying this. This is controlling the image of how toxic this oil really is. This is a hazardous waste cleanup. As this is all happening, I'm now starting to travel across the Gulf, and I'm in Mississippi, Alabama, and now we're talking late May, okay? So I'm thinking, I know what happened during the Exxon Valdez spill—we had a lot of dead things. And they collected in drifts and stuff offshore. They collected where the currents come together and basically sweep up the ocean. So I'm thinking we should be starting to hear stories of this.

So now we hear a month later, I am now convinced, and I was when I wrote the article about disappearing evidence—I have heard so many of the similar stories across three states about what's going on. People are on the beaches, and they're finding carcasses, and within 15 minutes or so, there'll be basically a SWAT team of people that descend down and take the carcass away. And people are told if you touch—these are BP people—if you touch that carcass, we will have you arrested. And so people are asking questions, well, how can BP have us arrested? I mean, that doesn't make sense to people, but people still back away from carcasses. But now people are starting to say well, where are the carcasses going? What's happening? I had the one photo of birds being raked in Alabama where the heads were being separated from the carcasses. What BP has been telling people is oh well, we're gong to necropsy them, we'll find out why they died. And it's like, really? How do you necropsy a bird where the head is separated from the body. I mean, that's not happening. So then this is still building.

Now we're actually starting to get whistle blowers from the cleanup operation—I'm sorry, every time I say cleanup I bite my tongue because this is far, far from a cleanup, okay?—from the response operation we're starting to get whistleblowers. And these whistleblowers, what they are—BP is hiring people in these communities; they're going out and they're seeing horrific things. This also happened in Exxon Valdez, where people just came back in tears, literally, fishermen in tears from what they saw, all the death and the suffering. And the fishermen now are coming back and the captains, the charter boat captains are coming back in tears. They're not talking to BP, they're not talking to the Coast Guard; they're talking to their families, they're talking to their friends, they're talking to key people in the community who are taking action and moblizing and trying to do something. And I have been linking the BP community activists now across the Gulf, and the stories that are flowing from these communities—sometimes I am personally in these communities when these stories happen, like last Sunday in Orange Beach when we had an osprey incident and then a dolphin incident—and sometimes I'm hearing them from the key community people. But the stories are all the same. People are coming in from this cover-up, from this response operation, and they're saying my god, these islands, they have dolphins on them, dead, too numerous to count. The counts of sea turtles on one island: 250 dead sea turtles.

When BP is knowing that the fishermen are doing this, so now BP is having people in Mississippi and Alabama go through metal detectors so they can't even take their cell phones out with them when they go and do their response work. So now what we're getting instead is lat-longs. We're getting lat/longs of where piles of dead things are or the beaches where we are. So now we're trying to literally get the photo documentation that we need to have this stopped. So that's kind of where we are with this story.

CS: Well, you're saying that this is going way beyond BP just controlling the message or doing PR but they're enlisting the government's help, which would seem to raise Constitutional issues. The government is not allowed to deny access to journalists, especially to pressing stories like this. As you mentioned, you're a survivor of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, where you made a living fishing until the spill. How does the propaganda and PR and censorship in the current case compare to what you saw in 1989?

RO: I thought Exxon was really heavy-handed back then, we had flight restrictions, however, we did have citizen volunteers going out and collecting wildlife and bringing them back to facilities—freezer vans and labs—that were under lock and key, chain of custody control because these carcasses are evidence for the federal government and the state to build their case under the Clean Water Act for natural resource damages, how much, you know, is a whale worth, a dolphin worth. This case still needs to be built.

Well, it's hard to build a case if the carcasses are disappearing.

CS: Well, we're running out of time but I wanted to ask you, where do you go from here? You're staying on this case, obviously.

RO: Well, this is not the only case I'm staying on. But I hadn't thought about the government being an accomplice to this, this is a good new angle. And I will say that some of our whistleblowers do come from the government. This is not only fishermen we're getting this story from. This is very upsetting to people who live and call their home this area, and it's not only upsetting for them to see this, it's upsetting for them to be treated like this by a corporation and have the government be part of it. So, the story's evolving, I'm staying on top of it, and we are, we're trying to track these stories down and get cameras out there.

CS: We've been speaking with Riki Ott, marine toxicologist and BP disaster activist. It's fair to say that, isn't it?

RO: Yes.

CS: You can read her reports about the disaster at HuffingtonPost.com.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Riki Ott!

RO: You're welcome, Steve, and people can also go to my website:

RikiOtt.com. And the bigger picture is then, of course, we the people need to be sovereign who rule, MoveToAmend.org.

CS: Thank you very much.

RO: You're welcome.

TIM DICKINSON

CounterSpin: The June 15 New York Times reported a government panel's estimate that the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's damaged well could be as much 60,000 barrels, or 2.5 million gallons, a day. The story noted the new estimate was well above the 5,000 barrels a day rate that "the government and BP clung to for weeks after the spill started". Well, that's true enough, but most reporters too "clung to"

that figure, if by that we mean didn't go out of their way to seek alternative estimates, dig deeply into the derivation of the figure, or explore any potential reasons it might not be accurate. Non-critical coverage will never help us see what went wrong at Deepwater Horizon.

A deep and critical examination of events can be found in the June 24 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. It's called "The Spill, The Scandal and the President," and it's by national affairs correspondent, Tim Dickinson. He joins us now by phone from the Bay Area.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Tim Dickinson!

Tim Dickinson: Hi, thanks for having me.

CS: Well, reading your article about the series of regulatory failures, the ignored warnings, the inadequate guidelines... one starts to wonder, at what point does the word "accident" no longer seem to be the most appropriate? Tell us some of the salient factors you report that made if not the explosion itself, the ensuing disaster quite, in fact, predictable.

TD: Well, this was not unforeseeable; in fact, it wasn't unforeseen.

M[inerals] M[anagement] S[ervice] has understood the risk of a deepwater blowout, described in largely the same terms as we're watching unfold in the Gulf, since 2000 at least. And they had several reports talking about the sort of catastrophic risks posed by the high well pressures and the failures of blowout preventers. And the industry, along with Minerals Management Service, which oversees drilling, had put together a survey that said this could be a showstopper for development of the outercontinental shelf, by which they meant, you know, this could really just put us out of business. And they noted that we don't have a solution for this problem. The idea that no one could have foreseen this is just, it's just not true. The second point is that, the administration, their ownership of this scandal begins in an admirable place even before President Obama took office, both he and Ken Salazar had targeted MMS as one of their highest priorities to start cleaning up. And so one of the first things that Salazar did was he went to MMS and delivered a beat down in his Stetson hat and bolo tie and told everybody that there was a new sheriff in town.

CS: Because MMS had been sort of famously corrupt and involved with the industry...

TD: It had devolved into a criminal enterprise, just put it that plainly.

So Salazar came in and said he was going to clean up this mess. Part of that was cleaning up the rank criminality that existed. But when we interviewed Salazar in 2009, he insisted that this wasn't just ethics reforms, this was going to go deeper than that. And it really didn't. They got people to stop doing things that were patently illegal, I think it's fair to say. But they didn't continue the top-to-bottom reforms that were necessary to make this something other than a candy store for the industry. And in fact, quite apart from taking a pause and reviewing the work of MMS and the bad science that they had been putting out under the Bush administration, Salazar almost immediately throttled up production or leasing of offshore areas in the Gulf to record levels.

CS: Among the many shocking and disturbing facts in your piece is the fact that deep-sea drilling gets a categorical exclusion from environmental review...

TD: Right, so the Bush administration had set up this neat system to preclear drilling projects. So what they would do is they would do a regional environmental impact statement, which is sort of the most detailed leveled of review. Then for each lease block, these big canyon areas where they're going to be putting a lot of different wells, they would say, okay we'll do an environmental assessment here, and they would sort of get a baseline environmental review—which would be maybe acceptable if they were doing a robust review, but they anticipated a spill of about a thousand barrels as a large spill. It was a joke. And then they were giving categorical exclusions to individual wells, and what that means is it's a "get out of environmental review free" card. It's originally intended for minor things like trail restoration or an outhouse at a state park, that you wouldn't have to get that reviewed because it would just tie up things in red tape and waste a lot of money and time for something that was known to be safe. But they were giving that to, you know, obviously, technologies that were unproven and required sort of NASA-level of engineering to get down a mile deep in the ocean. And so the Obama administration came in and didn't challenge this framework and in fact continued to provide these categorical exclusions, including to BP. You know, only warning them that there was some pressurized gas down there and they should be careful.

CS: Well, obviously the industry is well aware that these are the sort of "guidelines" that they're going to face, and that leads to things BP's application for Deepwater, which seems like they didn't put a lot of effort into it.

TD: [Laughs] No, I think, I mean part of the framework under the Bush administration was that it declared that the oil companies themselves would be in the best position to understand the environmental risks involved. It was just a ludicrous system, and it wasn't challenged by the Obama administration even as they were pushing forward on the greatest expansion of offshore drilling in the half century since it was inaugurated as a federal program. And I think most important to this idea that this was not a foreseeable event, I mean, you had congressmen a month before this disaster writing to MMS about a separate rig, BP rig out in the Gulf with even bigger problems, potentially—that has its engineering documents all out of order and could cause a catastrophic problem. So they're writing to MMS saying good god look at this thing, this could be a disaster. And so the system is blinking red and then this disaster happens. It's just really troubling. There was, again, there was sort of the intellligence in the system to prevent this but no one—the administration was at that point was eagerly trying to expand drilling in order to secure a climate bill, which may have been an admirable goal, but succeeded in compounding one environmental problem with another.

CS: Well, and for journalists who are looking for questions to ask and ways to play out this story, what are some things that you would encourage reporters to be looking at?

TD: I think we need to understand why the administration thinks it's only 40 percent oil, you know, because if it's 50 percent the flow rate could be 10 percent higher or whatever, 20 percent higher.

CS: That refers to the fact the Obama administration has suggested that maybe just 40 percent of what's being released is actually oil.

TD: And when somebody asked the flow rate study group team that, there was sort of an incomprehensible series of answers—none of which seemed to go exactly to that point. And then I think we need to get clarity on, you know, there's a lot of suspensions in place—a sort of moratorium and the blue ribbon commission—and all of that has the effect of moving this down the road to a point to where people may be paying less attention. So I think that it's going to be up to the media to keep this story alive, so that people are paying attention when those recommendations come out and we're not sort of lulled back into complacency and end up with another catastrophe.

CS: We've been speaking with Tim Dickinson. His article "The Spill, The Scandal and the President" appears in the June 24 Rolling Stone.

Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

TD: My pleasure.

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LINKS:

—"The Spill, the Scandal and the President," by Tim Dickinson (Rolling Stone, 6/24/10)

—"From the Ground: BP Censoring Media, Destroying Evidence," by Riki Ott (Huffington Post, 6/11/10)