2010 - %3, May

BP Puts a Price on Human Life: $10 Million

| Wed May 26, 2010 6:30 PM EDT

Investigations into the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig have so far indicated that BP, the rig's operator, ignored warnings in the hours before the blast and may have overruled drillers on the scene. Those decisions may have led to the explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers and caused the continuing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now we hear that the chemicals the company is using to disperse the oil may be making workers sick.

In case it wasn't already clear enough, Daily Beast got a hold of a document confirming it was BP's policy to cut corners and take risks with workers' lives.

The document, drawn up by BP's risk managers in October 2002, uses the analogy of the Three Little Pigs to compare costs of building materials for worker housing. The document indicates that the company put the cost of a single worker's life at $10 million in deciding what kind of construction materials would be cost-effective. Basically, the company decided to use trailers to house workers rather than buildings that could withstand a blast in order to save money. Well before this current disaster, the company's Texas City Refinery blew up in March 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170 others, many of them staying in these cheaper trailers.

The piece, by Rick Outzen of the Florida newsweekly Independent News, is a chilling account of how little the company has prioritized worker safety over the years. It seems to be the standard operating method at BP; as the Center for Public Integrity reports, the company was responsible for 97 percent of the worst violations cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between June 2007 and February 2010. The company insists it's changed its ways, and has repeated that in congressional hearings over the past weeks. But everything we're learning in the Gulf indicates otherwise.

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Meet Rand Paul's New Campaign Manager

| Wed May 26, 2010 6:11 PM EDT

Kentucky's GOP senate candidate Rand Paul has reshuffled his campaign team in the wake of last week's Civil Rights Act imbroglio. Former campaign manager David Adams has been replaced in that role by Jesse Benton, who also served as spokesman in 2008 for Paul's father, then GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. I had occasion to interact with Benton that year for a feature I wrote on Paul's campaign and followers. Though "interact" is probably too expansive a term. Benton steadfastly refused to comment (with one small exception) or make Paul available, even though my feature was far from hostile to Paul. His reasoning was that somebody in the campaign had dealt with Mother Jones in the past and had decided we weren't to be trusted.

Benton's approach struck me as odd, given that Paul portrayed himself as a different kind of politician, someone who wasn't stage managed or afraid of telling voters what he really believed. And Benton's policy wasn't reserved for Mother Jones. When I wrote a profile of Paul for Duke Magazine, the alumni magazine of Paul's alma mater, Benton also denied me access.

Benton's restrictive approach makes sense, of course, in the context of Rand Paul's missteps on the Rachael Maddow show last week. My bet is that Rand Paul will now do his best to steer clear of reporters who are likely to pose uncomfortable questions.

Sarah Palin's Neighbor

| Wed May 26, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

In case you missed it because you actually have a life, author Joe McGinniss, who's writing a book about Sarah Palin, has rented the house next door to her. Palin immediately posted a Facebook greeting that included this line: "Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole?" The none-too-subtle insinuation that McGinniss is some kind of pedophile is vintage Palin, and undeniably disgusting.

Still, I have to wonder: am I the only lefty around who finds McGinniss's action a little disturbing? McGinniss obviously isn't breaking any laws, public figures have very little expectation (legal or otherwise) of privacy, and digging deep for book material is what any good journalist should do. Still. It seems a little over the top. Am I being too squeamish, allowing my personal conviction that even politicians deserve a certain zone of privacy to override my better judgment? In the age of Oprah, am I just a dinosaur? Or is McGinniss in fact crossing a line here? Comments?

Nevada's Rand Paul Primary Redux?

| Wed May 26, 2010 3:50 PM EDT

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite in Nevada's three-way Republican primary, is mounting an anti-establishment, Rand Paul-esque charge in her state's June 8 primary vote. Between late April and mid-May, Angle surged in the polls, from 13 percentage points to 25, according to R2000/Daily Kos and Las Vegas Review-Journal polling data. Meanwhile, the front-runner and GOP choice in that primary, former state GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, dropped from 38 points to 30, and the third main candidate, Danny Tarkanian, dipped from 28 points to 22.

A former Nevada assemblywoman, Angle has seized on a handful of mistakes by Lowden, whose comfortable lead in the primary has all but eroded. Adopting the wildcard, Tea Party mantle, Angle is now bashing Lowden's fiscal record, claiming her opponent raised taxes and supported state spending hikes. Angle also unleashed the ultimate of political insults in the hard-hit Silver State, claiming Lowden—gasp!—"backed Harry Reid for years."

Whether Angle can overcome Lowden in the final days before the primary—Angle's raised a mere $945,000 for her campaign, less than half of Lowden's war chest—depends on how much she can paint Lowden as another political insider wedded to an incredibly unpopular Republican Party. Here's Angle's most recent ad attempting to do just that:

Healthcare Reform Won't Hurt State Budgets

| Wed May 26, 2010 3:44 PM EDT

This should be old news, but since a lot of people still don't get this it's nice to see it getting front page treatment from the Washington Post:

The federal government will bear virtually the entire cost of expanding Medicaid under the new health-care law, according to a comprehensive new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that directly rebuts the loud protests of governors warning about its impact on their strapped state budgets....Governors of many of those states have predicted fiscal calamity for their budgets, and some have cited the Medicaid expansion in the suits they have filed against the new law, saying it violates their states' rights.

But the Kaiser study released Wednesday predicts that the increase in state spending will be relatively small when weighed against the broad expansion of health coverage for their residents and the huge influx of federal dollars to cover most of the cost.

Even the small increase in Medicaid costs may be canceled out by the savings states will enjoy from no longer having to subsidize the uncompensated care of uninsured people who will be on Medicaid, study co-author John Holahan said. "It's absurd," Holahan, an Urban Institute researcher, said of the states' doom and gloom predictions. "They come out ahead. It's just crazy."

Bottom line: the federal government is paying more than 95% of the cost of the Medicaid expansion that's included in the healthcare reform bill. In some states the federal share is even higher. Total state spending on Medicaid will go up only 1.4%, a grand total of about $4 billion per year to cover more than 11 million people. What's more, it might be even better than that: as Holahan says, states might find that in the end they come out in the black on overall healthcare costs since their spending on care for the uninsured will go down. Keep this in mind the next time your state's governor starts wailing about healthcare reform and how it's going to bankrupt your state. It won't. The full report is here.

Contracting Commission to DOJ: Stop Stonewalling

| Wed May 26, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

During a hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting earlier this week, Chris Shays got so exercised over the Justice Department's intransigence that he may have momentarily forgotten that the panel he co-chairs doesn't have subpoena power. He threatened to use it anyway to compel the agency to deliver up information that Shays, a former GOP congressman from Connecticut, says it has been stonewalling on for months.

Starting in December, the commission has repeatedly sought data from Justice on contracting corruption-related cases and prosecutions. That information—bringing together data from a collection of federal agencies and divisions—is contained in a database administered by an interagency law enforcement unit known as the International Contract Corruption Task Force.

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Tea Party, Union Back Holy Water Teachers

| Wed May 26, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

From butterfly ballots to fish stomping to (literally) insane drivers, South Florida is the weird news nexus of the universe. It's also a place where big deals are conducted out of the sandy sunshine, in back rooms, by politicos and union reps. And that appears to be the case with Djuna Robinson and Leslie Rainer, two evangelical teachers in Broward County who stand accused of sprinkling "holy water" on an "atheist" colleague in the middle of her crowded classroom at Blanche Ely High School—my old high school.

Robinson and Rainer were removed from their jobs after their doused accuser, Schandra Tompkinsel Rodriguez, filed a school-board complaint against them. But they've launched a PR counter-offensive, alleging that the charges against them are "an attack on Christianity." Their side is anchored by a controversial firebrand (and GOP-connected) minister in the school's neighborhood, who demonizes gays and Muslims with gusto. Now, they're getting some new allies from opposite ends of the spectrum: the county's Tea Party and teacher's union. The latter endorsement seemed to make sense...until I spoke today with the union's spokesman, discovered one of the accused is a union steward, and started to wonder what's going on in those South Florida shadows.

BP's Gulf Oil Spill "Plan"

| Wed May 26, 2010 2:44 PM EDT

There's mounting evidence that federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service were paying zero attention to the oil industry, particularly when it came to authorizing oil spill response plans. Case in point: BP's Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico lists sea lions, seals, sea otters, walruses in its evaluation of how a spill might affect local wildlife. The problem? None of these critters live in the Gulf.

And that's just one of numerous errors in BP's 583-page plan identified by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Evidently the MMS officials responsible for approving the plan, which was filed June 30, 2009, didn't give it the same scrutiny.

PEER also noticed that the plan:

  • Gives a web site for a Japanese home shopping site as the link to one of its "primary equipment providers for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region [for] rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, 7 days a week basis"; and
  • Directs its media spokespeople to never make "promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal," implying that BP will only commit candor by omission.

Here's that home shopping site if you're looking for a deal.

On a more serious note, PEER notes that the plan's "Worst Case Discharge" portion "features wildly optimistic projections" about the maximum size of an oil spill. It also assures that within hours of an incident, BP has the "personnel, equipment, and materials in sufficient quantities and recovery capacity to respond effectively to oil spills from the facilities and leases covered by this plan, including the worst case discharge scenarios." Clearly, that is not the case.

What Should BP's New Logo Look Like?

| Wed May 26, 2010 2:38 PM EDT

Needless to say, BP has been having a spot of image trouble lately. Taking notice of this, Greenpeace has asked for ideas to redesign BP's "slick green logo" and is posting the submissions on Flickr. They're getting some good ones. Some notable entries:

BP Overruled Drillers in Hours Before Blast

| Wed May 26, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

There was more evidence today that BP pushed drillers to break protocol and ignore warnings in the hours leading up the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. A congressional report released last night included a number of new disclosures, and in a hearing in Louisiana today, the rig's chief mechanic indicated that BP made decisions that may have lead to the deadly blast.

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reports from today's joint hearing by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service:

The chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon testified Wednesday that he was at a planning meeting 11 hours before the rig exploded at which the BP company man overruled drillers from rig owner Transocean and insisted on displacing protective drilling mud from the riser that connected the rig to the oil well.
"I recall a skirmish between the company man, the OIM (offshore installation manager), the tool-pusher and the driller," said Doug Brown, one of 115 rig workers who survived the April 20 disaster. "The driller was outlining what would be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, 'No, we'll be having some changes to that.' It had to do with displacing the riser for later on. The OIM, tool-pusher and driller disagreed with that, but the company man said, 'Well, this is how it's gonna be,' and the tool-pusher, driller and OIM reluctantly agreed."

The more we hear, this looks less like a freak "accident" than the result of the choice by those in charge to cut corners and ignore glaring warning signs.

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