2010 - %3, June

Uniformed Cops on BP Payroll? Enter the ACLU

| Tue Jun. 29, 2010 6:03 AM EDT

Some updates on the incident I reported on last week, in which an off-duty Louisiana sheriff's deputy working for BP's private security detail harassed an environmental activist who was neither on BP's property nor breaking any laws. (Watch the video at the end of this post.)

First, some gratifying news: The ACLU has put Louisiana law enforcement on notice. In a letter (PDF) released yesterday, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the group's Louisiana chapter, reminded the sheriffs of the coastal parishes that "members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one—neither law enforcement nor a private corporation—has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public."

Esman told me that the ACLU had discussed the matter due in large part to Mother Jones' reporting. She says it would consider filing a lawsuit if appropriate.

Louisiana police don't have any right to tell you you can't walk onto a public beach (even to, as Esman puts it, "roll around in sticky gunky tar that I'll never be able to get off—if I want to, that's my right"). However, they do have the right to mislead you about who they're really working for. In Louisiana, as in many places, it's legal for police officers to wear their uniforms regardless of whether they're acting in an official capacity or working for a private corporation. Which is why Andrew Wheelan, the environmentalist mentioned above, was unaware that the cop who pressured him to stop filming a BP building and later pulled him over so that a BP official could question him wasn't on duty at the time. The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office told me that the deputy who pulled Wheelan over is just one of 40 in the parish who are working for BP on their own time. And the BP-police collusion goes beyond uniformed deputies moonlighting. In nearby Lafourche Parish, for example, the sheriff's office is filling 57 security positions a week for BP; the shifts are on the clock, and BP reimburses the sheriff's office for them.

There's been a lot of to-do about the federal government being officially in charge of all things oil-spill related, and Mother Jones ruffled some feathers by quoting a BP rep who said the company had a lot of sway over local sheriff's departments. But there you have it, plain as day: Down here, many cops do literally work for BP.

Seem like a conflict of interest, or even sort of scary? Perhaps. But, as Esman points out, it's perfectly legal. "BP doesn't have the right to just decide they're going to take over a public street," she says. "They do not have the authority to tell people they can't document what they see. But they do have the right to hire these deputies. There's nothing we can do about that."

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Depression, Abuse, Suicide: Fishermen's Wives Face Post-Spill Trauma

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Inside a cool, shaded old plantation house in St. Bernard, Louisiana, we're all breathing in our favorite color and blowing out gray smoke.

This relaxation exercise is brought to a roomful of women by the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to provide rebuilding services to Katrina-ravaged St. Bernard Parish as well as offer "psychological rebuilding" through its wellness and mental-health center. Since the oil spill started, the organization has been looking to vastly expand its services to meet the area's latest mental-health crisis: the unrelenting depression falling on families living and working on the Gulf Coast. Everyone here except the three clinic workers and me is a fisherman's wife.

Michelle, the clinical coordinator running this early-morning support group, asks the five wives who have come what the St. Bernard Project can do to help them.

"I don't know, because I don't know what's gonna happen."

"We need work. For the wives."

"Whatever happens needs child care. If wives are gonna start workin', someone has to take care of the kids. A lot of fishermen have kids."

"The biggest issue is that our situation is unknown," a woman named Tammy says.* She is tough and broad and has a soothing husk in her voice like phone sex or five packs of cigarettes. Tammy is dressed in white and is eight months pregnant. I hope never to get in a bar fight with her. "They haven't stopped the oil, huh? This is like a time bomb. You can't prepare for what you don't know. But I can tell you right now that we need toilet paper."

The claims checks BP is supposed to be sending are eight days late, which means everyone's out of cash for necessities. The day before, cars lined up and down the nearby highway for a 38,000-pound food giveaway. This morning, like every morning, there was a line outside a church center in New Orleans East, in a part of town where stray dogs scavenge trashy lots and industry makes the air smell like burning toast. There, and at four other locations around Southern Louisiana once a week, Catholic Charities is giving out $100 grocery vouchers. Though they don't open until nine, sometimes it takes being at the doors by four in the morning, when it's somehow already hot, to get one, because they always run out. But you can't buy toilet paper with the vouchers—food only.

I remember that about the $75 grocery vouchers the Red Cross gave us as Katrina evacuees in 2005. The checkout clerk at a grocery store in Ohio wouldn't let me buy vitamins, and boy was I mad about that. Had I not already cried myself out at the Gap looking at a shirt that I already owned but might be underwater back home, I would have pitched a sobby fit in Giant Eagle.

La. Police Doing BP's Dirty Work [Video]

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

Everyone knows by now that BP is still blocking press access to oil-spill sites even though they're not supposed to anymore. I've been blathering about it for weeks, and it's been all of three days since four contractors wouldn't let me through the Pointe Aux Chenes marina outside Montegut, Louisiana. And though as of June 16 the federal government was saying helicopters could fly reporters as low as 1,500 feet around spill sites, on June 17 I was on a helicopter that was prohibited from flying below 3,000 feet (and whose pilot flipped silent birds at the "military guys" coming over the radio and hassling him about being in the area at all). But a Louisiana sheriff's deputy* pulling over a video camera-wielding private citizen because the head of BP security wanted to ask him some questions is a whole other level of alarming.

Last week, Drew Wheelan, the conservation coordinator for the American Birding Association, was filming himself across the street from the BP building/Deepwater Horizon response command in Houma, Louisiana. As he explained to me, he was standing in a field that did not belong to the oil company when a police officer approached him and asked him for ID and "strongly suggest[ed]" that he get lost since "BP doesn't want people filming":

Here's the key exchange:

Wheelan: "Am I violating any laws or anything like that?"

Officer: "Um...not particularly. BP doesn't want people filming."

Wheelan: "Well, I'm not on their property so BP doesn't have anything to say about what I do right now."

Officer: "Let me explain: BP doesn't want any filming. So all I can really do is strongly suggest that you not film anything right now. If that makes any sense."

Not really! Shortly thereafter, Wheelan got in his car and drove away but was soon pulled over.

It was the same cop, but this time he had company: Kenneth Thomas, whose badge, Wheelan told me, read "Chief BP Security." The cop stood by as Thomas interrogated Wheelan for 20 minutes, asking him who he worked with, who he answered to, what he was doing, why he was down here in Louisiana. He phoned Wheelan's information in to someone. Wheelan says Thomas confiscated his Audubon volunteer badge (he'd recently attended an official Audubon/BP bird-helper volunteer training) and then wouldn't give it back, which sounds like something only a bully in a bad movie would do. Eventually, Thomas let Wheelan go.

"Then two unmarked security cars followed me," Wheelan told me. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I was specifically trying to figure out if they were following me, and every time I pulled over, they pulled over." This went on for 20 miles. Which does little to mitigate my own developing paranoia about reporting from what can feel like a corporate-police state.

The media liaison for the government-run Deepwater Horizon Response Joint Information Center told me BP would get back to me for comment on the incident. I'm still waiting.

* Correction/Update: This story originally stated that a Louisiana state police officer pulled Wheelan over, per Wheelan's recounting of the incident. My apologies to the state police for misreporting their involvement. After many calls made and messages left, I've finally confirmed that the cop in question was actually a sheriff's deputy for Terrebonne Parish. The deputy was off official duty at the time, and working in the private employ of BP. Though the deputy failed to include the traffic stop in his incident report, Major Malcolm Wolfe of the sheriff's office says the deputy's pulling someone over in his official vehicle while working for a private company is standard and acceptable practice, because Wheelan was acting suspicious and could have been a terrorist.

Louisiana Tea Partiers Rally for More Drilling

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 12:39 PM EDT

When my colleague Stephanie Mencimer notified me that some Tea Party types would be holding a rally in Houma, Louisiana, on Saturday to protest the new federal moratorium on deepwater oil drilling, I had some concerns. Namely that Tea Partiers getting involved in the issue could make it look like only crazy people are against the drilling ban down here, when in fact plenty of non-crazy people are mad that it could endanger as many as 20,000 jobs.

But the sentiments expressed at this particular rally were, as it turns out, about 300 percent crazier even than I had feared. Though a heavy storm was dumping sheets of rain outside, a couple hundred people packed the City Club of Houma.

Things started sensibly enough. We bowed our heads and prayed that God would lift the drilling ban; the president of Terrebonne Parish (below) declared that Obama's deepwater drilling moratorium was an "economic disaster of biblical proportions." Senator David Vitter's state director, David Doss, read a statement from the Louisiana Republican, who said he was unable to attend due to a canceled flight but "looks forward to working with you all and we must push forward to end this devastating moratorium on drilling."

But other than that, the rally was mostly two hours of yelling about how climate change is natural—"I've never seen CO2 in the air, have you ever seen CO2 in the air??"—how Barack Obama is simultaneously trying to enslave the American population and steal from it, and how welfare recipients should have to be regularly drug tested. One speaker gave the usual "We don't need the government" speech, followed immediately by, "If the government was doing its job making sure MMS did its job, we wouldn't be here. Why wasn't the government looking down their throats?" Another speaker pointed out that we're at two wars, one in Iran and one in Afghanistan, and that if we're not careful, the president of Israel, Ahmadinejad, is going to gain enough power to take over the world.

"Whose agenda is Obama pushing?" one speaker asked, and everyone yelled, "George Soros'!" Then we watched a video montage including footage of American soldiers, stills of Obama in Dark Knight Joker makeup, and the sun rising and setting on the Gulf of Mexico, set to Queen's "The Show Must Go On." Then we watched another video with clips of Rahm Emanuel and ACORN employees intercut with pictures of Chairman Mao, all over the superdramatic theme music from Requiem for a Dream.

Then it stopped raining, and everyone went outside to show off their crazy signs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This guy told me the dying pelicans are the fault of Obama (Whose Government Is Too Big and Should Leave Corporations Alone) because the government didn't do enough to save the birds covered in BP's crude. He said the design was saved at the mall shop where he had it made, so anyone can buy one.

Afterwards, I left to check out how the cleanup efforts were going in the gorgeous marshes at nearby Pointe Aux Chenes. At the marina, four contractors stopped me to let me know that it didn't matter whether I was media or the Queen of Sheba; I was not allowed on to that piece of public property unless I was with BP.

 

More Dirty Details From My BP Mole

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 6:02 AM EDT

You know the story: Boy calls girl, girl goes to pick up boy, boy and girl go sit on a beautiful beachside deck to enjoy the night breeze and listen to the waves crash as he tells her a bunch of terrible things that are going on at an oil-spill cleanup site. Yes, I had a date with Elmer, my mole inside BP's cleanup operation, and he painted a grim picture of the conditions for both workers and wildlife at Louisiana's Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge.

First, the workers: The men on Elmer's Island don't wear respirators since BP and OSHA have thrown precaution to the wind and deemed them unnecessary. But the only type of air-monitoring equipment Elmer's ever seen on the island are little multigas meters that are not up to the job: They're designed for indoor use, clog easily, and only measure limited types of pollutants. And despite the known dangers of dispersants and the toxic chemicals in crude (I can attest that contact with the stuff washing up on the beach can burn), workers aren't even wearing protective Tyvek suits anymore. Of course, there are medics on hand to treat anyone who gets hurt or sick. Unfortunately, any worker who asks for a medic's help is automatically drug tested, which, for some, can be a powerful incentive to not report injuries. (Not that keeping a cleanup job necessarily equals getting paid: Elmer says the contractors continue to lose workers' paychecks, a problem he told me about the last time we talked and that has since been confirmed by the local papers.)

Cleanup workers on these South Louisiana beaches aren't the only ones who could use more protections. What Elmer told me echoed the reports that BP isn't exactly doing everything in its power to keep track of the toll the spill is taking on wildlife. In nearby Port Fourchon, where he has also worked, there are markers to denote wildlife nesting areas, but they aren't clearly labeled and no one knows what they mean, so workers drive and trample over sensitive habitats. One day last week, Elmer and his coworkers came upon eight oiled pelicans, but though they called the official number to report their findings, no one had come to collect the birds by the time his shift ended many hours later. (A representative from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has yet to respond to my request for comment.) Workers on Elmer's have not been instructed to report dead animals for collection or autopsy. Elmer said he'd recently come upon a dead crab and, knowing no one was going to come to examine it, decided to slice it open himself. Black oil poured out.

I've seen some pathetic excuses for cleanup out here—were the workers on Elmer's at least making some progress? "They're not being effective out here," Elmer said. "Two days after your article, they bused in twice as many workers, so they're up to 120 guys on Elmer's now, but I can't see any considerable difference. They're only working five sites and it's eight miles of beach. No one seems concerned about cleaning it up. The contractors are getting their money; they don't care. They've got all these people out there, but they're not accomplishing anything."

Oh, wait. Not nothing: "They've brought in prostitutes." No one knows who the "they" that brought in the pack of hookers is, but the gals have definitely arrived, and you can buy time with one for $200. It only took someone a whole month even to figure out that it would be lucrative to sell sex to guys earning 44 hours of overtime a week and living in camps and converted 18-wheelers.

Photograph of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge cleanup by US Coast Guard

Inside Oil-Spill Pelican Rehab [Photos]

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 4:30 PM EDT

The bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, smells like Sea World: The stench of raw fish is overpowering. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. It's a hot, cramped warehouse; the audience consists of profusely sweating reporters; and the unhappy-looking captive animals are covered in oil. At first, the center was only getting a few pelicans a day, but now it gets about 40. As of noon today, 585 visibly oiled live birds have been collected on the Gulf Coast.

All these crates are full of oily pelicans:

Inside the crates, rescued pelicans huddle together, shaking like mad:

Before the pelicans are cleaned, they're given get at least 48 hours to rest up enough to survive the stress of being washed. During this "stabilization period," the birds are rehydrated, attended to by vets, and warmed up—oil destroys their temperature-regulating processes and they can freeze to death, even in the summer heat. They're also kept from preening themselves so they don't ingest more oil. When it's their turn to be cleaned, the birds move through something of an assembly line, getting pretreated, then scrubbed down, then rinsed:

 

Toothbrushes and soft sponges are used around the eyes and other sensitive areas. The rehab crew members try to maintain a firm but gentle grip on the birds as they struggle in the tubs. When the water gets dirty, the birds are moved to new tubs; often, 10 or 15 tubs are required. Sometimes a bird gets too stressed out or tired during and the cleaning has to be stopped. When the process is finally complete, then it's off to dry out and spend some time in the sun:

"These are the birds that are all better?" I asked a rehabilitation worker. "These are the birds that are nearly better," he said. "They won't be all better until they're released back into the wild." And then only maybe, since their survival rate at that point is estimated at 50 to 80 percent—and that's if they don't get slicked again. Currently, many cleaned pelicans are being released off the east coast of Florida, so their survival rate may go down if the oil works its way up the Eastern seaboard. 

You can watch a video with a sad but thorough explanation of the washing process below.


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"We Don't Need This on Camera": BP's Crappy Cleanup Job

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

You know Isle Grande Terre, Louisiana, from the unbelievable pictures of oiled birds taken there last week. It's also the island just to the east of Grand Isle, which I've been reporting on since oil made landfall there several weeks ago. I wanted to check up on Grande Terre, and so to get there, and avoid a BP escort, yesterday I got in a kayak with my intrepid former literature professor from the University of New Orleans and paddler extraordinaire, Dr. John Hazlett. 

On the way, we beached ourselves on an uninhabited spit near Grand Isle State Park. It was completely covered in oil, and there were no cleanup crews in sight. 

Nor was there any boom across Barataria Pass, which is a gateway to wetlands:

After a while, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries employee trailing half a dozen big & tall men behind her appeared. She flagged us down and told us nobody should be walking on that beach because it was a wildlife reserve. Which, considering the amount of oil (massive) and level of cleanup taking place (none), was pretty alarming. Plus, as a big guy next to her wearing a shirt from ES&H, the main cleanup contractor here, said, "We don't need this on camera." Which is why BP's contractors have their workers on a gag order: because sometimes they say stupid shit like that. 

We paddled on and pulled up on Grande Terre, where the oil stretched as far as we could see in deep dark pools. We encountered a cleanup crew supervisor gunning around on his ATV, who said there were all of 30 workers on the whole island, which he said is five miles long. For the hour we walked around, only three of them were working anyway, while the rest sat in the shade. And the work consisted of somewhat haphazardly laying down paper towels. [Update/clarification: Though the workers referred to them as paper towels, they are indeed slightly thicker, oil-absorbent pads, as several commenters have pointed out. Since that wouldn't be clear to everyone from the pictures, I should have been less cheeky and more specific: These are very fancy towels that a few dudes are dropping along the shore to combat the multimillion-gallon spill.] 

 

Also, we found a dead dolphin. 

That was about all we could take, what with a heat index of 105 and the rowing we had to do back to Grand Isle and I was already getting a little woozy. At least I kept my wits enough about me to remember to keep my mouth closed when waves splashed water thick with oil into my face. I suppose the 60 or so dolphins swimming the pass with us don't have that option; things got a little (more) depressing in the kayak when we saw that they were blowing it out through their holes. They'd probably like to take the double scrubbing-down with dishwashing liquid we took when we got home, too.

 

Official Government Stats = BP Spin

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 1:23 AM EDT

Remember that one time when BP told the Coast Guard that top kill was working and then the Coast Guard told everyone else and then it turned out that wasn't true? Well, despite every single thing BP has ever said being false, there appears to be zero oversight of the information it's releasing about its cleanup effort.

Tuesday, Lt. Commander J.R. Hoeft of the United States Navy sent out an official Deepwater Horizon Response email to members of the media and other interested parties. Hoeft is the online communications coordinator of the unified area command who called me several weeks ago, when I first encountered BP roadblocks to press access, to explain that he didn't know "why those practices are in place" and assure me that the United States government was in charge of the whole oil-spill show, "holding BP's feet to the fire," in accordance with the rules of government oversight of corporate cleanup dictated by Congress after Exxon Valdez. I find Hoeft to be extremely charming and helpful and so didn't hesitate to ring his bell, which he immediately picked up, to ask for the breakdown of his email's stat that there are "24,000 personnel responding" to the spill. Are those workers BP is paying? Or does that also include, like, Audubon volunteers coordinating bird cleanup?

Hoeft didn't know off the top of his head, he said, but "I'll get that for you—with one caveat." The caveat is that the numbers in that email are BP's numbers, and the United States government doesn't actually know, so Lt. Commander Hoeft and I will have to wait until BP turns around the request for information.

Dear Obama administration: Please tell me that a hungover 30-year-old sitting around in her underwear reading press releases on the couch is not really the first person to ask for verification or at least a spreadsheet backing up BP's stats. Hoeft told me he got another media request for the list of contractors BP is using, and BP hadn't yet responded to that absurdly simple query—four days later. And the US government doesn't know that either, because the United States government isn't the ones using the contractors. Really? Though the government is releasing stats and updates as official info from official government representatives, it's not fact-checking, much less independently compiling, any of it? With all this talk of oversight and the scope of the disaster, shouldn't we have an Oil-Spill Oversight Czar?

It would certainly make my buddy Lt. Commander Hoeft's job easier. He felt my pain, and said he was hopeful we'd get the information soon; he was just letting me know about the delays in the name of expectation management. So we've agreed that it's probably best I don't hold my breath.

ICE Running Immigration Raids on Oil-Spill Workers

| Sun Jun. 6, 2010 8:30 PM EDT

Sigh. This special report from Feet in 2 Worlds just in:

Federal immigration officials have been visiting command centers on the Gulf Coast to check the immigration status of response workers hired by BP and its contractors to clean up the immense oil spill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Louisiana confirmed that its agents had visited two large command centers—which are staging areas for the response efforts and are sealed off to the public—to verify that the workers there were legal residents.

"We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems," said Temple H. Black, a spokesman for ICE in Louisiana.

Granted, undocumented work is illegal and all, and Black is just echoing a popular sentiment in Southern Louisiana, where some people harbor resentment toward the Hispanic laborers who stayed after they'd come to help clean up after Katrina, and some people put up signs like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MoJo on PBS's Need to Know

| Sat Jun. 5, 2010 12:06 AM EDT

Herewith, footage from the trip a PBS producer and I took to Grand Isle earlier this week. Additionally, since the segment, which first aired on Need to Know on Friday, didn't contain one of my favorite scenes caught on film, allow me to re-create it here:

PBS producer: "Can you crouch down closer to that oil?"

Me: "Sure." [Pants rip all the way from crotch to back pocket.]

PBS producer, behind me with camera rolling as we leave beautiful sandy sunset beach: "This is no good. It looks like a J. Crew ad."

Me: "Really?"

PBS producer: "Yeah. Except your ass is hanging out."

Anyway. Enjoy!