The Rights Stuff

"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.

 

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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! 

My BP Mole Spills the Secrets of BP's Cleanup Ops

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 10:56 PM EDT

BP's got a mole working on its cleanup team. The company might be able to keep the press from getting to oiled-up Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, but as long as people have cell phones, it's going to have a hell of a time keeping Elmer's Island from getting to the press.

Late Wednesday night I talked to a spill worker involved in the efforts to clean up South Louisiana's barrier islands. Let's call him Elmer, because we spoke under condition of strict anonymity. Though he hasn't signed one of the BP contracts that bars workers from communicating with reporters, he has been told "500 times" that if he talks, he's fired. He certainly didn't contact me because his politics are similar to mine. "George Bush was too liberal for me," he explained. But: "I like the media. The country couldn't run without it, and it's important to have media from both the left and right."

He also called because on Tuesday BP told me (again) that I couldn't go to Elmer's Island with a producer from PBS's Need to Know because the road to it "needed more gravel." This was a lie: "Everyone else," Elmer said, "is driving on that road"—about 20 cars and vans going up and down a day, and the re-graveling had happened the day before we arrived. Since BP was making my job so much harder, Elmer wanted to make it a little easier.

BP's got good reason for wanting to keep insiders like Elmer away from reporters. Elmer says that last Thursday, when the Coast Guard was announcing that the top kill seemed to be working, the cleanup supervisors on Grand Isle had already been informed it was a failure—which, of course, was not publicly announced until several days later.

"Ignore Her": The BP Press Lockdown Continues

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 2:01 AM EDT

If you happen to be wondering whether it's easier to get access to an oil-befouled public beach or wildlife refuge near Grand Isle, Louisiana, if you're teamed up with a fancypants PBS producer, I scouted out the answer today: No. 

You already know the story of how BP is trying to stymie press efforts to report on the oil spill, and all the combined credentials and charms of my colleague and I couldn't overcome the blockade. BP's reason for not letting us through last time? Safety. The reason for not letting us through today? The one road in to Elmer's Island Wildlife Refugewhich, after a lot of drama, I took just last week—needs to be re-graveled or something before we can drive on it. Which might take a couple of days.

I asked today's BP liaison/public-beach gatekeeper, Jason, who really seemed like a doll, if we could talk to the cleanup workers in the meantime. We can't, he said with an apologetic face—but not because BP forbids them from talking to the press. It's the subcontractors who've threatened to fire the workers for any media interaction.

Twenty minutes later, when I ran into some workers packing up on the Grand Isle beach, I asked them only if they were done working for the day, and they refused to tell me. One woman said, "I can't talk to you," and then another worker ran up to her and grabbed her arm and said, "Just ignore her, ignore her," and the whole interaction was unsettlingly rude and sort of sad.

The workers who were staying next to me in my Grand Isle motel last week told me that when BP (not, in this case, and for the record, a subcontractor) had instructed them that they couldn't talk to the press, it had involved a warning that media organizations would go so far as to dub audio propaganda over their videotaped commentary, putting unflattering words in their mouths. 

But my awesome sleuthing powers led me to conclude that they were in fact wrapping up for the evening. Grand Isle beach, which is now open to the public and in way better shape than Elmer's, was completely deserted but for the cops patrolling it on ATVs—and the giant blobs of oil that'd washed up all over the place in the short time since the workers had cleaned the sand. Oh, the impossibility, and interminability. That's why residents are painting murals like this:



And putting up depressing art installments like this:



And having to announce things like this:



The cleanup effort continues. So many workers are being put up on Grand Isle that there was no room at any inn. Lucky for me and the PBS producer from Need to Know (a Climate Desk partner), some incredibly generous Grand Isle residents had let me know via Twitter that if I ever needed a place to stay or a drink, I was welcome to show up at their beach house. Which I did. However compromised our reporting endeavors today, attempts to land Amy and Rahlyn's gorgeous guest bedrooms and be plied with Crown Royal and sweet-tea vodka were a stunning success. The four of us took in the breeze on the back deck, talked in the darkness about the uniqueness of the town. And after the discussion about how these hospitality opportunities and lifestyles might go down with the environment around us reached an awkward and earnest weight, we got refills.

Read Julia Whitty's account of how the spill is affecting the fishing industry. And if you appreciate our BP coverage, consider making a tax-free donation.

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Map of the Day: Bestiality-Friendly States

| Wed May 19, 2010 10:21 PM EDT

This week, the president of wicked-Catholic Portugal announced that he's ratifying a law that legalizes gay marriage, even though he doesn't want to, because liberal lawmakers would just overturn his veto. Oh, to have that problem in your government!

I was excited to hear the news, of course, but how quickly a little reflection turned into embarrassed head-shaking about how far behind this country is. I don't know about you, but as you may know, when I get moody about the ridiculous discriminatory laws against homos here, I make maps of weird stuff I can legally bone or marry. The longer the US holds out on this equality thing, the more wrong these are going to have to get. Today's: There are, you'll probably not be surprised to learn, three times as many states with no direct prohibitions against the sexual assault of an animal (according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund) as there are states that allow gay marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* In New Jersey, I DEFINITELY could.

Thailand on the Brink

| Tue May 18, 2010 11:54 PM EDT

The situation has been bad enough in Bangkok for two months. But today, the Thai army started firing into protester encampments. There's also a lot of criticism from Thais that the protesters, who've been far from cooperative and nonviolent, are totally out of hand. The army of a democratic nation is fighting to maintain the democratically elected government that the pro-democracy protesters (who are drawing Hitler mustaches and swastikas on pictures of government officials) are hellbent on overthrowing.

The situation, unfortunately, is poised only to get much worse. One Thai politician is speculating that at least 100 deaths and 1,000 injuries will occur, since the government has decided it's time to restore order and the Red Shirts are patently refusing to compromise. To wit, check out a piece of this report from a couple of Southeast Asian journalist who embedded with the Red Shirts. It does not bode well for Thailand's near future.

"This may be central Bangkok, but as soon as we were inside the barricade, we were in a different world. Hundreds of red-shirted people sat around—women, children, the elderly, monks—some chatting, some sleeping, some watching the news on TV.

"We approached a woman who was lying on a bamboo mat with her infant and asked her for an interview. She agreed. She said she had been inside the Redshirt encampment since March 12.

"'We don’t want to get killed,' she said. 'But if the army shoots at us, we are prepared to die here for democracy.'"

New Orleans Notebook: Disaster Tourism

| Tue May 18, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

People wanna know what New Orleans looks like now, after all that drama back in 2005. People who aren't here have been asking me; people who are here pay anywhere from $35 to $65 for a Katrina tour. It's a good question, an important question, obviously, but I have a hard time answering it because I've looked at it for so long.

Last weekend, though, one of my friends who'd never been here before came through town, and my host offered to take her on a personal disaster drive. So I asked her. And her response, with its surprise and sadness and ambivalence about Brad Pitt, is a good one. And this verbal tour is free!

I imagined things would be rebuilt a bit more since it's been five years. I imagined we'd drive through some of the harder-hit hoods and that that's where the aftermath would be the most intense. I imagined I'd notice that those were the poorer neighborhoods and that that'd be it. Well, it wasn't what I expected at all.

I was completely blown away. I knew the 9th Ward would look pretty rough, as that's all anyone ever talked about, but I wasn't anticipating a war zone. And no exaggeration—that's what it looks like. I remember after the storm people saying that the area mirrored Hiroshima. With the darkness, torn-up roads, and majority overgrown, empty plots, it still really does. As we drove around, it was so hard to imagine that at one point there had been so much life there. The only sign of life has been imported—Brad Pitt's "Make It Right"  green, storm-resistant homes. The Lower 9th Ward lost 4,000 houses. Pitt promises to build 150 of these energy-efficient ones by December of this year. Around these few houses—there are 50 or so so far—the roads are paved and the lights in the houses are on. But you move a block away from Pitt's project and it's a ghost town.

But everywhere you drive—save a few of the areas, like Uptown—has Katrina's footprint all over it; throughout the city, you see flood lines and abandoned houses with National Guard and SPCA graffiti about who checked the house and how many dead cats were inside. Lots of houses that families have moved back into still have that big graffitied X on them. And the dichotomy in the middle-class neighborhoods like Northwest Carrollton and Hollygrove was outstanding. If three house plots sit in a row, one is abandoned and empty (you can see right through it to the backyard); one is just grass (maybe with partially built concrete stilts hastily abandoned after a family started rebuilding and realized that they couldn't go through it again); and the third is brand new—a home refreshed with FEMA money. I was stunned by how quickly I became numb to the ubiquity of the flood lines and graffiti and caved-in homes.

Toward the end of our two-hour survey, my host told us that for a long time, he took long and winding routes around the city to avoid as much of the damage as possible, and that this was the first time he'd driven through some of these neighborhoods without crying. It took him two years to finish restoring his own house, which took water to the ceiling on the first floor, where I'm staying.

His resilience inspires in me extreme awe and unease. I, for example, don't have any real furniture in my apartment in San Francisco, where I've lived for years. I have only junk furniture, furniture people were getting rid of, because the United States Geological Survey says the Bay Area's next great big quake will happen by 2020, and the only way I can weather the panic of having again established a life perched on the edge of certain geographical doom is by accepting that everything I own will soon be destroyed and therefore not owning anything. I almost bought a dress recently because it was so pretty, but then I didn't buy it because it was so pretty, because I didn't want the responsibility of a nice thing that will be buried in the rubble.

I disclosed this coping mechanism to David Corn once at a MoJo function, over garlic fries and cocktails. He'd asked me if I planned to buy a house in San Francisco, and I was explaining why even if I ever had the money, I could never support the purchase emotionally. He listened leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed over his chest. When I finished, his eyes developed a fascinated but alarmed sparkle and he leaned forward a little to exclaim, "You're completely nuts!"

Or a pussy. I have a friend here who bought a house a couple of years ago. He told me the news over the phone one day, describing the street, the floor plan, the patio he plans for the back. "Congratulations!" I said. "So...You said it's near City Park?"

He knew exactly what I was asking him. "It's below the flood line," he said. "If New Orleans floods, the house will flood." But, he added, "If another hurricane comes soon, the city will be ruined, and our life here will be ruined anyway. If the hurricane doesn't come for years, that'll be the drag." By which he meant that if the house floods now, when it's new enough, they'll get over it and move on. The real bummer would be if the house flooded later, once they'd had time to get attached to it and settle into it and would have less time to rebuild their lives elsewhere. That probably sounds nuts, too. I admit I can get annoyingly earnest and sentimental when it comes to this city, so I'm biased, but to me it seems defiantly brave.

Rights Stuff to Read

| Fri May 14, 2010 9:57 PM EDT

Ding, dong, it appears as though Uganda's anti-gay bill is dead (via @amnesty). There is no emoticon ecstatic enough to express the joy.

But in less happy happenings this week, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) apparently lost its damn mind and decided to honor Equitorial Guinea's notorious dictator by naming an award after him.

In other gaffes, New Zealand's prime minister made a tasteless (!) cannibalism joke about a native group that's already mad at him for refusing to give back sacred tribal land. 

And just when you thought things couldn't get any uglier in Arizona, the state is turning its nasty attention to immigrant kids.

Seriously, though: Uganda. That bit, at least, is really good news.