Archive for August, 2010


David Gumpert: USDA wants us to ‘know your farmer,’ FDA wants us to stay home

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Customers of Country Hen, a central Massachusetts organic egg producer, found an upsetting announcement in their egg cartons recently: The farm tours that had been a tradition of the farm since it opened 22 years ago were being discontinued.

The reason? A new federal law that went into effect last month called the “Egg Safety Final Rule,” or 74 FR 33030, which is designed to reduce the risk of a major form of contamination known as Salmonella enteritidis, or SE. The law requires farms with more than 3,000 hens not only to adhere to tight refrigeration protocols, create a disease protection plan, and abide by strict sanitation practices, but also to keep customers out of the chicken houses.

As in much of farming, a small number of large farms produce the bulk of the food. Though just 4,000 farms are above the 3,000-hen cutoff, they account for 99 percent of egg production, and another 65,000 produce the remaining 1 percent or so of egg production, the FDA estimates. It’s these smaller farms, like Joel Salatin’s well-known Virginia farm Polyface, where chickens often wander outdoors, eating bugs and grass, that we tend to picture in our imaginations. Many of these farms have intentionally kept their flocks under the 3,000 cutoff point to avoid the strict FDA rules.The big farms tend to be the factory operations, out of public sight, where thousands of chickens may be crammed into dark henhouses. But Country Hen, as an organic operation that emphasizes humane treatment of its chickens, tries to project itself as more like one of the smaller operations, with everything open and available for viewing.

Writes George Bass, the owner of Country Hen, on the farm’s Facebook page: “The most difficult change that we had to make because of (the new rule) is such a deep rooted part of our corporate culture, is no more tours of the farm. The biosecurity part of the new law addresses strictly limiting the number of visitors on the farm property and into the barns. Since we opened in 1988, our farm has always been open for customers or potential customers to stop by for a tour.”

And indeed, a review of the lengthy new egg rules by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contains this requirement for poultry farms: “Use a biosecurity program, meaning a program that includes limiting visitors on the farm and in poultry houses.”

Not surprisingly, customers aren’t pleased. One who was upset sent me a copy of the announcement from her egg carton. Another, Ken West, said on Country Hen’s Facebook page, “I was dismayed to read in your latest issue about the new FDA ‘Egg Safety Final Rule’ which effectively prohibits farm tours by the general public.”

The supposition seems to be that visitors will somehow contaminate the chickens. How does that work? The most obvious danger would appear to be visitors who have previously been at a contaminated farm, who could carry pathogens to a clean farm. (Though I’m not sure how many consumers interested in touring a poultry farm would go from farm to farm.)

But a reading of the FDA rule says that’s not necessarily the problem. In fact, the FDA practically admits it isn’t sure exactly what the problem is. It says in the new rules that while “environmental contamination,” whereby eggs “become contaminated with any microorganism that might be excreted by a laying hen or through contact with … human beings, and other animals may be a source of contamination … SE experts now believe that the predominant route through which eggs become contaminated with SE is the transovarian route.”

So, “although the mechanism is still not well understood” whereby chickens get the Salmonella in their ovaries, visitors must be kept off the farm. Got that? FDA never does explain the logic.

Why should anyone care about this? Because we have a growing disconnect between food consumers and producers. That’s why the movies Food, Inc. and Fresh generated so much interest — many urbanites were shocked to see cattle standing in their manure in feedlots, and chickens crammed into darkened sheds. Indeed, the producers of both films indicated they encountered resistance in gaining access to factory farms to do their filming.

Such films, along with well-publicized abuses at at slaughterhouses and the deluge of new books about the problems of our food system over the last few years, have sparked growing consumer interest in how farms go about producing our food. More consumers have been sending checks to small farms to obtain veggies and meat via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, or stopping by to pick up raw milk in the more than 20 states where it’s sold direct from farms. The USDA has also been promoting its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which cheerfully suggests, “Every Family Needs a Farmer … Do You Know Yours?”

In this climate, it seems odd that the FDA would seek to restrict public access to all the poultry farms that produce 99 percent of the eggs in this country, simply to satisfy some vague notion of “biosecurity.”

Country Hen says it will seek to counter the farm-tour prohibition by publishing more photos of its operations on its Facebook page. But let’s face it, that’s a poor option for letting people know about life on a farm. After all, our large breweries, wineries, and ice-cream makers offer tours and taste tests. Why can’t poultry farms, if they choose, show the public whether their chickens are truly free range or simply allowed an hour or two in the yard outside a shed?

Could it be that government regulators, in their great wisdom, would rather push people to formulate their visions of food production by visiting quaint small farms, those with fewer than 3,000 birds, and not have these visions muddied by the shocks of real life on factory-type farms where most food is produced?

This article was originally published on Grist.

David Gumpert is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution, available in our bookstore. He blogs for Grist, and on his own blog, The Complete Patient.

Yes! Magazine Interviews Riki Ott

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Riki Ott was living nearby in the small town of Cordova, working as a commercial salmon “fisherma’am”—one who also had her PhD in marine toxicology with a specialization in oil pollution. She had a unique front row seat to the destruction of a town, an ecosystem, and a way of life—and the losing fight to save them.Twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez, the company has only paid out a tenth of the initial assessment of punitive damages. Ott recognizes many of Exxon’s tactics in BP’s recent behavior: underestimating the size of the spill, downplaying and covering up damages, seeking to cap liability early on. She’s been on the ground in the Gulf since early summer, sharing her strategies for grassroots resistance and recovery. But the real crisis, she says, is bigger than this, or any, oil spill. It’s a crisis of democracy: Corporations have become so powerful that our political system isn’t able to rein them in enough to keep such disasters from happening or to hold them accountable when they do.

For Ott, the realization that corporate power was a fundamental threat came as she watched Exxon continue to profit while she and her neighbors lost their livelihoods, with few options for recourse. Now, in the Gulf, she’s seeing a similar awakening from residents working across political barriers to fight for justice from BP.

Ott believes this could be a breakthrough moment for reclaiming power from corporations. She spoke to YES! Magazine web editor Brooke Jarvis about the best strategies for using—and finally fixing—our democracy.


Brooke: Last week, BP announced that it will stop accepting new claims for damages; national newspapers are asking, “So where’s the oil?” Is the disaster over? Riki: [Laughs] Not if you look at my inbox! It all makes me wonder: Why this charade? Why this intense push to have it all be over? I think the closest analogy is when an insurance company wants to settle as quickly as possible after a car accident. They want to be able to say, “Sorry, you already signed this piece of paper, and we’re not liable for that anymore.” I think there’s a lot of that going into BP’s thinking right now. This toxic stew of oil and dispersants that got released into the Gulf is an experiment—it’s untested, so we don’t know yet how much damage it will cause. BP thinks if it settles now, it won’t have to pay for the destruction that becomes clear down the road.

The Exxon-Valdez showed us that oil spills do in fact cause long-term damage. The herring fishery in Prince William Sound is still closed—it’s closed indefinitely until stocks recover, and we’re talking 21 years now, not to mention a smaller amount of oil.

Brooke: In the Gulf, is anybody having a hard time seeing the oil, or its effects?

Riki: When the infamous pie chart came out, the media interpreted it to mean that 75 percent of the oil is gone. But “dispersed” oil is not disappeared oil—it may not be on the surface, but it’s in the water column, it’s lining the ocean floor, it’s in the food chain. If you add the parts of the pie that say “oil dispersed chemically” and “oil dispersed naturally” to the residual oil, the truth is that 75 percent of the oil is still there, just in a different form. Really, it’s convenient for BP that it’s not on the surface—and that may have played a role in the decision to use these toxic dispersants—because it makes it easier to pretend it’s gone.

Fishermen are finding false bottoms—the depth finder thinks the bottom is 12 feet down, but it’s really just a plume of oil and dispersants. They say, “No, we don’t want to fish in this. We don’t think the seafood is safe.”

That day, I was at a meeting in Gulfport, Miss., with about 100 fisherman from four different states. People’s phones were lighting up with stories coming in of boats and planes spraying dispersants at night, of people sprayed and exposed and sick—I mean, sick to the point of throwing up brown and peeing brown—and stories of fish kills and bivalve kills. To be in Gulfport Miss., at the moment when this disaster is declared over while fisherman from four different states are getting phone calls from back home saying, “Oh my God, oh my God”—it was an amazing juxtaposition. The reality of harm was still happening even as BP and the federal government started the game of “It’s all over.”

That was a horrible week. I was trying to get people to emergency rooms and to find doctors who would diagnose their symptoms properly. People are sick, and what I find totally inexcusable is pretending all these illnesses are really something other than they are. My God, I talked to boom workers who were diagnosed with food poisoning and heat stroke back in May, who are still sick with the exact same symptoms. Do food poisoning and heat stroke last for three months?

Oil spill worker, photo by U.S. Coast Guard

 

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard.

And then there was the announcement that the seafood was safe to eat. The fishermen would like nothing better than to be back out harvesting seafood that is safe to eat. But they’re the ones who are out there, finding false bottoms on their depth sonars—the depth finder thinks the bottom is 12 feet down, but it’s really just a plume of oil and dispersants. They’ve been lowering absordent pads in their pots, just to see what’s down there on the bottom. The pads come to the surface, dripping with oil—even though the surface is clean and sparkly blue. They say, “No, we don’t want to fish in this. We don’t think the seafood is safe.”

Brooke: It must be infuriating to actually watch people turn away from you while there’s still so much suffering. What are people doing about it?

Riki: The bottom line is we’re still in the middle of a war here, trying to document as best we can this unfolding horror that’s being covered up. We’re trying to get people’s spirits up, saying: “This is all part of the game, we’ve just got to take this to the next level now, keep hanging together, and exposing what’s happening. Get the photographs, get the stories, just keep documenting. There have been lies all summer. The only thing that has changed is the intensity ramped up. So, let’s just keep out there.”

People down here wondered, “Why is the industry that pays a penalty based on how much oil it spills left in charge of saying how much it spilled?”

We’re putting a lot of our energy into community-based environmental studies. By that, I mean collecting data about air quality, water quality, public health, toxins in people’s blood. Many people don’t have confidence that their illnesses—the headaches, the sore throats, the blisters—are connected to the chemicals, simply because the federal agencies are telling them that there aren’t air or water quality issues. We’re doing sampling to prove that there are. We’re also trying to get a community health clinic set up in each of the affected states, and to help care providers recognize chemical illnesses.

Brooke: You wrote recently: “This contest is about far more than dollars or damages. It’s about our country’s ability to hold big, corporate criminals accountable to the public interest, and ensure that they follow the laws we enact.” What does it mean to move beyond the immediate question of accountability for this one disaster to the bigger question of corporate accountability?

Riki: This BP disaster, like the Exxon-Valdez, is more than an environmental crisis—it’s a democracy crisis. Right now we’re playing the game: going through regulatory arenas, tightening some laws. But that’s not good enough. The real question is, how do we get control of these big corporations?

It didn’t take long for people to start looking at this bigger issue, asking what we can do about corporations that are totally out of control. I would say, “Does anybody think the federal government is in charge?” And nobody would raise their hand. “OK, then who is?” I’d ask. “Is it ‘We the People,’ or ‘We the Corporation?’” Here, it is so clear that it’s the corporations. People are getting shoved off their beaches, told they can’t have cameras, told they can’t go near carcasses. It’s like, “Wait! I thought this was America?”

Want to help support grassroots groups in the Gulf? Here are Riki’s picks:

Louisiana Bayou Keeper
Hurricane Creek Keeper
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Louisiana Env. Action Network
The Gulf Coast Fund

People are really connecting the dots about corporate power and the way this disaster’s been handled. First, there were the exemptions and the waivers that allowed BP to use improper equipment, which led to this oil spill. Then, it came out that BP wasn’t being honest about what, and how much, was really gushing out of that hole—they’d had high resolution images for a month that they’d never shared with the federal government. So people down here wondered, “Why is the industry that pays a penalty based on how much oil it spills left in charge of saying how much it spilled?” Then there’s the way they’ve kept the media—and ordinary people with cameras—away from the shorelines and the water and the carcasses. It’s a joke around here: People see the dead animals on the beach, or they see them collecting in ocean currents by the thousands, and they know they aren’t counted. People get threatened with arrest for even going near. The carcasses are not being kept for damage assessment, like they were after the Exxon-Valdez. Or when people report oil on the surface of the water, they’re not seeing it skimmed and collected; they’re coming back the next day and seeing these tell-tale bubbles where dispersant was sprayed.

People have started to ask, “How did BP get this much control? Why is the Coast Guard being used as a public shield—against us? Who’s in charge?”

Corporations have really learned to control these situations. They didn’t expect the environmental movement that resulted after the Santa Barbara blowout in 1969, which helped push legislation like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. But since then they’ve learned how to manage the fallout better and better. Really, that’s the biggest difference I’ve seen between the Exxon-Valdez and the BP blowout: Corporations know how to intentionally operate to get control of the government, the people, and the media. They’ve been very successful at it, and it shows.

The real change has been for the people who believed the government was going to take care of them.

All over the Gulf, people are saying: “I feel like a veil has been pulled off my face.” They’re ready to get to work to create a country that we thought we had.

Brooke: But with the spill and its effects really highlighting the impact of unchecked corporate power, is there a possibility for a breakthrough moment, a real movement to control corporations?

Riki: I’ve noticed that when there’s a disaster like this, people all tend to band together in defense of their way of life. The political frames start to get kind of wobbly. Reality is changing so fast right in front of their noses, and the way they thought the world worked all of a sudden doesn’t. There’s an opportunity to penetrate the frames that are normally pretty hard and tight and fast, keeping us divided as red or blue, liberal or conservative.

For example, when I was in Fort Walton, Florida—and this is just one example—we drafted a petition to get the EPA the authority to delist products the public doesn’t like (right now products can’t be unapproved, and that’s made it hard to get traction on banning Corexit, the dispersant). Everyone was wildly enthusiastic, including some people who asked for an electronic version so they could share it with their network of 70 tea party groups throughout the state of Florida. I about fell over. And they’re surprised, too, to find how much we have in common—I’ve had people in audience after audience say, with shock, “Nothing you said offended me.” Then they’ve asked me to come and speak about the evolution of corporate personhood and the demise of democracy. Groups in Tallahassee, Fla., and Jackson, Miss., have said they’d like to join Move to Amend, a national coalition to amend the U.S. Constitution to affirm that only human beings have Constitutional rights and non-living entities—or as I tell fifth-graders, things without belly buttons—don’t.

I think this BP disaster has really pushed people’s tolerance for accepting the myth that we live in a functioning democracy—whether they’re red or blue of Tea Party or whatever. After Citizens United was decided, 80 percent of Americans across the political divide said that they don’t think corporations should have the rights that people do. But now it’s becoming painfully clear why that’s so important.

You know, it’s the socially vulnerable people who see the corporate threat first, because it affects them first—they know who the law protects, because it’s not them. The real change has been for the people who believed the government was going to take care of them, and that the laws were going to work to protect them. They’re now saying, literally, the same things we were saying in Cordova after the Exxon-Valdez: “I feel like a film has been pulled away from my eyes, and I see how the world really works.” I’m hearing those exact same words in the Gulf: “I feel like a veil has been pulled off my face.” People are now waking up, and they’re ready to put their shoulders to this wheel, to work to create a country that we thought we had.

Brooke: What does that mean, in the communities you’ve been in in the Gulf coast? What are people doing to create a different kind of country?

We wanted a democracy by and for the people, and that means everybody has got to get out of their chairs and figure this out.

Riki: Well, many of them are joining the fight to curb corporate power. But it’s about more than theory and trying to pass a Constitutional amendment—it’s also about doing democracy in our own communities. Just doing it. Building the vision. I think enough of us realize where we need to go, and so it’s a matter of sitting down and figuring out, community by community, how we can be more self-reliant and more resilient. Starting Transition communities, getting our towns to sign the Kyoto Protocol, making our individual communities more self-reliant. Regional energy, regional food, local water. Growing gardens, strengthening neighborhoods, growing our businesses horizontally rather than vertically.

Let’s face it: Corporations are going to try to smash anything we build in the political arena. But if we do it in our communities, under their radar screen, we’re capable of so much. People always seem to think the change is outside of them. Really it’s about your own backyard. Democracy is messy, but it really does work when we all sit down and start listening to one another. And there’s no excuse for not doing it! We wanted a democracy by and for the people, and that means everybody has got to get out of their chairs and figure this out. Many hands make light work.

Brooke Jarvis interviewed Riki Ott for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine’s web editor.

Riki Ott’s most recent book is Not One Drop. It is available in our bookstore.

Naomi Wolf: Banks Siding Against the Customer in Fraud Cases

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Like most consumers, I had always assumed that banks and customers are united in wanting to curtail bank fraud. Unfortunately, I have learned that in fact bank fraud is a big and profitable business — for the banks themselves; and that changes in electronic banking, combined with the power of lobbyists to sustain the status quo that is stacked against ordinary account holders, mean that if consumers’ accounts are corrupted, they can face systemic stonewalling by the banks themselves — and have little recourse.

In 2005 I started to notice irregularities in a checking account I held with WaMu; but the irregularities were ambiguous. I sought at various times over the course of the next two years to go over all my statements — but had trouble getting all my records from both online banking and from my branch itself. A busy working parent, I was certainly not as proactive as I should have been — and, like many consumers of bank services, since we had family accounts and two mortgages at WaMu for many years, and had good relationships with our local branch, I also made the mistake of trusting the bank.

I noticed eventually that checkbooks were missing from my home, and finally my accountant got enough of the records to see an unmistakable pattern of fraud, and called my attention to it. I filed a police report and alerted WaMu to the fraud. For months thereafter, as you can see in the lawsuit that attorney David Fish and I have filed against J P Morgan Chase, now owner of WaMu, that is up on TheSmokingGun.com, I complied with what the WaMu bank officials directed me to do — which was to leave the accounts open so they could investigate, they said, the fraud. If the fraud is reported within six months of confirmation of fraud, it is liable for the loss.

Then the same officials who had directed me to keep the accounts open, disappeared — systematically, for just over six months. When I sought to talk to the fraud department, I still could not get records — including my own missing bank statements — even to see the full extent of my losses. The bank officials who had directed me to keep my accounts open were unavailable at the branch — over the course of many attempts to speak with them. The police at the Sixth Precinct needed to see the missing documents, but even they could not force WaMu to hand over their — my — records. (WaMu’s own internal emails cite a $300,000 figure for my loss from fraud — I still did not have enough of my records to identify the loss. It is illegal, by the way, to withhold from an account holder his or her own records).

At eight months after the fraud discovery was confirmed — eight months of trying to communicate with officials and a fraud department who were oddly unavailable or unresponsive — I received a form letter from the WaMu Fraud Department advising me that according to the regulations, I had had a six month window for taking action; and (since WaMu had played out the clock for eight months) the letter asserted that I had waited ‘too long’ and my case was closed.

Inadvertently, subsequent to that, a WaMu bank official handed me the wrong file — wrong from his point of view; illuminating from mine, and from any consumer’s. It contained emails, some of which you can see at TheSmokingGun.com, from WaMu bank officials to one another — and including emails from and to their counsel, PR department and and the fraud department — that take as given that stonewalling a client with a fraud claim on the bank is standard practice; and yet one freaked-out bank official in the emails warns his colleagues that if their mechanisms in this regard became known, their practices would be all over the newspapers.

I was stunned by what seemed from the emails to be a systemic practice. Why would a bank want to perpetuate bank fraud rather than fight it?

As I researched the issue and spoke to other consumer bank account holders whose accounts had been corrupted by fraud, and to consumer advocates, I learned how systemic experiences such as mine — and worse experiences — are becoming. I heard from consumers across the country from all walks of life who had also been misdirected by their banks, or told that for various technical reasons their corrupted accounts could not be closed, and then faced difficulty reaching fraud departments or officials once the fraud was confirmed.

As Geoff Kischuck, an actuary in California whose business account was corrupted by fraud, and who then had to go daily to Bank of America for four months before he could successfully close the account, explained, there is a great deal of profit being made by banks with this situation. ‘The shift from paper checks clearing physically, to electronic bank transactions, benefits the banking industry immensely,’ he notes. The reason? It generates interest on the ‘float time’ that is still reckoned by the time that paper takes physically to clear, even while the electronic transaction is instantaneous; so it is in the interest of the banking industry to have as much electronic banking as possible. But electronic banking is much easier to hack — and identity theft and bank fraud have skyrocketed accordingly; but the bank benefits a second time with every case of bank fraud and identity theft — because of the immense fees — overdraft fees, bad check fees, that can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars with each corrupted account — racked up by the corrupted accounts. The longer it takes to close the corrupted account, the more difficult it is for the customer to have accountability with the bank’s fraud department — the more revenue for the bank. The bank freezes your ability to address the roblem — but continues to charge you fees for the corrupted account. `Because of the fees that get drained out of an account, banks actually profit from bank fraud,’ explains Kischuk.’ Multiply this by the number of times across the country a consumer account faces identity theft or bank fraud — and you see a mini-industry.

Customers assume that banking regulation and Congressional oversight means that if they find fraud on their checking accounts, there is accountability — which is not in fact the case; strong bank lobbyists translate into weak protections for consumers and, as you can see from the emails, the bank’s reasonable assumption that most customers in this situation will not be able to hold them accountable. And indeed, since legal action is time-consuming and expensive, most defrauded bank customers do eventually give up and go away.

I am certainly shocked by my own experience — but even more disturbed after learning that such things and even worse have happened and continue to happen to people from all walks of life — immigrants, retirees, people on disability — who have experienced loss of savings, retirement accounts, college fees, mortgage payments and so on through bank fraud — and who do all the things their banks direct them to do, only to find they have no actual recourse. They do not understand — as I did not — that a bank’s fraud investigation department is actually likely fraudulently representing itself as the customer’s, rather than solely the bank’s, advocate. Banks such as WaMu — and now Chase, which bought WaMu — expect such people to simply go away. They — and we — should, rather, reach out to our elected representatives for wholesale reform — and put each and every such case online, so consumers can see the worst offenders for themselves, and, with the power of the internet and their own consumer choices, protect themselves and demand accountability.

This article was originally published by The Huffington Post.

Naomi Wolf is the author of The End of America, Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, available in our bookstore.

Riki Ott: Hide and Leak – Earth Island Journal

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

On July 15, BP managed to finally seal its broken Macondo wellhead and stop the oil that had been hemorrhaging into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The very next week, as I was driving up the Florida coast, locals kept pointing out to me where cleanup workers were packing up and pulling out. From Crawfordville through to Carrabelle, and Port St. Joe to Pensacola, the booms were disappearing, the crew tents folded up and removed from beaches.

The well had been capped, after all. The gusher had stopped. Game over. Everyone can go home, right?

Not even close. If all goes according to plan, the relief well should provide a more permanent fix. But that hasn’t been the nature of this disaster. Every time BP thought it had the solution, something somehow went wrong. At the time of this writing, at least one oil seep had sprung in the ocean floor near the well as the pressure from the plug found other releases; methane, too, looked to be leaking. And BP was, once again, dodging the government’s requests for more monitoring.

The capping of the geyser will not, unfortunately, mean the end of the Gulf disaster. Don’t forget that it took nearly a month after the blowout for the first oil to make landfall. The oil-and-chemical mix will be coming ashore in the water and on the wind long after the relief well delivers on its promise.

I don’t share that fact to be discouraging, but only to remind us all that, if we turn our backs on the Gulf now, we will lose the high stakes game that started on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. And I mean us – because every American has a stake in this game. This contest is about far more than dollars for damages; it’s about our country’s ability to hold big corporate criminals accountable to the public interest and ensure that they follow the laws we enact.

That’s going to be tough, especially given our national attention deficit disorder. The media will lose its focus soon and shift its gaze to the next catastrophe. Politicians will be tempted to move on to other agendas. But the environment may not recover for years. And the political and legal effort to hold BP to its promise to “make it right” will take a decade at least – if not two.

I know this because I am a survivor of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill – and the 20 years of litigation that followed. The experience completely changed my life. I started as a marine toxicologist, became a commercial fisherwoman, and ended up a democracy activist. I helped start three nonprofit organizations to deal with the lingering social, economic, and environmental harm that Exxon claims never existed. I wrote two books: one on the biological impact of the spill, the other on the emotional impact of disaster trauma and the process of healing. Then I saw it begin all over again. It’s strange – discouraging, really – to witness how seamlessly my work went from the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.

photo of a sea turtle in a net on the  transom of a boatCarolyn Cole – Thousands of endangered turtles were affected by the gusher.

Our effort to hold BP accountable for its actions is so complicated because US political leaders have opted to leave the criminals in charge of the crime scene. As we saw this spring and summer, BP managed most of the response to its spill, with the federal government playing a kind of auxiliary role. Some countries, like Norway, nationalize the cleanup of oil spills. On a visit to Norway in 1990, the year after the Exxon spill, I was escorted through World War II-era bunkers full of protective booms and absorbent material. National Guardsmen kept a sharp lookout for troubled tankers. One explained to me, “We treat oil spills like a war.” It was clear that meant a war against the spill, to protect human health and the environment.

Here in the United States, the spiller-in-charge wages a very different war. It’s a war to minimize the spiller’s legal liabilities, which means it’s a war against the truth, the injured people, and the environment. Each decision the spiller makes is filtered through the lens of accounting rather than accountability. BP’s every act is motivated by its desire to reduce its legal and financial liabilities – as was Exxon’s after the spill in Alaska. This is not a moral judgment, it’s just a point of fact. It’s how things work in a system where corporations have one legal reason for being: to make money.

This explains why there are two versions of spill reality: what the spiller says is going on, or the “official” industry-government story, and what is really happening, as told in eye-witness accounts.

I came down to the Gulf on a one-way ticket in early May anticipating the dual reality and committed to highlighting the truth as I found it. I hoped to share experiences from the Exxon Valdez saga with Gulf residents in an effort to help them avoid the mistakes we made in Alaska – mistakes for which we are still paying. I hoped to work in solidarity with communities to help counter the inevitable “official” story. Because correcting the false story is the first step toward accountability. It’s the only way to make BP pay and to avoid the secondary disaster, euphemistically known as the “cleanup,” but more accurately called a cover-up.

It was already an uphill battle by the time I arrived. The broken pipe was spewing under a mile of ocean water. BP was the only one with access to the site and estimates of flow rate. The company’s early estimates inched up as its credibility shot down. One thousand barrels a day… 5,000 a day … 25,000 a day … would you believe 50,000?

It was hard to tell from the video footage BP released. A high-definition, live-feed camera deployed at the leak would have ended the guesstimates, but BP resisted until Congressman Edward Markey, among others, insisted on transparency. Then it turned out that BP and the Coast Guard had been viewing HD video all along.

In early June, federal and university scientists estimated a worst-case scenario flow rate of up to 100,000 barrels daily (over four million gallons), most likely from Day One. The scientists and media then settled on an “accepted” rate of 25,000 barrels per day. (By early August, that number had been revised upward yet again to 53,000 barrels.)

Where can people vote “do not accept”? The accepted spill volume for the Exxon Valdez was 11 million gallons (262,000 barrels). But eyewitnesses this was the low-end estimate. Five years after the spill, the State of Alaska released its independent analysis putting the spill at 30 to 35 million gallons.

Underestimating spill volume is common in the oil industry because stiff penalties are based on volume spilled: $1,100 per barrel under normal circumstances. If BP is found guilty of gross negligence for failing to repair the damaged blowout preventer, fines rise to $4,300 per barrel. By the time the Macondo was capped, estimates ranged from 100 million to 200 million gallons of oil blown into the Gulf. That’s a big enough discrepancy for BP to save billions with fuzzy videos.

BP got serious about scrubbing out evidence when it released oil dispersants onto the surface of the ocean and under the water. Dispersants are industrial solvents designed to break up oil slicks into droplets that sink and spread out. In other words, they make oil slicks, and liability, “disappear.”

In late May, when surface slicks began rolling into Louisiana’s coastal marsh, BP CEO Tony Hayward declared, “The oil is on the surface,” a bald attempt to distract attention from the huge amount of oil lurking within the mile-deep water column. He stated that BP had found “no evidence” of the oil-dispersant plumes suspended in large masses and reported by at least three universities.

Alas for BP – and the entire Gulf ecosystem – the persistent plumes became an inconvenient truth. In July, Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA, blew the whistle on the industry-government cover-up when he confirmed that nearly two million gallons of dispersant had been applied as of July 20, and 44,000 square miles of ocean were contaminated by the oil-dispersant toxic stew.

The use of dispersants amounts to an experiment of unprecedented proportion on the Gulf’s wildlife and people. Dispersants were developed by the oil industry in response to public outrage when the tanker Torrey Canyon wrecked on England’s coast in 1967. As a budding marine scientist, I researched effects of the first-generation dispersants in the mid-1970s. They were like straight kerosene: They killed everything they touched.

The oil industry went back to the drawing board and, during the next 40 years developed successive generations of less toxic dispersants. The problem is that dispersants are dangerous by nature. They are solvents, which means they can dissolve oil, grease, and rubber. Workers on the Vessels of Opportunity (the lemons-into-lemonade name given to BP’s cleanup fleet) have told me that their hard rubber impellors are falling apart and need frequent replacement; divers say they have had to replace the soft rubber o-rings on their gear after dives in the Gulf.

Unfortunately, replacement is not an option for the Gulf’s once plentiful denizens – the dolphins, sea turtles, whales, fish, birds, and manatees that make the place home. In May and June, I frequently heard about sightings of dying wildlife or distressed animals fleeing into coastal areas. The first reports came from the offshore cleanup workers and pilots who discovered carcasses concentrated by rip currents, and windrows of dead dolphins, turtles, and birds “too numerous to count” on barrier islands.

Such evidence is rare because BP, and its puppet the Coast Guard, pushed cameras away from the spill, then away from beaches. On June 2, I was flying on a charter from New Orleans to Orange Beach, Alabama, when the straight orange lines delineating FAA’s flight restriction zone jumped onshore to include Alabama’s beaches. The shocked pilot shook his head and said, “There’s only one reason for that: BP doesn’t want cameras on the beaches.”

The situation reached a new low when the Coast Guard ignored the First Amendment and said anyone who got within 65 feet of response operations without government permission could face felony charges and up to $40,000 in fines. That policy, and other unwritten forms of censorship, have been aggressively enforced by BP’s private security teams and local police who commonly work off-duty (in their uniforms) for BP.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the person allegedly in charge of the cleanup, said the restrictions were intended to protect “safety.” Really? If the federal government or BP were so concerned about safety, then maybe any of the four agencies – EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, or the Coast Guard – that are supposedly sampling air and water quality should design better monitoring programs. None of those agencies has found unsafe levels of oil or the notorious human health hazard, 2-butoxyethanol, a primary ingredient in one of the dispersants (the ironically named “Corexit”) dumped into the Gulf. But plenty of other people have discovered dangerous chemical levels in the environment.

For example, about a week after the oil started coming ashore in Alabama, the Mobile television station WKRG took samples of water and sand from Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Katrina Key, and Dauphin Island. The test was nothing fancy. The on-air reporter simply dipped a jar into the ocean and another into some surf water filling a sand pit dug by a small child. In the samples, oil was not visible in the water or the sand, but the chemist who analyzed them reported astonishingly high levels of oil ranging from 16 to 221 parts per million (ppm).

Except for the Dauphin Island sample – that one exploded in the lab. The chemist thought maybe the exploding sample contained methane or 2-butoxyethanol.

These levels of oil could explain the bouts of skin rashes I heard about from coastal residents, pharmacists, and medical doctors in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The rashes ranged from a fiery red discoloration to deep blistering. The worst cases I saw were on the legs of offshore cleanup workers who were diagnosed by BP with “staph infections.” Sick workers who sought out independent doctors were fired, according to the workers.

Toxicologists and medical doctors told me that oil alone would not cause deep blisters and scarring – but dispersants could. There is also evidence of dangerous levels of oil in the air. What people described as “invisible jellyfish” in the water became “stinging rain” in the air. I suspect the sting is from the micelles, little oil bubbles wrapped in solvent. A preliminary study commissioned in mid-July by Guardians of the Gulf, a community-based nonprofit organization in Orange Beach, Alabama, found that nightly air inversions – common in the area during the summer and fall – were trapping pollutants near the ground. Total Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – including the carcinogen benzene, and oil vapors – reached 85 to 108 parts per million at 9:00 a.m. but rapidly dropped to zero (or non-detectable) within half an hour as the sun burned through the inversion layer. This would help explain why the EPA has failed to detect VOCs with its own tests: The agency typically does its sampling during the daytime.

The high VOC levels could explain the bout of respiratory problems, dizziness, nausea, sore throats, headaches, and ear bleeds I’ve heard about from residents and health professionals from Houma, Louisiana, to Apalachicola, Florida. Even the oil industry knows that these chemicals are unsafe. As long ago as 1948, the American Petroleum Institute confirmed that “the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.”

And yet throughout the entire debacle, the regulators with OSHA have refused to require respirators for offshore cleanup workers, arguably the most at risk from high exposure levels of oil-dispersant contaminants. Under public pressure, OSHA finally insisted respirators be provided to offshore workers (only), yet the agency well knows that BP has consistently informed cleanup workers that wearing respirators will result in job termination. Why would BP be opposed to such an easy and cheap worker protection measure? For the same reason the company chases cameras off the sand – it doesn’t want to look bad. Workers wearing respirators would be an admission that something is terribly wrong, and leave BP open to long-term medical surveillance.

What will become of the Gulf? If the experience of Alaska’s Prince William Sound is any indicator, the future will be grim. Holes will appear where once things were solid. There will be holes in the Gulf’s ecosystem when the 2010 class of young sea life fails to return as adults, just as in Alaska, where the Prince William Sound herring fishery still remains closed. There will be holes in Gulf communities as depression crimps lives and families leave, just like what happened in my town of Cordova. There will be holes when the false economy propped up by BP’s cash crashes to the reality that this tragedy has stolen much of the Gulf’s economic foundation.

missing image fileBP America – BP CEO Tony Hayward lost his job over the Macondo disaster, thanks in part to
inappropriate soundbytes like, “I just want my life back.”

Perhaps the biggest hole, the worst wound, is the damage done to our democracy. The BP blowout and the government’s lame response have made clear once again that in this country the corporations lead … and the politicians follow.

Accountability was something we failed to achieve in Alaska. It took me almost 20 years – and a lot of personal growth – to fully understand why. Over time, I began to see that Exxon’s oil spill wasn’t an environmental disaster; it was, instead, a democracy disaster. Exxon’s collusion with the government then, like BP’s today, made it blatantly obvious that “We the People” have lost control of our Republic. When government decides that bowing to the needs of companies is its top priority, disasters that come at the public expense are the natural result.

This was true before, but in the wake of the Gulf spill it’s plain for everyone to see. As one of my new friends in the Gulf put it: “This is not new. This is just in our faces.” The righteous anger in that statement might yet be able to mend the holes in our democracy. It might give us the chance to put our political divides aside and work together to reclaim government of, for, and by the people.

This article was originally published by Earth Island Journal.

Riki Ott is author of Not One Drop (Chelsea Green, 2008) and director of Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute. She is a member of the national grassroots coalition MoveToAmend.org.

Robert Kuttner: Zillions for Wall Street, Zippo for Barack’s Old Neighborhood

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
– W.B. Yeats

On Friday, the government moved to seize and temporarily shutter one of the truly heroic banking institutions of this dismal era for American finance — ShoreBank of Chicago. More precisely, ShoreBank of Barack Obama’s old neighborhood.

Over the years, since its founding in 1973, ShoreBank had enabled thousands of moderate income residents to become homeowners, and thousands of small businesses to get credit, without ever playing the subprime game or making a single predatory loan. It was a model bank that earned a modest profit by delivering on a social mission.

In the end, ShoreBank succumbed to the aftermath of a financial crisis made on Wall Street. Yet while the Treasury Department found hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue giant Wall Street institutions, it refused to come up with the $75 million for which ShoreBank qualified under the TARP program.

A number of stories that I’ve reported about the wrongheaded priorities of the Obama administration leave me bewildered and exasperated. This one leaves me really angry.

The bank will continue under new ownership and a new name, the Urban Partnership Bank, to be run by some recently hired ShoreBank executives, and which has pledged to keep the bank open and continue its basic philosophy. But owners of ShoreBank stock, which include many socially responsible investors, will have the value of their shares wiped out and the directors dismissed. And it remains to be seen whether some of ShoreBank’s social commitment will be compromised.

Today, there is a whole category of bank known as a community development financial institution. This category did not exist until it was invented in 1973 by ShoreBank, then known as the South Shore National Bank. But ShoreBank did not set out to create a banking category, only to help a distressed community.

Its idealistic president, Ron Grzywinski, now emeritus, had seen the effects of racial redlining first hand as a banker and community activist, and resolved to create a bank that could help the depressed South Shore neighborhood of Chicago regenerate by providing normal banking services to creditworthy borrowers.

I first met Ron in 1975, when I was staffing hearings on redlining for my boss, Senator William Proxmire, then the new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. When community groups helped us draft legislation requiring banks to disclose by zip code where they had loans, a bill that Congress passed as the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, we had the entire banking industry lobbying against the bill. The sole banker we could find to testify in favor was Ron Grzywinski.

Over the years, Ron and his colleagues built a model institution, and helped to transform South Shore and other depressed communities. In 1994, the Clinton administration, impressed by the achievement, enacted legislation to help create other community development banks. ShoreBank was the alternative to the predators that worked low income neighborhoods–the subprime sharpies, offering deals that were too good to be true, preying on the dreams of working people.

Fast forward to 2009. ShoreBank is caught up in a crisis not of its own making. Loans that were perfectly well collateralized when they were made are now under water because housing values have dropped. Borrowers who had bankable credit ratings are now behind on their payments because they are out of work. ShoreBank booked a loss of $36.9 million in the first half of this year.

In 2009, the Treasury Department, having dumped hundreds of billions through the TARP program to rescue Wall Street–$45 billion to insolvent Citigroup alone– grudgingly created a very modest refinancing and recapitalization program to help distressed community development banks. But almost immediately, Herb Allison, the assistant treasury secretary in charge of TARP, set standards so high that hardly any can qualify.

Even so, ShoreBank managed to exceed the standards set by its prime regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It raise some $150 million in new private capital, ironically much of it from the very institutions rescued by TARP, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. Goldman’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, eager to show that he’s a white hat, personally worked the phone to raise money for ShoreBank.

The money raised more than met the capital target that the FDIC had set as a condition for ShoreBank to get $75 million in TARP money (when Citi got TARP money, private investors were fleeing.) In the meantime, ShoreBank has had an exemplary record of modifying loans so that borrowers could avoid foreclosure.

But in the end, the Treasury refused to put up its share of the money, requiring ShoreBank to be seized, closed, and reopened under new ownership.

Why did the Treasury Department, which found almost unlimited sums for insolvent mega-banks on Wall Street, not cough up a relative pittance for ShoreBank, which was a going concern that had gotten a seal of approval from its primary regulator, the FDIC?

There are a few explanations. One is that people like Tim Geithner and Herb Allison have their eyes focused on the big picture and don’t have much time or money for small fry like ShoreBank. A second is that after all of bad publicity for the first round of TARP credits to Wall Street, they have belatedly tightened their standards when it comes to community banks.

But the saddest explanation is that the Treasury is bending over backwards not to help an exemplary community bank in Barack Obama’s old neighborhood, lest somebody accuse the administration of favoritism. And in fact, for weeks Republican congressman have been using Shorebank as a whipping boy. Fox News has been full of broadsides against ShoreBank.

But the sacrifice of ShoreBank has done nothing to quiet the rightwing propaganda. Since the investors in the successor bank include some of the very same Wall Street banks that got aid from TARP, the rightwing storyline continues that Obama’s buddies on Wall Street are doing the administration a favor, and that this is a sweetheart deal.

None of the explanations for the decision to let ShoreBank fail reflects credit on the administration. If the Treasury had one standard for the Wall Street and another for the south side of Chicago, shame on them. And if the administration failed to extend aid to a model institution serving the victims of the subprime mess in Obama’s old neighborhood for fear of Fox News, shame on the president.

Appeasing the right does nothing except whet their appetite. When will the best–not the worst–display conviction, passion and intensity on behalf of a decent America?

 This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Robert Kuttner’s new book is “A Presidency in Peril.” He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a Senior Fellow at Demos.

Radical homemakers reclaim the simple life

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

An inspirational, grassroots movement is afoot in the Bay Area (yes, another one), and it’s going to make the world a better place. No, really. Granted, this region has sprouted its fair share of grassroots movements; however, this particular crusade – dubbed radical homemaking by New York writer and pioneering radical homemaker Shannon Hayes – seems particularly well suited to our socially responsible, food-obsessed, eco-zealous neck of the woods.

In her recent book, “Radical Homemakers” (Left to Write Press; $23.95), Hayes, 36, makes a deeply personal and well-supported case – to be expected from someone who holds a doctorate in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University – for shunning consumer culture in favor of a life of complete and utter domesticity.

Although she had eyes on a college professorship, Hayes jumped off the career track a decade ago, along with her husband, Bob, a former county planner. Aching to “honor their deepest dreams and values” (in the radical-homemaker vernacular, these virtues include family, community, social justice and the environment), the couple moved back to her family’s farm in upstate New York, where, she writes in her book, “subsistence farming, food preservation, barter and frugal living are a matter of course.”

A radical notion

While the idea of banishing all dependence on wealthy corporations to practice an Emersonian life of simplicity, authenticity and self-reliance resonates soundly with many Bay Area residents – these are tenets of the 1960s counterculture, after all – making such a progressive lifestyle change seems, in a word, drastic. But they’re not called radical homemakers for nothing.

“Our society has indoctrinated us with a lot of fear,” says Hayes, who writes books for a (modest) living – fortified, of course, by the money saved from the farm’s ready supply of grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and poultry, and abundant fruits and vegetables. “Fear of living without a formal job title, the security of a regular paycheck, stepping outside of our educational infrastructure or even the corporate food system. Radical homemakers are pretty tired of all that fear.”

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/08/21/HOBM1ET424.DTL#ixzz0xRhUylJQ

Radical Homemakers is available in our bookstore.

Now Available: The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Who Says Progressives Don’t Like to Fight?

The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell will take you into the “no holds barred” world of activism and campaigning. Your guide is master tactician, consumer advocate and political street fighter Jamie Court. In his guide to raising hell, he’ll show you a simple method for winning any political battle of wills, by staying true to your values and using them to reveal the greed and arrogance of your opponents, be they politicians or multinational corporations.

Court, President of Consumer Watchdog, the enormously successful consumer advocacy organization based in California, is a longtime organizer of successful ballot campaigns and reform initiatives. In the book, he offers battle-proven, step-by-step directions to force and expose your opponent’s mistakes, and leverage public opinion in the direction of progressive change. Court provides real world examples like:

  • Purchasing social security numbers of California’s governing bodies to show the need for privacy legislation;
  • Going toe-to-toe with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger;
  • Taking on Google’s privacy policies, and winning;

The book’s release comes on the heels of the BP oil spill and just before the runup for midterm elections–perfect timing to enhance any discussion of populist rage, Obama’s failure to deliver, and how to make change happen every day. Court is raising the flag of direct democracy, providing us with the DIY blueprint for political change.

Progressive’s Guide takes the fight from closed doors and halls of power in Washington and brings it home to you. He believes it is in states and communities that true political successes can occur.

Check out the progressive bad-assery of Consumer Watchdog, and their latest project, Inside Google. You can also connect with Jamie Court on Twitter @RaisingHellNow.

Get your copy today! The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell is available in our bookstore. But don’t let your conservative friends borrow it!

Bob Cavnar: BP’s Close Relationship with the Government Caused Poor Risk Management

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Yesterday, Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post published what I consider one of the most revealing stories of the entire BP odyssey since their Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well blew out on April 20th.  

My regular readers know that I have been critical of both BP and the government in their management of this catastrophe, and that I have been often baffled about some decisions that are made.  There have been surprise, last minute decisions, such as the “well integrity test”, and the unexplainable delays in the real solution here, the relief wells.  The erratic decision making, lack of consistent direction, and unclear chain of command has confused the media and the public, and caused this story to drag on far longer than it should have.  I believed then, and continue to believe, that if they had simply kept the first relief well working, this story would have been over a month ago.  But it’s not.  The relief well, again, the only solution to killing the blowout well, has been delayed for the capping stack procedure, then the “well integrity test”, the “static kill” and cement job, the “near ambient test, the “ambient test”, now the fishing job to get drill pipe extracted before actually trying to change out the BOP, which I believe is unwise.

Each of these procedures, plus the ill fated “top kill” procedure in May, have been high risk, threatened the integrity of the well and could have easily caused severe damage allowing uncontrolled flow into the Gulf, making containment even more difficult than it already was.  As you know, I have asked several times during all this bobbing and weaving, “What the hell are they doing?”  I have believed from the first minute that these decisions were pushed by BP to avoid measurement of the flow from the well to minimize their liability.  I believed their silence on key issues such as flow rate and causes were simply their lawyers trying to keep the veil pulled over these key details.  With the lack of industry experience on the government side, I naturally assumed that BP was bullying the government into agreeing to these steps, but was always confused about why they were slowing down the relief well, which has never made any sense.  Well, now we apparently have the answers to at least some of these questions.

It seems that Steve Chu, the Nobel Prizing-winning Secretary of Energy and his staff of advisors have been making these calls, exercising what I consider to be questionable risk management, and making decisions based on advice from those who, it appears, have little oil well crisis management experience.  We know that the government and BP have formed an Odd Couple kind of marriage, one that was cemented after BP agreed on June 16 to pony up $20 billion for damages from its blowout.  It was in the government’s best interest, after all, to keep BP viable, and in the company’s best interest to shift as much blame as possible to the government if something went wrong, so a mutually beneficial arrangement was formed.  Since that time, the relationship between BP and government advisors has been an  strange alliance, with retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen as the prime spokesman with the occasional appearances by company representatives to explain technical procedures.  As you’ve heard from me before, often those explanations actually created more questions than they answered, and served to keep everyone confused.

Achenbach discovered that the real decision makers here have actually been Chu and his science team, which explains a lot.  His primary advisors, Dr. Tom Hunter, Director of Sandia Labs, Dr. George Cooper, a retired professor from Berkeley, Dr. Richard Lawrence Garvey, a physicist, and Dr. Alexander Slocum, a mechanical engineering professor from MIT, are researchers or teachers, primarily in nuclear physics or mechanical engineering.  None of the team has direct oil industry background.  The DOE Deepwater Response website that names this team also says it has over 200 other advisors, but fails to list anyone who’s actually done any work in oil and gas.  Hopefully some have, but it’s clear by some of the decisions being made that, if there are industry folks on the team, they haven’t had much influence.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has done its best to distance itself from anyone who is tainted with the smell of oil including his own supporters.  From very early on, Obama’s team showed little interest in engaging the industry about the difficult issues of converting from a mostly hydrocarbon-based economy to one more diversified, and, based on the industry’s track record and opposition to any improvement in carbon emissions, tax reform, or safety regulations, that’s understandable; but to shut out all advice seems a bit extreme.  The Obama team’s contempt for the oil industry is palpable, and his picks for his cabinet and other advisors demonstrated that in spades.  Indeed, even the commission he established to determine the causes of the blowout has not one member with any direct oil and gas experience, but instead consists of environmentalists and academics.  Certainly, the commission should include these important voices in an inquiry of this nature, but to include no one with actual industry experience pre-ordains that the panel’s conclusions will be condemned as biased.  In fact that very criticism started days after the panel was named.  The DOE website goes to great lengths to document its contributions to this crisis and touts a long list of accomplishments, essentially asserting that it was Chu’s team that prevented BP from doing a lot of stupid things.  That may be true, but the list seems a bit over-wrought.

The DOE takes credit for the containment systems designed, but never completed, and Chu says it was his idea to shut in the capping stack installed on July 13th and 14th rather than produce the well to containment.  After the top kill failed, everyone, including me, was very concerned about well integrity, and assumed that, after the capping stack was set, BP would continue to safely produce the well to ships on the surface while rushing to complete the relief well; however, Chu said no.  As Achenbach described Chu’s recollection, he said,

“‘No, I don’t think so, there’s another scenario,’ The well, he said, might have integrity after all.’ That opened the possibility, he said, for the ‘integrity test.’ They could close the well and see what happened.”

See what happened?  That’s like saying, “Let’s take a car and drive it into a wall at 80 miles an hour to see what happens.”  Some, mostly industry outsiders, have said “you can’t argue with success”, and that shutting in the well worked.  Maybe, but my answer to that assertion is, but, was that good risk management?  Most experienced people would say no, it was the more risky alternative.  I would liken this decision, again using a car analogy, like driving from Houston to Dallas without your seatbelt on and not having a wreck or getting killed.  Was it successful? Yes. Was it poor risk management?  Absolutely.  It’s the same with this decision, it may have worked, but carried serious risks that were not mitigated.  After the stack was set was when we found out that it was inadequately designed only able to produce all the flow from the well or to shut it in completely.  We were told that the well must either be shut in or flowing into the Gulf.  This stack, designed and engineered for 2 months before installation, could not contain part of the flow and produce the rest to whatever capacity was available at the surface, another factor that never made much sense.

Much of what has gone on this last month has been confusing to every industry insider I’ve talked to.  Delaying the relief well, especially with John Wright, the best relief well driller on the planet, in charge, is unconscionable.  Had Wright been left alone, this would have been over weeks ago, in my view.  And safely.  With the revelation of the US government active management of this crisis, much of my confusion is now cleared up.  The reasons for all course changing, halting press briefings, completely opaque and lukewarm “technical briefings” are now explained.  It looks like BP has been happy to take the backseat to the government.  The reasons are simple;  BP was off the hook from the moment the government actually took over, and would be more than happy to point the finger at the government if the whole thing blew up.

The only way to assure this well is dead is the relief well.  Since the BP/US government team has now blinded themselves from being able to see what’s going on with all this business from the top of the well, it is now most assuredly so.  Now their attempt to fish the drill pipe, which is likely held in place by collapsed casing, the casing hanger, or the BOP (maybe all three), is ill advised and risky.  Likewise, pulling the BOP stack right now is risky.  Their concern for components on the stack is about 5 weeks too late after already putting far more pressure than for which it was designed, something I don’t believe BP made clear to Chu’s team when they decided to shut it in.  The static kill/cement job made killing this well harder, putting into question the weaknesses of the very BOP stack components we pointed to over a month ago.

Now they’re in a jam, but at least I now understand why.  Come on, relief well.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Bob Cavnar’s book, the first to be published on the Gulf Oil Disaster, is coming out this October. For more information on Disaster on the Horizon, go to our bookstore.

UPDATE: Diane Wilson is Banned from US Capitol…But at Least She’s Not Going to Prison!

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Diane Wilson, activist and shrimper, was arrested for a peaceful protest during a Senate hearing about BP’s oil disaster. She stood up in the middle of the hearing, poured fake oil on herself, and loudly demanded that CEO Tony Hayward be brought to justice for causing the largest environmental catastrophe in US history. It was a gutsy move of the sort we’ve come to expect from Diane, a master of civil disobedience and an example to every citizen who wonders what power they have to make change happen.

Direct action protest of this sort doesn’t require money or colleagues. It puts you, your physical body and psychological presence, on the line for what you believe. It is one of the most powerful and evocative ways to draw attention to an issue–but is rarely without consequence. After all, it often involves breaking the law to protest the injustice that law protects.

Thankfully Diane will be free to find new ways to rock the boat. This just in:

On Friday, August 20, Diane Wilson’s hearing took place at the Superior Court of the District of Columbiain Washington. While the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have no repercussions on the managers of BP responsible for it, the International ethecon Blue Planet Awardee 2006, Diane Wilson, was threatened with  three charges and a possible two and a half years in prison because of her protest against BP. In all, shrimper Diane Wilson was facing 840 days in prison for her peaceful protest actions during a Committee hearing in the US Senate and the hearing of BP CEO Tony Hayward.

During her court hearing on Friday, the judge refrained from sending her to jail – on the condition that she does not get arrested for a 9 months, anywhere in the United States. Not an easy condition for the environmental and political activist. On top of that, she is banned  from the US capitol grounds, which makes further protest actions in the capitol impossible for her.

There were two reasons for this court hearing. One was a Senate Energy Committee hearing, during which Diane Wilson poured fake oil on herself in order to protest the blocking of a bill that was supposed to lift the oil companies’ liability cap (the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act). The other  reason was her demanding, with her hands and face covered in black fake oil, that BP CEO Hayward should be charged with a crime. This happened during Hayward’s hearing by members of the US Congress.

Wilson stated that since she cannot speak on the Capitol grounds or any of the Senate or House committee rooms, she will speak with a different voice.  As a cofounder of CodePink, a grassroots activist group of women concerned about peace, social and environmental justice, she will begin a hunger strike to raise consciousness to end offshore drilling and to push a legislative bill to lift the liability cap on oil companies, making them paythe full damages.  In other words,the polluter pays.

Wilson plans to officially announce the hunger strike at a labor day rally, Spill into Washington, on September  3-4.

So all Diane has to do is not get arrested for nine months. Can the US agree to not commit any egregious injustice, worthy of her protest, for that long? That would be nice, but we’re not going to hold our breath.

If you want more information about the rally, go to SpillIntoWashington.org

Diane is the author of Holy Roller, and An Unreasonable Woman, both available in our bookstore.

WATCH: Interview with Joan Gussow, by Shelley Rogers

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

“Once in a while, when I have an original thought, I look around and realize Joan said it first”
–Michael Pollan

Joan Gussow has influenced thousands through her books, This Organic Life and The Feeding Web, her lectures, and the simple fact that she lives what she preaches.

This is an edited version of a preliminary interview with Joan. It appears on the DVD extras of “What’s Organic About Organic?”
Eventually, it will be part of the short film that Shelley Rogers is producing about Joan.

Joan’s garden was recently featured in the New York Times.Joan’s memoir, Growing, Older, is coming out this fall. Check it out in our bookstore.


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