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Lessons from a week in the Gulf. Hampered by a total lack of transparency.

August 10 2010 | Oil Pollution, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I travel a fair bit and it's usually not my practice to write a blog series after a trip; however, the Gulf oil spill is in it's own category. It's happening in real time so I thought I'd continue to share my perspective. Here is a link to my "Gulf trip lessons" series. I feel the need to set this post up by stating that I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Whenever I hear someone go down that path I tend to tune out.  Further, I am not naive.  Yet, that's what I was feeling while I was in the Gulf region... naive. In fact, I think we're all naive on the subject of the BP spill because I believe that's their intention. The information we have access to is being controlled and blocked and the truth is being altered. Our ability to make sense of the situation is discounted by a large-scale lack of transparency. Let me offer a metaphor. The story behind this film seems to resemble what's currently playing out in the Gulf. We all seek stability. We WANT to trust institutional entities because if we don't, things can start to get squirrelly. Beginning my trip with a foundational trust in authority, I went to the Gulf and spent the week talking with locals, business owners, tourists and contractors. It quickly became clear that part of the Gulf spill story isn't being told. There is something opaque and secretive in nature surrounding the Gulf spill, the cleanup efforts, damage assessment efforts and the long-term impact on the region and ecosystems. 1. Information is being censored
  • Oil collection and dispersant deployment efforts are taking place well out of the public eye. In driving around the Gulf coast I saw large containers and heavy moving equipment en masse. As I arrived at dawn to beaches I sometimes found multiple busloads of hazmat workers operating in secured, protected areas.
  • Information about the collection and disposal of dead animals is unclear. If you look at sources like the Spilltraker wiki you'd think the spill impact on animals is tiny. Then you hear of large-scale, undocumented animal disposal(and sounds of explosions during the night. Combine those elements with the stories starting to come from workers and the pieces of the massive impact on sea life start to come together.  What's being kept from the public is exactly how large that impact is. EVERY person I spoke with in the Gulf (who comes in contact with local marine life) shared that there has been large, unprecedented numbers of animals near the shoreline. Many believe the animals are seeking clean water; that is, sea life is fleeing the submerged oil and other oxygen-depleting toxins and ending up in places they wouldn't otherwise go, such as the shoreline. The challenge with the above-mentioned lack of transparency is that we have no idea how many animals have died as a result of this disaster.
2. Lack of information
  • There are no water quality measurements being shared with the public. I wrote about this last week. Put yourself into the shoes of a local--you're married with a few kids and the equivalent of nine or ten Exxon Valdezes have spilled and toxic dispersants were added by the millions of gallons into local waters. Should you go in the water? Should you let your kids play in the Gulf? Should you eat fish coming from local waters? No one knows if the water is safe. 4.9 million barrels of oil (205,800,000 gallons) spilled over a period of 87 days into waters that supply a meaningful percentage of the world's seafood, and yet water quality isn't being tested and shared with the public. How is that possible?
  • Contractors are doing the job of federal agencies. I wondered, "why would federal sources repeatedly state facts that locals felt weren't true?" (such as continued use of dispersant). A light bulb went off when a local shared with me that their spouse was being paid to do this... as a contractor. Perhaps contractors are being used so that federal officials can deny or shield agency involvement and knowledge of related details.
3. Information that offers an alternative view of reality
  • The early, radically underestimated rate of oil flow set the stage for manipulation of information delivered to the mainstream population. BP's early, and insanely low, estimates of the oil flow stuck in people's minds for months. In fact, they were so bold in the early days to actually say that the flow rate didn't even matter.  How is it possible that a company with a 2009 market capitalization of $181,000,000,000, decades of experience, and scores of scientists couldn't come up with the accuracy that a single blogger did by reading satellite imagery?
  • The use of orchestrated demonstrations for media (alongside media blackouts). Multiple individuals have shared with me that they were taken out on a boat after the spill and brought to certain locations to see the clean-up efforts. It's become clear that these were made-for-media "cleanup demonstration" events. These staged video vignettes did not offer the real picture to concerned citizens, it offered an alternative reality. Combine this information with regional bans that were put in place (i.e. restricted airspace) and we connect the dots again. We were shown what was created for us. We did not see the real disaster because that was deemed off-limits.
To be fair there IS information available to those that dig. Here are a few sites that are worth spending a bit of time on:
  • SERT GATOR response site. Geospatial Assessment Tool for Operations and Response. A layman's definition might be "Florida's real time disaster map and associated response."
Contrary to the tone of recent media sound bites the tragedy in the Gulf isn't over. Compounding that tragedy is the fact that the public's perception is being hampered by a total lack of transparency into this situation. This is disconcerting. This is the United States of America and the citizens deserve more than they are being offered.
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