Four Ways BP and Officials Are Working to Suppress the Outrageous Facts About the Gulf Disaster

From intimidating reporters to trying to enforce no-fly zones, there seems to be a concerted effort to block public access to information.

With BP’s oil gusher in the gulf approaching two months, public anger is approaching the boiling point. When will the oil spilling into the gulf be stopped and what remediation can be done for the ecosystem and the local economy? Those of us who aren’t at ground zero have to rely on what the media is reporting — which is turning into an outrageous scandal of its own.

“Journalists struggling to document the impact of the oil rig explosion have repeatedly found themselves turned away from public areas affected by the spill, and not only by BP and its contractors, but by local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials,” wrote Jeremy W. Peters for the New York Times. “To some critics of the response effort by BP and the government, instances of news media being kept at bay are just another example of a broader problem of officials’ filtering what images of the spill the public sees. Scientists, too, have complained about the trickle of information that has emerged from BP and government sources. Three weeks passed, for instance, from the time the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and the first images of oil gushing from an underwater pipe were released by BP.”

So what’s really going on? Is there is concerted effort to block information from reaching the public? Here are four examples that point to a widespread effort to suppress public access to information about an environmental disaster — we may still not yet know exactly how bad this thing is, or how bad it’s going to get.

1. Restricting Access

One of the most common complaints so far from journalists is that they are having problems getting the access they need to do their jobs — like CBS, which reported its news team was threatened with arrest while attempting to get footage of an oil-soaked public beach. Weeks of similar complaints resulted in a memo issued by Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, claiming that the company is not interfering with press access.

The memo states: “Recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the cleanup operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is simply untrue. BP fully supports and defends all individuals’ rights to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists if they so choose.”

But when WDSU news anchor Scott Walker tried to interview cleanup workers on a public beach on Grand Isle, LA, private security guards tried to prevent him. The news agency reports: “He told the guards he intended to ask contracted cleanup crews about their efforts while workers were on their breaks. The guards told Walker he could not question the workers and was not allowed on the public beach.”

And Walker hasn’t been alone. The New York Times reported a similar incident on Grand Isle by media from the New York Daily News. “The contractor summoned a local sheriff, who then told the reporter, Matthew Lysiak, that news media had to fill out paperwork and then be escorted by a BP official to get access to the beach,” the article said. “‘For the police to tell me I needed to sign paperwork with BP to go to a public beach?’ Mr. Lysiak said. ‘It’s just irrational.'”

And it’s not just Grand Isle; many journalists have been stymied trying to get in the air to get a glimpse of the scope and damage of the disaster. Flight restriction over the water have prevented many from doing so. “Each time they fly in the area, they have to be granted permission from the F.A.A.,” reported the New York Times.

Can’t get into the air or interview subjects on the beach — how about taking a boat ride? Well, that’s pretty tough, too. Reporting for Earth Island Journal, Jason Marks writes that at Grande Isle, “The beaches are no-go zones even for homeowners with beachfront property, and the press can hit the sand only by going through a complicated credentialing process. The Coast Guard is arranging media tours by boat, but the waiting list is close to a week long. Charter boats are either hard to find (most of the captains are working for BP), or else relatively expensive ($300 for an afternoon on the water).”

Clearly this is problematic, if you’re trying to let the public know what’s going on. As Peters concedes, “Media access in disaster situations is always an issue. But the situation in the gulf is especially nettlesome because journalists have to depend on the government and BP to gain access to so much of the affected area.”

And if you’re BP or the U.S government, there’s a really good chance you don’t want people to know just how bad things really are.

2. Hiding Evidence

“It looks as if someone is destroying evidence at the scene of the crime,” Keith Olbermann reported days ago. Marine biologist Dr. Riki Ott told Olbermann of reports from wildlife volunteers who are walking the beaches that oiled wildlife keeps disappearing in the night. “In my opinion there is a strong attempt, not only to minimize how much oil was spilling, but now to control the evidence of the damage,” Ott told Olbermann.

In a recent article, she explained:

In Orange Beach, people told me BP wouldn’t let them collect carcasses. Instead, the company was raking up carcasses of oiled seabirds. “The heads separate from the bodies,” one upset resident told me. “There’s no way those birds are going to be autopsied. BP is destroying evidence!”

The body count of affected wildlife is crucial to prove the harm caused by the spill, and also serves as an invaluable tool to evaluate damages to public property — the dolphins, sea turtles, whales, sea birds, fish, and more, that are owned by the American public. Disappeared body counts means disappeared damages — and disappeared liability for BP. BP should not be collecting carcasses. The job should be given to NOAA, a federal agency, and volunteers, as was done during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

A BP contractor, fed up with attempts by the company to cover up the effects of the spill and deny media access, decided to give journalists his own tour of Queen Bess barrier island. Think Progress reports:

“There is a lot of coverup for BP. They specifically informed us that they don’t want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence. It’s important to me that people know the truth about what’s going on here,” the contractor said.

“The things I’ve seen: They just aren’t right. All the life out here is just full of oil. I’m going to show you what BP never showed the President.” […]

“BP is going to say the deaths of these animals wasn’t oil-related,” the contractor added. “We know the truth. I hope these pictures get to the right people — to someone who can do something.”

3. Withholding Information

Things have gotten so bad that the group OpenTheGovernment.org sent a letter to President Obama that was signed by the Society of Professional Journalists and dozens of other organizations expressing their concern over the public’s ability to access data related to the Gulf disaster. “Access to all monitoring data is crucial for scientists and the public to understand the extent of the problem, and plan for how to help the area recover and thrive,” they wrote.

And there is ample reason to be concerned. Here’s what they expressed:

Based on a brief clip of BP’s feed that has been made available, independent scientists have assessed that the spill may differ from estimates larger than BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have calculated. Access to all monitoring data is crucial for resolving these conflicting estimates and improving public trust.

Monitoring data, including how much oil is spilling out of the leak, the effects of the oil on the surrounding area, what is being done to stop the leak, and the results of tests on the extent of workers’ exposure are matters of great national interest and concern to the public. The livelihoods of families that are reliant on the Gulf Coast’s fishing and tourism industries — and others — are at risk. Further, it is too early to tell what the final cost of the disaster will be to public health. Given that the leak is within US Exclusive Economic Zone waters (and therefore within US territory) and operated according to a lease granted by the US government, the US public should have the right to access to the video feed, both past and current, as well as other information about the oil spill and its impact.
BP did not release video feed of the leak for a month and did so only after pressure from the public and the government. But as Timothy B. Hurst reports last week, they basically gave us crap to look at. “It turns out that those grainy videos that were so hard to get from BP in the first place are nowhere near the best they have,” he explains. “That’s right, there is high resolution video of the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead and only now, 50 days after the initial explosion, are we learning that such video even exists.”

This of course has direct implication in figuring out how much oil is leaking and is the reason why estimates of the damage keep going up the more we are actually able to learn.

4. Denying Responsibility

As infuriating as BP’s stonewalling is, it’s even more frustrating that they seem to be taking so little responsibility for it. Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland posted a so-depressing-it’s-comical story about the runaround from BP and local officials she has been getting trying to cover the story.

And News Hour’s Spencer Michels said, “Trying to find out what was going on was sometimes impossible.”

That may be because BP is hiding under the cover of their hired help. Many of the journalists trying to access Grand Isle have run into folks from Talon Security. When Yahoo news pressed BP about the incidents, BP’s spokesman Mark Proegler said: “We are not trying to prevent media access in any area, but we’ve heard about some incidents and we’ve gone back and shared our stance on this with Talon” and then he added “we can’t force our contractors to work with media if they choose not to.”

Yes, that’s right, BP just said it can’t force the people it’s hired to do their jobs properly. I guess that means it’s up to us to demand that our government hold BP’s feet to the fire to ensure that the media, scientists and the public have full access to information. It shouldn’t be up to BP to decide how badly it has screwed up.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.