Monday, June 21, 2010

Flacking for BP on Meet the Press


I offered to help put out the fire. But just because I didn't have no hazmat suit, they wouldn't let me. Dang bureaucrats!

David Gregory opened his June 20 edition of Meet the Press with NBC reporter Anne Thompson, who might as well as been speaking for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's press office:

David, the frustration is immense down here, and it's on several levels. First of all, the people who live here along the southern coast of Louisiana, they know these waters better than anyone else. They have made their living off these marshes and these waters for generations, and they feel frustrated that in order to defend their coast they have to go to the company that has fouled their coast, BP, and they have to go through the federal government. And there's all this red tape, and it has existed throughout the response from the amount of boom that they have requested to getting those sand berms, those new barrier islands built--they had a plan in front of the federal government for weeks before they got approval--to just this week, those vacuum barges that Governor Jindal and the Plaquemines Parish Billy Nungesser have been promoting. They were actually shut down by the Coast Guard for the--for safety inspections to see if they had life jackets. And then the Coast Guard never did the inspections. And it's that kind of frustration that has people here just so angry. And, and it's now--we're going into the ninth week, it'll be the ninth week starting Tuesday, and they still have this huge problem and very little impact in stopping the oil.

MR. GREGORY: Anne, what is the latest on Tony Hayward's position at the company? Because there was some confusion about this as to whether he's still on the job.

THOMPSON: Mm-hmm. And I think this just, you know, points to all the confusion, and it, and it comes from the very highest levels of the world's third largest oil company, David. Earlier this week, the chairman of BP did an interview with a British television service and said that Tony Hayward was going to move off from the day-to-day operations. And he cited some of the problems that Tony Hayward has had in dealing with this issue, some of the comments he has made, most famously that he wanted his "life back." And so the impression was that Tony Hayward was being removed from the spill response team. And then on Saturday the BP London office had to issue a clarification, saying no, that Tony Hayward would continue to oversee the response, that Bob Dudley, who's the managing director, he would head a separate organization to deal with the long-term response because this isn't a problem that's going to go away anytime soon.
This is the framing preferred by Republicans because it diverts focus on the irresponsibility of BP to real and imaginary shortcomings of the Obama administration in the response.


My main criticism of the administration's response so far in the period since BP's oil geyser into the Gulf of Mexico began is that they've relied too much on BP's factual information without insisting on immediate independent confirmation by a responsible federal agency like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the political sphere, the administration's reluctance to use this crisis to challenge the conservative framing of the Republican Party and the neoliberal policy view that has become dominant in the Democratic Party, both of which prefer the kind of docile, industry-compliant regulatory environment in which the BP oil catastrophe took place.

Even though BP is actually in charge of the cleanup, reporter Thompson's only criticism of BP was a theater-criticism of the sloppy PR on the part of BP Chairman Tony Hayward. Her other criticisms were directed at the Obama administration:

... the people who live here along the southern coast of Louisiana, they know these waters better than anyone else.
And why is that?

They have made their living off these marshes and these waters for generations ...
If you take, Anne Thompson's word seriously, every professional fisher, everyone who harvests oysters - heck, maybe everyone who lives anywhere near the Louisiana coast! - has deep experience in cleaning up sheets of oil from the ocean. Maybe even in cleaning up underwater oil plumes.

... and they feel frustrated that in order to defend their coast they have to go to the company that has fouled their coast, BP, and they have to go through the federal government.
Now, I would say that pretty much anyone who is not a celebrity TV reporter infotainer can quickly understand why about the last thing emergency responders want to have to deal with is people showing up and trying to be helpful without coordinating with the emergency responders themselves and without having the proper training and equipment. Firefighters don't want random hero-wannabes converging on a fire and rushing into burning buildings to see if they can help. Hazmat teams don't want people rushing out with mops and sponges and buckets to help them clean up a toxic spill. Even rubberneckers on the highway slowing down or stopping to enjoy the scene of some car wreck that just happened can impede the arrival of emergency vehicles.

But I guess we can't expect important celebrities like Anne Thompson or David Gregory to be able to make a connection like that.

And there's all this red tape, and it has existed throughout the response from the amount of boom that they have requested to getting those sand berms, those new barrier islands built--they had a plan in front of the federal government for weeks before they got approval ...
Jindal was pushing this line of political attacks since almost the beginning of BP's oil geyser. He had a plan, and the gubment in Washington wouldn't let them proceed with it. If Thompson weren't talking like an airhead in her report - or to put it more generously, if she had any credibility to me reporting on this - I might at least wonder if she was describing a real problem based on actual research. Yes, I know, even fantasizing that about Meet the Press sounds like a bad joke. But, having looked at some of Army's after-action reports, I also know that with the experience of hindsight, some things will have worked better than others, and lessons will be drawn about the decision-making process that hopefully lead to improvements.

The St. Petersburg Times, who is so old-fashioned they do actual reporting, could have given her a lesson in how to address a real problem in real time. In their 06/11/2010 editorial No time to lose in researching the oil spill, they pointed to the need for rapid funding of immediate research into what the oil geyser is actually doing:

Florida's colleges and universities already are heavily involved in that effort. For example, USF scientists were the first to find underwater plumes of oil far from the destroyed oil rig. The water samples were taken during a voyage by the research vessel Weatherbird II that makes its home in St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor. While BP still insists that large quantities of oil have not been found below the surface, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed at least some of USF's samples were from the spill. Yet BP initially refused to supply oil samples from the destroyed rig to compare with the oil found by USF researchers. ...

But much more needs to be done to better match the independent research response to the size of the spill. To its credit, BP promises to spend $500 million on research. Yet its plans to solicit and review research proposals suggests a leisurely approach that fails to reflect the urgency to better understand what is happening now. There is no time to lose, and the oceanography institute's request for $100 million is more than reasonable. No other gulf state is better positioned to marshal the marine science resources and expertise to begin work immediately.

... If BP is sincere in its commitment to independent research on the path and impact of the oil spill, it should immediately embrace this Florida effort, write the check and let the work begin.
Now, there may be legitimate objections to that proposal. But at least it's a coherent criticism that has substance on the face of it. Anne Thompson's vague, silly whining about "red tape" doesn't quite measure up.

And I guess celebrity reporters don't have time to research things like, say, this Scientific American article by David Biello that's been publicly available online since June 8, Slosh and Berm: Building Sand Barriers off Louisiana's Coast to Hold Back Oil Spill Has Low Probability of Success. Golly, Anne Thompson, you think it might be possible that the feds refused to approve Gov. Jindal neato-keeno whiz-bang plan because it's a bad idea? Since I trust Scientific American several degrees of magnitude more than I trust Meet the Press' reporting, I think it may be turn out to have been a bad idea for the feds to approve a limited version of Jindal's boondoggle plan at all:

Now the U.S. government has given its approval to a plan to build as much as 70 kilometers worth of such sand walls—90 meters wide at the base tapering to nearly eight meters at the top and a little less than two meters higher than high tide—in front of barrier islands off the coast. It will be a colossal undertaking that would result in 3,900 hectares of sand barriers and could take at least six months and $360 million to complete. The only problem: it may not work and it definitely will not last. [my emphasis]
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

"If we build these berms, one tropical storm that either crosses the berm or even sends large waves towards the berm from offshore could do tremendous damage to the structure before it's even completed," says coastal geologist Rob Young of Western Carolina University. "It might not make it through hurricane season," which ends November 30. ...

And the berms will impact the coastline in other ways, potentially sending saltwater in new directions. Dredging of channels already permits saltwater intrusions into the Louisiana coast, occasionally killing the marsh grasses that literally hold the land in place. ...

A big storm might therefore kill the marsh and wipe away Louisiana's efforts to build a sand berm against the oily tide. "What they're proposing to do isn't going to work. It's not going to stop a significant part of the oil from reaching the wetlands or the estuaries," Young says. And "it's not simply that it's a project that may not work. It's going to divert a lot of resources away from other efforts." [my emphasis]
Were you surprised by the unexpected appearance of John Wilkes Booth in the production, Mrs. Lincoln?

So, did the Coast Guard also reject the potentially useful help of a group of vacuum boats because of some bureaucratic quibbling over life jackets? From the rest of Thompson's report, I wouldn't assume it was true based on her credibility. The fact that she mentions it may tell us nothing more than that she heard some Republican hack say it.

ABC26 News reported on June 16, Vacuum Barges Shut Down.

The industry publication Offshore Magazine reported in Deepwater Horizon: Vacuum barges allowed back into spill response 06/18/2010:

The Coast Guard says it will allow Louisiana vacuum barges to rejoin the containment work in the Gulf of Mexico to clean the BP oil spill. The Coast Guard earlier removed the barges from service because of concerns about stability, and lifesaving and firefighting equipment. [my emphasis]
FOX Business also reported on 06/17/2010, Coast Guard okays vacuum barges for oil spill work.

Reuters summarizes on 06/19/2010 (Jeffrey Jones, Bureaucracy frustrates U.S. Gulf oil spill efforts Alternet):

Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard shut down 16 vacuum barges that were sucking up crude from Louisiana marshes. The units, which consist of trucks and tanks on barges that suck up thousands of gallons of crude, needed to be checked for stability and if they had life jackets and fire extinguishers.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had asked officials to inspect them quickly without bringing them back to dock. But the units sat idle for 24 hours before being allowed to travel back to oil-fouled Barataria Bay, Bay Jimmy and Pass A Loutre.

After 24 hours, the barges went back to work, and according to media reports, no inspections were performed.

On Friday, the Coast Guard shut down two more barges, prompting Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to make an angry call the the White House, which ordered them back into operation, his office said.


So, other than the fact that more than lifejackets were involved, and the omission of the fact that the Coast Guard had approved all the boats in question to be used within a relatively brief time, everything Thompson said was true when she said, "just this week, those vacuum barges that Governor Jindal and the Plaquemines Parish Billy Nungesser have been promoting. They were actually shut down by the Coast Guard for the--for safety inspections to see if they had life jackets."

I suppose that it sound frivolous for the Coast Guard to be concerned about safety issues like life jackets, which I guess Thompson assumes that everyone on a boat must have anyway. (Let's ignore for the moment that the Coast Guard's concern was "stability, and lifesaving and firefighting equipment" for ships they would have to be coordinating to help control, you know, something flammable like oil.) But given that BP has been reckless with the safety of the cleanup workers it hires (big surprise there!), even Thompson's silly version didn't on the face of it sound like such a bad thing to me. Why, those firefighters wouldn't let that guy off the street run up to the third floor of the burning building that was about to collapse to see if he could help anyone! Can you believe that gubment "red tape"?!?

On BP issues with cleanup worker safety, see Sasha Chavkin, Gulf Cleanup Training Ignores Advice From Health Agency, Official Says ProPublica 06/17/2010 and Marian Wang, Experts: Gulf Workers’ Levels of Chemical Exposure May Be ‘Perfectly Legal, but Not Safe’ ProPublica 06/11/2010.

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