While the federal and Gulf Coast governments have largely ceded the role of stopping and cleaning up the huge environmental disaster caused by the explosion and eventual sinking of the Deep Horizon well, British Petroleum also spent the weekend pursuing a different agenda with locals: stopping lawsuits and cleaning up their PR image.
This effort comes at a critical time. The oil slick, currently the size of Puerto Rico, is beginning to paint local coastlines. Communities that make their money from the water face “minimum” 10-day fishing bans, and the mood from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle is angry—and scared.
“Let me say this as your friend,” the mayor told the attendees. “If you take one penny from BP make sure you don’t sign a release form…”
So BP has dispatched a litigation mitigation team, which held public information meetings in small towns along the Gulf Coast this weekend. The pitch to local fishermen, business owners and local officials, based on one such meeting in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a small commercial fishing village: You don’t need to hire lawyer. Instead, call a BP hotline, and claim total damages for yourself and your businesses of up to $5,000. The damaged individuals and businesses would be required to sign BP paperwork, company officials said.
The exact nature of that paperwork wasn’t made clear. (A local BP representative referred questions to a national spokesman, who wasn’t available for comment last night.) But Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright told the hundreds that packed the community center that he feared it would require them to forfeit their right to sue in the future. “Let me say this as your friend,” the mayor told the attendees. “If you take one penny from BP make sure you don’t sign a release form….if this thing lasts 10 years, you can forget about it.”
He received applause when he told the fishermen to work through their trade associations and “don’t work through BP.”
• Eric Dezenhall: BP’s Image Will Recover• Samuel P. Jacobs: BP’s Looming Legal BattleBut when a giant company is waving a check, and people are scared, that’s not such an easy decision. “I think BP is trying to work with us,” says Mike Thierry, owner of Capt. Mike’s Deep Sea Fishing, who attended the meeting. “This all is sickening to me. We’ve had hurricanes, but nobody around here has ever lived through something like this.…I just don’t know what to think.”
On the other side of this tug-of-war, Robert Kennedy, Jr., traveled down to the region to join his friend Mike Papantonio, a Pensacola attorney and environmentalist who founded Emerald Coastkeepers, an affiliate of Kennedy’s Riverkeepers. The pair head a team that is getting proactive against BP, filing multiple class-action lawsuits on behalf of shrimpers, oystermen and fisheries across the Gulf of Mexico.
(Kennedy told me that that their team discovered last night that the BP well not only didn’t have the acoustical, emergency valve that could have shut off the spill, as has been widely reported, but that it also lacked a deep-hole valve that would have also been able to stop the leaking. And Papantonio claimed that the Deep Horizon well was only permitted to be 18,000-feet, but BP was drilling the well to 25,000-feet.)
Such tension between a British global energy company and a bunch of small southern communities is being felt on multiple fronts. Over the weekend, state and federal officials, in coordination with BP, have discouraged locals from helping with the clean-up, particularly with birds injured by the oil spill. The Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida, for instance, received an email from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service explaining that BP had already contracted with a nonprofit in Delaware to handle bird clean-up; she and her volunteers are to stay away unless help is requested by BP’s group.
“My volunteers have all been trained to do this work and they are very frustrated,” says Dorothy Kauffman, director of the 28-year-old nonprofit.
“They don’t want the public to get a real head count of the damage to wildlife,” Kennedy told me, “or see the real damage being done to our shores, bays and estuaries.”
Transparency was a recurring theme all weekend. I tried to sit in on a Saturday meeting with Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the Coast Guard, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), BP and local county officials in Pensacola.
When I arrived, I found about two dozen people in the heavily secured conference room that had several charts, maps and photographs of the oil spill plastered to the walls. When BP identified me as a reporter, Nancy Blum, DEP’s communications director, asked me to leave the room until Crist arrived, and instructed me not to ask questions once he did.
“They don’t want the public to get a real head count of the damage to wildlife,” Robert Kennedy, Jr. told me.
When Crist arrived, he found me standing alone in the corridor. We shook hands in the hallway and he invited me to walk in with him and his small entourage. No one stopped me from coming back into the room.
After Coast Guard Captain Steve Poulin briefed Crist on the spill, expected to hit Florida's shoreline by Monday or Tuesday, BP dominated much of the discussion about the clean-up. Poulin championed BP, telling Crist that BP had “its best minds working on this.”
Gary Stewart, general manager of Governmental Affairs for BP, told the governor, “We have the full BP group—from around the world—focused on this problem. We are working as aggressively as we can at the source, in the water and on the shores. We are here for the long term.”
Yet local officials have been kept nearly completely out of the loop, with county commissioners admitting to me their frustrations. At the briefing, Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, IV, told Crist about the county’s proposal for deploying boom to prevent the oil from getting into Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound. Crist seemed excited about the idea, but got only a lukewarm reception from the Coast Guard, the DEP and BP.
Fellow County Commissioner Gene Valentino told the governor that the county had up to 500 volunteers at a local community center waiting to help clean up the local beaches of debris that might later hinder an oil clean-up operation. But again, the message came back: BP has contractors to do the clean-up and volunteers shouldn’t interfere.
As the situation worsens, I fully expect local tensions to follow. “We still haven’t seen any oil here, but people are nervous and upset,” says Mike Thierry, the fishing boat owner. “This is our livelihood.”
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.