If British Petroleum were an enemy on a mission to despoil
our coastal waters, they are executing a perfect war plan.

BP has dodged regulations which could have prevented this crisis, yet ironically
has imposed its own regulations that hobble relief efforts at every level. BP is clearly
calling the shots, as the Coast Guard defers to their lead and the federal government
struggles to establish any effective command and control.

These are the experiences and reflections of one person who came to help this embattled area and was turned away...

Monday, June 14, 2010

X-ray vision

Mourning a loved one is a changing experience.  It is impossible to fully and deeply understand until one has been through it.  I have lost my father unexpectedly in surgery, my best friend to suicide, and two devoted old cats whose ages added up to 40 years of warm friendship.  All those deaths presented different emotional elements.  I can't honestly say which one was most painful, for they were all unpleasantly unique.  But I had developed x-ray vision after each death.  I could share just a few words with someone and I knew instantly whether they had been through the same grief I was experiencing.  Often I could tell just by looking in their eyes.  Now that I have been back in Pennsylvania for a couple of days, I have developed the same x-ray vision.  Being down in the gulf region, I could sense the pain in many of the locals I spoke with - sometimes just by seeing their faces mirror my own feelings of anguish and loss.  Up here, there seems just a tinge of detachment.  That's not a judgment - don't get me wrong.  Most everyone feels infuriated over the inability to manage this.  They are frustrated that over the past 56 days, the news always got worse, expectations always got dashed, efforts always got bungled, and attempts to measure or even characterize what we were dealing with always escaped description.  But to understand the full depth of pain I saw in Louisiana, you need to understand Louisiana.  You need to understand what this area means to them.

There is the economic aspect

The gulf coast regional cuisine is all about local seafood.  In fact, it is hard to tell which word - local or seafood - deserves more emphasis.  It is both that are being threatened.  Restaurants known for local seafood suddenly find themselves without the very basis of what they are about.  How can you redefine Gallatoire's, or K-Paul's, or Commanders Palace, or Antoine's or any of the incredibly vast number of eateries from the world famous to the secret local favorites?  And with a slow national economy, a still-recovering infrastructure after Katrina and Rita and Gustav, and now a reduced influx of tourists due to the bad news from the spill, the only perfect recipe now seems to be for economic disaster.  Add to this the fact that the unholy alliance between the gulf coast and the oil industry has changed, too.  Small towns such as Houma and Venice are home to vast heliports which commute oil rig workers back and forth, and attest to the importance of the oil industry to the regional economy.  When President Obama declared a drilling moratorium in the wake of the Horizon/Deepwater disaster, the outcry from locals was loud and clear - it was just another nail in the coffin of economic misfortunes.  It seems ironic that this mutual interdependence between big oil and the gulf coast ends up with the former threatening to pick up it's rigs and play elsewhere, leaving behind a horrendous mess.  The oil companies appear not so committed to this relationship to stand with the regional communities who have supported them, stay, and make things right.  The moratorium showed just how fickle they can be, and their most lasting legacy still pours into the open gulf at over a million gallons a day.

There is the cultural aspect

Seafood is not just an economic factor here.  It is a way of life.  Shrimpers, oyster harvesters, deep sea fishermen, etc - these involve traditions passed down through generations.  It is a culture with an intimate connection to the sea, to the marshes, to the swamps.  It is often a hard life in which an entire year's income is earned in a brief 3-4 month period.  The waiting game is played for months until the next harvest.  There are four such seasons on the gulf coast: crawfish, oyster, crab and shrimp.  Of the four, three are intrinsic to the gulf, while the other - crawfish - are found in the freshwater estuaries.  We are at the tail end of crawfish season and the start of oyster season.  At a time when the locals rejoice with festivals to say hello to the gulf, they suddenly find themselves saying goodbye to it - possibly for a longer time than anyone dare think about.  And as the industry collapses, so does the culture.  It threatens to be a true American tragedy, especially maddening when one considers that it may all disappear because of the failure of a single piece of hardware - a blow-out preventer, coupled with a company's apparent disregard for safety practice or even safety backups.

There is the environmental aspect

The unspeakable suffering to wildlife is difficult to fathom, painful to contemplate.  As I write this, animals are unable to maintain warmth, unable to stay afloat, unable to breath, unable to surface, and suffer sickening and slow deaths.  Billy Nungesser, the outspoken President of Plaquemines Parish,  took a group of reporters into an oil-soaked marsh and exclaimed that boating in here at any other time the fish were jumping.  In a place normally teaming with life, there wasn't a sound, a movement, not even a mosquito.  Just a black quiet sheen.  Everywhere.

So I sit here in Pennsylvania, but I know the grief in Louisiana.  I read the bad news here, but I feel the heartbreak there.  Billy was on the news again this evening, speaking with Anderson Cooper.  I looked in his sad eyes.  Even from here my x-ray vision was working.  He was lamenting the calls he fielded from a radio program based in the UK, home of British Petroleum.  Many of the callers were outraged over the bad rap that BP is suffering in the US press, and many of them expressed dissatisfaction with Mr. Nungesser himself about his own public comments about BP.  Billy asked them to come over, stick their hand in the thick oil resting in the marshes, and perhaps they might understand our loss.  I see his point - it would be like giving them x-ray vision.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Taking the long view...

The Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans is wonderful - old, charming, very much possessing the essence of the old deep south.  It lies on the east bank of the Mississippi just downstream of the Fauberg Marginy, which defines the edge of the French Quarter.  On a sweltering early evening over dinner, I had a great conversation with a good friend, and gained new insights about the slick in general, and the roles and expectations of BP and the federal government.

BP will not fix the problem

The fact is that BP's sole guiding interest is in it's stockholders.  CEO Tony Hayward is obligated to make these investors his priority - that is quite simply his job, his responsibility.  Stock holder interests trump any other, no matter how well-meaning they may be.  I still argue that in a perfect world, his brotherhood to humanity should take precedence over his business obligations.  Presiding over perhaps the worst global environmental disaster would seem a compelling reason to reorder traditional priorities.  But I understand now that if Mr. Hayward wished to make fixing the problem his top priority at the expense of spin and propaganda, his only real option would be to resign and carry that torch as an ex-CEO of BP.  It would also seem the honorable thing to do.  Figuratively falling on his sword may be the only altruistic option for him in this situation.

Of interests and priorities ... and the difference between the two

That said, railing against BP is not a productive strategy.  BP certainly has an interest - as do we all - in stopping the gusher at the floor of the gulf.  But they also have priorities, and those are almost certainly not aligned with ours.  For example, while they try to fix the problem they have consistently minimized it and underestimated it.  The interest is in fixing the problem.  The priority, however, is to spin it to manipulate public perception, thus maintaining stock value.  The result is that the seriousness of the problem is understated, results of corrective efforts are overstated, and assessments which might enhance Coast Guard efforts are unreliable.  Outside help is not readily accepted, perhaps because this moves control away from the BP sphere, scattering it among different entities that do not necessarily have BP's interests at heart.  Carrying this logic further can lead to disturbing speculations.  Could the controversial use of dispersant and its possible role in huge subsurface plumes benefit BP by containing the surface oil problem, thus allowing BP to low-ball the slick size by "hiding" it underwater?  Before dismissing these musings as paranoia, consider this:  BP has consistently minimized the problem, yet has aggressively applied dispersant even to the point of ignoring strong advice to stop such applications.  In fact, aside from drilling the relief wells, this is one of the only true initiatives that BP has aggressively tasked itself with.  And so such fears would appear to be supported at least as much by history as paranoia.

And so it becomes clear that while BP has an interest in capping this gusher, that interest does not necessarily translate to effective crisis intervention.  The cruelest extrapolation of all, perhaps explaining why BP continues it's almost blatant misinformation campaign, is that this mess may be far worse than is publicly known.

BP as both the criminal and the savior

So for those of us who choose to sit on the sidelines, for those of us in the game, and for those of us sidelined despite our best efforts to engage, where do we direct our anguish and frustration?  The answer is clear and simple - the federal government.  It is particularly egregious that the responsibility to fight this war (precisely what it is - a war against a toxic invader) has been in large part delegated to a company with no established and organized interests in our country or in our natural resources.  The decision to put BP in the driver's seat was flawed from the moment we realized it had no backup to the blow-out preventer, had no plan for such an event, and had no structure to deal with such a catastrophe.  That this crisis may have resulted from prioritizing production over established safety practices should put BP executives in a jail cell, not in the driver's seat.  If a mill worker - through sheer negligence - sawed off his coworker's arm, would he be told to surgically reattach it?  You could argue that his desire and interest in righting this wrong are perhaps more keenly felt than any doctor who may be assigned to the case.  But it is essentially what we are doing now - the fire department is asking the arsonist to put out the blaze.

A quick word on BP's role and capabilities - BP is in charge because they supposedly have the best technology available to battle this slick, and because they are tasked with this responsibility because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  But national security interests should not be subjugated to this, and real leadership is needed from the president.  Command and control belongs squarely with the government, for it is our border - our national coastline - which we seek to protect.  From there, cleanup responsibility should be delegated to appropriate and capable organizations with no conflicting priorities.

Words and oil keep flowing...

Fairly or not, presidencies are often judged on crisis management.  A president who relates that his daughter keeps asking him if he's "plugged the hole yet, daddy?" reassures us that he feels the same desire as we do to fix the problem, as does his wistful reminisce of growing up by the ocean.  Tough talk assuring us he was going to find out whose "ass to kick" quenches some of the thirst we all have to see someone really take charge.  He has visited the area four times now, even allowing a bit of extra time on his most recent visit to meet with some business owners.  And BP now floods the airwaves, having invested 50 million dollars to tell us they feel the pain as well.  Yet as powerful words flow from ineffective leadership and self-serving oil executives, so do over 40 thousand barrels of oil ... every ... day.  Heart-felt feelings and harsh language will not stop the flow.  Effective organization and action, however, would be a good start.

Parting thoughts

So I am on a plane, looking at the sunset from my window as I fly home after almost two weeks of immersing myself in this project.  I didn't get to save any birds - not a single one.  But I met the people of the area.  I shared some thoughts with Anderson Cooper (off-camera).  I discussed the issue at some length with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.  I even met James Carville.  I saw fishermen, restaurant owners, concerned tourists, and upset residents.  I met worried business owners as far north as New Orleans.  I watched a restaurant owner shucking what he thought might be the last oysters in his long career.   I saw the awful images on TV of oil washing ashore and birds hopelessly mired in tar, struggling to move, struggling to breathe.  I awoke every morning with the latest briefings from CNN.  I spoke with many people at many levels of government, from the local parish to the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.  I submitted a formal offer to help, and am standing by as a "high-level responder".  During the process, I learned a lot.  In my limited capacity, what I write is little more than observation and opinion.  I do not pretend to have any influence over policy, nor do I suppose I ever will.  Yet I do not dismiss the notion that if I am persistent, perhaps I can have some small influence.  And I do not minimize the fact that my experiences over the past two weeks perhaps add some credibility to these observations, many of them a direct result of what I have learned from speaking with new friends and acquaintances down in the gulf region...

1) We need a Gulf Crisis Czar.  A close friend of mine proposed this idea while we discussed the problems inherent with a response hugely delegated to BP.  I think assigning a czar is a brilliant idea, despite it's simple premise.  This would entail an administrative department 100% focused on concentrated effort to fix the crisis in the gulf by:
  • establishing priorities that are fully aligned with national and global environmental interests
  • establishing clear objectives
  • establishing a verifiable way to assess progress towards meeting those objectives
  • possess the full authority to immediately mobilize any resources needed to meet those objectives

2) We need effective Resource Management.  This would likely be under the auspices of the Gulf Crisis Czar, including but not limited to the following:
  • Full military mobilization, especially command and control in the Gulf region
  • Intelligent and creative use of technical resources; for example, Exxon has no apparent direct fiduciary stake in this crisis, but certainly may have an interest in becoming a white knight (especially as the ghosts of the Exxon Valdez are once again haunting them)
  • Establishment of think tanks to include oil executives, academic experts ...OK, maybe even Kevin Costner
  • Employ BP solely as a money source - their only responsibility at this point is to finance any required operation, and step out of the way

3) We need the president to make a televised prime-time national address.  This should not be another press conference - it should be a formal address to the nation, fully dedicated to the crisis.  It will bring everyone on board, and help disabuse the notion that this is just a Louisiana/Gulf Coast problem.  It is a United States problem, and an incipient global environmental problem.  Every day while I was down there, the first several pages of the New Orleans Times Picayune were about the situation in the gulf.  Today, as I post this from Pennsylvania, I am shocked to see that the first mention of this in the Philadelphia Inquirer is on page 8.

4) Fix the problem, THEN fix the blame.  Finding out which ass to kick is all well and good.  But a firmly embedded footprint in a deserving butt can wait, because it does nothing to stem the flow from the gulf floor.  Phase 1 - stop the leak.  Phase 2 - restore the environment.  Phase 3 - trials, punishments and revised regulations as is appropriate.

5) Establish a can-do creative mind-set with all entities involved.  This is likely the result of clear motivational leadership from the president.  The events of 9-11 were attributed to a "failure of imagination".  We become our best as a nation when we confront the most difficult challenges.  Once we accept that "Failure is not an option", the attitude that mission controller Gene Krantz used to guide his team to bringing home Apollo 13 after an unprecedented disaster, the possibilities suddenly appear.  Improvisation, thinking WAY outside the box, and never accepting anything less than full remediation should infuse those working the problem.

I am by nature an optimist.  I believe it is possible to do better than we are right now.  Tony Hayward states in the current BP PR campaign ads that "We will make this right."  I believe it is possible, but the "we" is not BP - it is us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Our coast is being invaded...

James Carville spoke with Anderson Cooper - "we are being invaded!".  He essentially asserted that we need to get on a war footing.  How true - it is a war, although we have designated as our defender the very company whose negligence caused this crisis.  The feds have put our national interests - the fragile ecosystem that graces our southern coast - in the care of a corporation that has shown a significant lapse of safety, a criminal negligence, an incredible compulsion to lie, and a dearth of competence in any attempts at mitigating the crisis.  It appears that almost nothing this company has told us has been true.  The evening that I watched the Cooper-Carville interview (live on the Mississippi River levy in New Orleans), they were discussing why the high-resolution video of the oil gushing from the cut pipe was not released until days later.  The argument given by BP was that it took time to burn the video to DVD and transport it off the ship.   It is just another example of how outrageous the misinformation is from BP - pumped out with as much fury and as little inhibition as the oil that flows from their broken pipe.


My attempts to volunteer my veterinary services continues.  I am also very good with computer technology.  Seeing that it took so long time for BP to make that DVD, I wonder if I could volunteer my services as a multimedia producer for them.  I could get any video released for them in minutes - no need for DVDs or personal couriers.  I could even set it to music, such as the Looney Tunes theme.  Perhaps I could make it run backwards, and BP could explain that the oil is all being sucked back into the well.

It is hard not to be emotional about this - especially down here.  I went to a small neighborhood restaurant on Wednesday - a little eatery called Aunt Leni's.  We sat at a table by the window with a view of a porch swing at the old house across the street, gently rock in the breeze.  Next to us was the owner, shucking oysters.  Fully into the start of oyster season here, watching this man made me realize that this may be the last time I see such a familiar tradition for a long time.  He told me that the oysters were harvested from bed #4.  The oyster beds are numbered from #1 at Lake Borne (between New Orleans and Biloxi, MS), and increase in number as one travels west.  Bed 4 is quite close to Lake Borne, but that fishing area is expected to close soon.

The birds continue to come in to the Clean Gulf Associates Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Station in Ft. Jackson.  The last count was 30 more as of yesterday.  An AP article published in the New Orleans Times Picayune stated there were many volunteers but not enough work to do.  There are thousands of oiled animals, hundreds of which have been taken to rehabilitation.  Berms are being built, beaches and marshes being inundated with thick petroleum that has gushed out up to ten Exxon Valdez's so far.  Local state and parish officials are crying out for more skimmers.  Whoever asserts that there is not enough work to do has restored my belief in extra-terrestrial life, for they must surely be on another planet.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bird rescues increase dramatically...

The day started with a phone call from the paraprofessional coordinator from FWS (Resee Collins).  We had a very pleasant conversation, and she informed me that I would be placed on the list as a "high level responder".  I was informed that preference was given to local responders before tapping into the pool of non-locals.  So I'm happy about that, but by any measure it seems rather amazing it took me a week just to be placed on the list.

In the meantime, the number of oiled birds collected by the rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson has increased dramatically.  Consider that as of last Thursday a total of 66 oiled birds had been presented to the facility since the start of organized wildlife rescue operations.  As of yesterday, that number increased to 415.  That is an increase of 530% in just 6 days.  The pace and volume of rescue efforts can only be expected to increase as recover efforts expand.

Curiously, the AP wrote an article about the pelicans, stating that the fully recovered birds were being released in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I found that very curious, since the gulf coast of Florida is clearly in the trajectory of the slick movement.  Current trajectory charts show that the loop current may carry the slick down to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.  How close this will approach the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area is uncertain, especially in the context of current highly active hurricane season predictions.  The problem is likely far more complex than any simple assertions or lay conclusions I can make in this blog, but I am never-the-less very concerned that until this spill is fully capped and hurricane season is over, there is no truly safe haven for these rescued and rehabilitated animals.

I had the pleasure of meeting an OSHA-contracted safety and training consultant, and have more information on pursuing programs that may further qualify me in this response.  We'll see what transpires.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Developments Hold Promise...

Several new developments have things in volley for me.  Every time I think it is time to leave, there appear a glimmer of hope that I might have an opportunity to bring my efforts to bear.  Today was the perfect example. Following my last conversation on the phone with Billy Nungesser, I have been in touch with various officials from different levels of local government.  In one particularly enlightening conversation, a staff member told me that BP had contracted with "an outside firm" which was instructed to be "very particular" about who was employed (voluntary or otherwise) in the recovery and rehabilitation efforts.  He mentioned that "very particular" was putting it quite nicely.  He went on to mention that he personally knew a fisherman who went out on his boat and saw a couple of birds in distress in the oil.  His friend stopped to rescued them, then took them to the bird rehabilitation center.  Almost incredulously, he was challenged by the rehabilitation staff about this.  They informed him that since these birds were not brought in through accepted channels, they could not accept them for rescue and rehabilitation (as it was described to me, they asserted that they "did not know where these birds came from").  The man fortunately was effectively persistent, and the birds were begrudgingly taken in.  This staffer reiterated what the Billy told me on the set of Anderson Cooper - that BP was fully in charge of the recovery operations, and their standards were quite stringent.  Unfortunately, it appears that their standards are designed more for PR and spin control than actual remediation.

My trail of contacts has now ended in the voicemail box of Raymond Ferrer, the Plaquemines Parish Health Department Superintendent (under whose auspices is Animal Control).  I left a message with him yesterday and am awaiting a return call.

I received a call back from Marci Lockwood at the Bird Migratory Permit office of the Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday.  We have been in constant back-and-forth contact, and she directed me to take the BP online certification course.  The next step is to get in touch with Resee Collins, FWS Paraprofessional Coordinator (those channels are currently being opened).

So once again I await the promise of a breakthrough as I swim a morass of red tape that by all indications has been set up by BP.  My focus is on bringing my own set of skills into the efforts down here.  After over a week of on-scene effort, I never would have guessed it would be so difficult.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

More Red Tape

I awoke to perhaps the most heart-wrenching images I have ever seen on TV.  Birds mired in black tarry goo, struggling to move, gasping for breath, dying right there in front of the cameras.  With a renewed sense of motivation, I called Jay Holcomb’s number, connecting to his voice mail box.  I mentioned that I was a veterinarian who had traveled down from Pennsylvania and that I was willing to commit considerable time and effort.  I asked his voice mail for some guidance on how to proceed, and currently await a response.  I also wrote a follow-up email to Dr Miller, thanking her for her time with me on Wednesday and reiterating my desire to roll up my sleeves and get to work.  Even if red tape/paperwork issues precluded me from being in the same facility as the wildlife, I could contribute my skills as an organizer/writer/other administrative agent – whatever they wanted.  I know that they are a contracted service, and certainly do not hold Dr. Miller or her staff at all responsible for the decision not to activate me.  I will continue to press; hopefully I won't cross the line and become "that crazy vet who keeps calling".

I sat in a cafĂ© in the French Quarter, looking out the window.  The heavy rain turned to steam as it hit the streets and sidewalks.  At times like this I suppose it is easy to take things personally – to feel useless, and even indulge oneself in self-pity over the ego-bruising issues associated with that.  The rain had stopped.  I walked the along the wet steamy sidewalks alone in the thick humid air.  But one thought overrode all others - popping into my head with all the pain and force of a blow to the solar plexus.  The birds.  The gulf.  The people who not only love this area, but survive off it, and cannot imagine a life without that interdependence.  As long as I continue to think outside myself - forget myself - I think my mission remains worthy of my efforts.  It is ironic that my generally altruistic approach has necessarily become a network of obstacles that require self-focus - I need this document, that approval, those permits, etc.  And at my level as an individual level, I am beginning to understand the frustrations of moving any organized effort down here.

BP was hard at work repairing it’s image with a new 50 million dollar PR campaign, and essentially assumed control of all aspects of the recovery efforts in the gulf.  Their self-interest has so far trumped all other concerns.  I will continue my focus to be the antithesis of that.

I gave one last try – I went to the Anderson Cooper Live set again that evening.  I did not expect to find a kindred spirit – but outspoken Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser was there.  When he walked off-camera, I introduced myself and explained my efforts and my mission.  He took a keen interest, and we engaged in an interesting discussion about it.  He explained that the problem was not me - it was BP, and that he was still waiting for other volunteer efforts to materialize, such as skimmers.  The frustration in his tone was palpable.  He offered his personal contact information to me and asked me to call him directly the following morning at 11:30, which would come after his meeting with Gov Bobby Jindal and others.  He thought perhaps he could move things along for me.  My walk back through the quarter was lighter after that – the bounce in my step returned.  My happiness was relative - oddly tempered by the thought that as I celebrated this small victory, it is one that is all but overwhelmed by the tragedy it ultimately seeks to address.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bureaucratic slick...

I am finally catching up in my journal, and there is much to report.  On Thursday, I followed the leads given to me by Dr Miller and Ms Dunne.  These led me into a bureaucratic boondoggle.  The first step was to call Fish and Wildlife Services.  My calls repeatedly went to voice mail, and ultimately I was left to navigate the myriad of options on the web site (none of which spelled out bird rehabilitation).  I finally concluded that the Migratory Bird Permit was likely what I needed, but upon opening the application it was made clear that permits routinely took 60 to 90 days to process.  I filled out what I could on the application, then held off submitting it due to the required sponsorships (references), not to mention a $50.00 processing fee for what was likely an anachronistic effort.  I again placed a call to FWS, and missed their return call.  I immediately called back – again speaking with voice mail.  I await another call back.

I was aware that Anderson Cooper was reporting on the disaster from an open-air outdoor set near the levy in the French Quarter.  I showed up, and one of his guests – CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman – was being interviewed on his visit to the rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson.  I spoke with him after the interview, and he was kind enough to give me the name and number of the director of the oiled wildlife rehabilitation efforts – Jay Holcomb of IBRRC (International Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation).  He mentioned that over the past 24 hours, twice as many distressed, oiled birds have been admitted.  The pace and urgency was building.