A total of 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. BP says most of the oil has disappeared, eaten by bacteria or soaked up by the sun. But not everyone agrees locals and scientists on the ground say that the oil is lurking beneath the water and that BP has done everything it can to buy a clean image and silence. France 24's Jerome Bonnard, Jennifer Knock and Eve Irvine went to find out more.
“Our lives have been turned upside down. I believe we will live with the toxic flood for decades.” “We felt like they sprayed and sank it all rather than cleaning it up.” “There was a gag order in the original contract that said we couldn’t speak to the media….we’re still all too afraid to talk.” “We worry about talking because if we lose our jobs we have nothing to fall back on, our industry is over.”
The words and worries of locals in Venice, Louisiana: the fishing village on the Gulf coast; the closest inhabited land to the source of what is the worst oil spill in US history.
Kindra Arneson was born and raised on the bayous of this southern state. A fisherman’s daughter and fisherman’s wife she became the community liaison officer for BP after the spill. With access all areas she says she was able to attend the behind doors meetings where the oil company devised its action plan. The more she listened however, the more she got annoyed at what she saw as being a deliberate attempt to cover up the reality of the situation. Describing a tactic called “ponies and balloons” she says that BP used to bus in clean up workers and deploy cleaning operations just ahead of visits by President Obama or other high ranking officials. Once the dignitary left, so too did the clean up efforts. So Kindra stopped listening in on BP’s meetings and took the fight to clean up the Gulf into her own hands. "This is my people down here and this is my marsh and my Gulf. It’s my god given right and my heritage. I think they (BP) thought that I would convince me that all was well and that I would go back to the community with that. I would have liked for that to be the case but that’s not what happened," she says.
Now, Kindra has taken on the task of finding out and making public the extent of the pollution still lurking in the waters and grassland. She is getting her own air and water samples and sending them to a variety of laboratories to get independent results. Getting independent analysis is also proving difficult she says.
Firstly, access to the oiled parts of marsh is controlled by the Joint Information Centre, the response group made up of BP and government representatives. Only pre-approved staff are allowed to cross protective boom placed along the coast. This is to prevent the oil spreading farther according they say but Kindra and independent scientists feel that it denies them the right to carry out research.
“I was stopped by some police, I think, well, officers, they told me to show them the special permits that I don’t have. I only have the regular permit from the Department of Fisheries, it allows me to carry out research on coastal areas, but I don’t have a special permit from BP or a special department so I got stopped,” says Xuan Chen, a PHD student at Louisiana State University. His professor Linda Hooper-Bui says she’s worried about the lack of access being granted to independent scientists. Shortly after she had an article published on the issue BP rang her and told her they could her solve her access problem but for this scientist it’s not a personal problem but a widespread one.
Scientists in the Gulf States were also alarmed at what they say were attempts by BP to buy up entire departments of Universities asking the scientists’ there to work exclusively for the petroleum company and to refrain from releasing any of their findings for a three year minimum. Expert witnesses can earn up to $350 a day working for BP. A spokesman for the oil giant, Gerry Perreboom says he is not aware of any restrictions on contracts issued to scientists. However local lawyer, Robert Wiygul says in his 20 years of practice and even in the context of litigation cases, he has never seen something quite like it. “It’s one thing to hire expert witnesses. I’ve often used experts, professors…I’ve never tried to get them to agree that they would never work for anyone else,” says Mr Wiygul.
It’s not just the silence of scientists that BP tried to control. Many of the local fishermen who have worked on the clean-up have also signed contracts that say they can not speak to the media. "There is a gag order in the original contract that all of us signed that tells us we won’t make any news releases or talk to the press or they could terminate our jobs, they have now said that they withdrew that part of the contract but we never signed new ones so everyone is still afraid to talk.” explains one fisherman on condition of anonymity.
There are also worries over the toxicity of the dispersants sprayed on the spill. Top analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency Hugh Kaufman says that the reason the dispersants were used in such high quantities is to push the oil back down under the surface of the water so it can’t be seen. “That way you diminish penalties that BP has to pay for the volume of oil released,” he says.
BP for its part, denies this saying that Corexit did a fantastic job of preventing the oil from hitting the shore and that most of the oil has now disappeared, eaten up by bacteria or profiting from the warm atmosphere of the Gulf shore and evaporating.