BP Finds Success in Reports About Its Failure

When my colleagues released NRDC's annual Testing the Waters  report documenting pollution problems across the nation’s coastlines, the last thing they expected was this jaw-dropping Orwellian tweet to pop up on their computer screens:

@BP_America Official BP.@NRDC Annual #Beach Water Report released today includes info on improved conditions since #BP #oilspill http://pub.vitrue.com/Xjw

Yes that’s right. BP tweeted NRDC’s report and said it shows improvements in Gulf coastal areas after being tainted with globs of 170 million gallons of crude spewed from BP’s well last year.

Problem is, that’s not what NRDC's report stated. Here’s what it really said:

More than a year later, the impacts of the BP oil disaster – the worst in U.S. history – still linger in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of two months, approximately 170 million gallons of oil gushed into Gulf waters, washing up on approximately 1,000 miles of shoreline. As of the end of January, 83 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled, while tar balls and weathered oil continue to wash ashore.

As a result, many beaches in the region have issued oil spill advisories, closures, and notices since the disaster began more than a year ago. As of June 15, 2011, there had been a total of 9,474 days of oil-related closings, advisories and notices at Gulf coast beaches. Clean-up crews are still at work as oil continues to wash ashore in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi. And four beaches in Louisiana are still closed and three in Florida have remained under notice since the disaster started. A state-by-state look at oil spill notices, advisories, and closures at Gulf Coast beaches from the beginning of the spill through June 15, 2011 can be found online here: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/gulf.pdf.

Here’s how the CBS News Early Show reported on NRDC's report:

"One hundred and seventy million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf as a result of the BP oil spill," Jarvis said on 'The Early Show.' "It affected 1,000 plus miles of shoreline, and in particular, it really hit Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida -- those were the worst impacted but Louisiana was number one."

Louisiana alone, Jarvis said, estimates losses could exceed $295 million by 2013, according to the state's Department of Tourism.

"That is a huge number," Jarvis remarked. "Alabama has seen its beach traffic go down 41 percent. Mississippi has seen traffic go down, and in particular Mississippi, for example, they rely on revenue from the gambling industry, and they've lost more than $100 million, they expect from all of this."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that BP would try to put such an absurdly positive spin on the beach report. After all, this is the same company that made some of the more memorable corporate PR blunders in history. At the forefront are former CEO Tony Hayward’s mind-boggling comments about environmental impacts being “very very modest” and his ponderings about getting “my life back.” See NRDC’s excellent slideshow presentation Your’s Truly, BP.

Oil cleanup on Grand Isle last May                                        Photo: Betty Doud

But BP’s beach tweet is at odds with what some local residents say they see almost daily. The beaches near Grand Isle Louisiana are still impacted by tar balls and globs of oil that are buried on the bottom offshore. It’s unclear when the beach ever will get back to normal, as I discovered last spring.

Along the coastline of Mississippi, residents walking the beaches near Gulfport still spot dead dolphins and sea turtles washing up on the beach, something they say was highly unusual before the BP oil well blow out.

Gulfport resident Laurel Lockamy has photographed lots of dead sea life strewn across the beaches in recent months. Recently she discovered a foul smelling patch of ocean water linked to wastewater discharge near Gulfport beach. She also found out the Mississippi DEQ still has an oil impact statement on its website that advises people not swim in the area 24 hours after a significant rainfall event, something Laurel and many others were unaware of. Locals say there are no signs posted directly on beaches where swimmers would be informed about those health threats. 

Foul smelling ocean water in Gulfport                         Photo: Laurel Lockamy

Swimmers aren’t the only ones still at risk. Gulf fishermen say the taint of BP’s blowout continues to impact everything they do. They report shrimp catches in some areas are as bad as they’ve ever seen, while seafood market prices have hit rock bottom. No one wants to buy their seafood after the disaster last year, they complain. Many fishermen also say they have not been compensated by BP for their losses, despite promises made by BP claims administrator Kenneth Feinburg.

Recently, fishermen rallied at the Louisiana’s capitol steps to protest the low market prices and lack of compensation by BP. On top of these complaints, shrimpers also are blamed by some environmentalists and NOAA fisheries experts as the main cause of record sea turtle deaths over the past year. That's something shrimpers vehemently deny and say the turtle deaths instead are related to the BP oil disaster.

Many fishermen have no idea how they will make it through the year if conditions stay the same. It can cost them more in gas and expenses than what they make for their catch. “They just like to kick us when we’re down,” said one Louisiana fisherman. “That’s something we’re used to. We don’t have any choice but to just keep trying to make a living like we’ve always done.”

But it will be years until they really know if their fishery has survived the gusher of oil unleashed by BP and its drilling partners. The beaches may appear clean to some, but what’s going on underneath the water is a different story. Scientists continue to investigate the true damage caused by this disaster, a process that won’t end soon. Meanwhile, drilling in the Gulf continues to expand while experts warn Congress has yet to pass oil drilling safety legislation recommended by the presidential oil spill commission earlier this year.

But opposition to new legislation by oil companies and their political allies is powerful. Well-funded oil industry PR campaigns will continue to try to deflect attention away from negative realities on the ground and at sea. As the tweet about NRDC’s beach report shows, BP will continue to claim success in the Gulf cleanup, even when new reports demonstrate its failures.