A trip to impoverished Gulf Coast fishermen following the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill disaster. This multimedia feature article was published by New America Media on June 23rd, 2010.
Venice, Louisiana — We rumbled up the front stairs of BP’s Community Outreach Center and we felt good. A group of Vietnamese American Fishermen — with valid complaints of poor treatment by BP employees — surrounded and walked up the stairs with me. This was the United States of America and here we had free speech. Here I, as a media representative, would be able to ask BP direct questions which would address the plight of my new fisherman friends. Despite its national ad campaign to show an open and transparent company working to “get it done” and “make this right” BP systematically limits and controls media access to BP leadership and workers who are employed by BP.
Background of Disrespect from BP
When we arrived at the BP Community Outreach Center the fishermen I had interviewed felt they had valid questions for BP which were not being answered. Most of the fishermen felt that they had been lulled into accepting a check from BP in May for $5,000. Some complained that the “Vessels of Opportunity” program was a farce, meant to lull working men and women on the Gulf Coast into taking the $5,000 check (or payoff) and waiting to be called by BP to make money cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The call, they stated, “Never came.” For the past few weeks they had sat and waited.
When the fishermen I interviewed had gone to complain to BP’s Community Outreach Center in Venice, Louisiana, BP officials were reportedly rude and dismissive. One fisherman told me that a BP official had told him he would have to leave the center immediately because, “…there is nothing to be done.”
For the fishermen it was bad enough that BP — through its own admitted negligence had caused the spill at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico — but to be rude to locals about promised work was unbearable.
Angry and wanting answers we carpooled down from the docks to stand together — fisherman and writer alike — in front of the BP’s Community Outreach Center. We wanted answers. The fishermen wanted an advocate who — in a free society — was supposed to be able to ask their questions to those that could change their lives and help their families. I was certain that if we went together we would get a quick response from a BP representative. I didn’t realize at the time that I was beginning a journey that would take weeks and finally end me up back at the same Community Outreach Center.
Stonewalled, Threatened and the Appearance of “Jim from BP”
BP officials, who are making the direct decisions in how locals are employed and how the oil spill is cleaned, are protected from difficult community and media questions. Lower rung BP media consultants first obfuscate and then limit access to their bosses.
BP’s sunny green symbol looked out of the window at us. I began to set up my tripod and camera. My Vietnamese American friends stood to my left. I turned on my audio digital recorder and microphone and was about to knock on the door when a BP representative opened the door and skittishly told me with a thick south Louisiana accent, “You not supposed to do any of thishere.” She said the word “this” like I was a child at a playground urinating in a sandbox.
Had the Bp official meant that I was not supposed to practice journalism and exercise my first amendment rights? I began to argue with the BP rep stating that seven locals were standing next to me on the porch. If this was a community outreach center for localswhy could I not ask a few questions of BP officials?
At that point a second BP rep came out and told me that BP needed to, “… keep the traffic down through here.” even though our group of fishermen were the only people standing on the porch or anywhere near the sacrosanct BP Community Outreach Center. The second rep gave me a slip of paper and told me there were two numbers of BP Media Representatives on the paper and that I could call to get answers to my questions.
I agreed. Alright. Now we were getting somewhere. I turned off my camera (but left my microphone running) and began to call the first number on the paper. At that point the second BP representative requested that I leave the porch before I made any calls. The BP rep stated she was “nervous” about what I was doing. I asked her if she knew that this was the United States of America and that we have certain laws in this country which allow freedom of press? At that point she threatened to call the police and have them “escort me off the porch (BP private property).” I was threatened with arrest by BP for standing on their Community Outreach Center’s porch and trying to make a telephone call to a media contact number which a BP representative had given me.
Having thusly felt “outreached to” the fishermen and myself decided to vacate the premises. We stood out in the road while I called the two media contact numbers. The first number was to the Coast Guard who said abjectly that there was nothing they could do about BP. I found this comical given that the Coast Guard is an extension of the Federal government and as such is charged to protect documents and ideas such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. Apparently BP was too big for the Coast Guard, the Federal Government or the Constitution of the United States.
The second number was to the BP media representative group phone group phone line. My call went to voicemail. And so we waited in the road — fisherman and writer alike. Eventually we were told that the BP media rep would come and speak with us at a local hotel. We went en masse to the hotel and waited there for an hour and a half but no one from BP came to speak with us. Thus, as a group we returned to the Community Outreach Center. I set up my tripod in the road and turned on my microphone. It took another hour of waiting but finally a high ranking BP official — who would not give his name or go on the record but only said arcanely that he was called “Jim from BP” — spoke with one of the fishermen far from my camera and microphone on the back porch of the Community Outreach Center. Yet, following the talk the fisherman was still unhappy stating about his conversation with Jim from BP, “… he (Jim) said he would do his best to get me out working. But he didn’t promise me anything. He didn’t promise me money back for all the hours of missed time I had as a result of the oil spill. I told him I had met him before and asked him the same questions but (Jim) didn’t remember me.”
The Silencing of the Fishermen
It took a week and a half of my repeated calls to BP Media Representatives in order for BP to address the grievances of the fishermen with whom I had gone to the Community Outreach Center in Venice, Louisiana. During this time and after, BP successfully limited my access to locals working for BP.
To be fair BP did eventually “get it done” for the fishermen I had interviewed. After a week and a half Stephanie Shanks, BP Community Outreach Coordinator spoke to me. Ms. Shanks promised to help the Vietnamese American fishermen file claims for all of their lost wages and get them out working in the BP Vessels of Opportunity Program.
Ms. Shanks was extremely friendly and apologetic on the phone. She was sorry for the behavior of her co-workers for threatening to get me arrested. This was rude. This was wrong. Again she apologized. I said it was okay; as long as the fishermen got helped.
Ms. Shanks balked at allowing me to be in on any meetings BP and the fishermen had explaining that, “Locals often feel better talking directly to BP instead of having media involved.”
I told her that I understood as long as the fishermen were helped. I figured if the meeting with the BP went badly fishermen could always call me.
Then Ms. Shanks extended a carrot stating that since she and I were now “friends” she could get me “special access to BP’s compound and workers” and even give me a “scoop” for a new article that no one else in the media had. Ms. Shanks also promised to get me on a media boat into the Gulf to view cleaning activities with the Coast Guard.
The undertone was evident. If I was polite (i.e. “docile”) and did not cause any more scenes and acted like a “friend” BP could help me get “media access” before anyone else.
The day after Shanks and my conversation I got an excited call from one of the fishermen. BP had reached out to them. They had met with Ms. Shanks. She was very sweet, the fisherman told me. She had helped the fishermen fill out claims for lost money (the fisherman told me he had personally got a promise of $42,000 from BP for the month of May). Also, BP had promised to put the fishermen to work the next day.
I felt wonderful. I had helped people. Maybe it was okay to be “friends” with BP. Sure BP had acted like paranoid fear-filled jerks initially but now look, they were helping people.
Later that day I got a call from the same fisherman who had called earlier to give me the good news. He said, “Ummm… We’re very thankful for all of the help you gave us… but… Could you not mention us in any article you write about BP?”
Shocked and taken aback I asked, “Why? Has BP said anything to you?”
“No, no, no,” the fisherman said hurriedly, “Certainly not. We just think it would be bad for us. It could hurt our families.”
Maybe he was being honest. Maybe he just didn’t want to bite the hand that fed him. Maybe. I asked the fisherman, “How? How would BP take away your new jobs if I use your names?”
The fisherman was suddenly uncomfortable on the phone, “I don’t know, I don’t know but I really need this job.”
I promised the fisherman that nothing I would write would come back to hurt them.
In the Throne Room of Oz: Jim from BP Speaks
The word “Stunning” would not encompass how beautiful the Gulf Coast is. Much of it remains. Much of it has yet to be inundated by oil. The Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico blend as rivulets — or bayous — into the marshlands. Everything seems delicate and flat on our Gulf Coast; textured with estuaries.
In the next week, I took BP up on the offer to get me out into the Gulf on a Coast Guard media boat.
BP has begun to build a massive city of clean up workers on the docks of Venice. I took a BP provided public transport bus from my parked car to the docks. After viewing the Gulf Coast with a Coast Guard Petty Officer and arriving back on the docks, I called Ms. Shanks. She suggested that I come over to the BP Community Outreach Center to talk.
I boarded yet another BP public transport bus to the Community Outreach Center. A group of oil stained BP workers sat around me. Though they refused to give their names they explained how important the Gas and Oil Industry is to the people of south Louisiana. To a man the workers told me that they wished people in the media would report their efforts. The workers were also convinced that only BP could fix the Oil Spill. They did not believe the government should get involved directly in the cleaning process. One man said, “BP was the best organization to work for before this disaster. I was shocked that they made the mistake because they were the best. And they still are the best. The government has no idea how to clean or fix this spill. Only a company with the resources that BP has can fix this.”
Once at the Community Outreach Center Ms. Shanks greeted me at the front door. She greeted me at the same porch where I had nearly been arrested a few weeks before. It was a little surreal to be on the porch and at the Community Outreach Center again.
“You look burned,” she said. She had a wholesome white face. It was a Midwestern face, the kind of face that believed in good things. “Come on in. Do you want something cool to drink?”
The door was open now for me. We went in together.
We walked through the Community Outreach Center. I looked for the BP rep who had threatened to get me arrested and I smiled to myself. She was nowhere to be seen. What had they done with her?
I told Ms. Shanks I had a bagged lunch I wanted to eat.
“You can eat in the kitchen. You can meet Jim,” Shanks said. “He’s back there. He’s a great guy.”
Jim? The famous “Jim from BP” of a few weeks before?
When we got into the kitchen of the community center the same high ranking BP Official — “Jim from BP” — sat with papers spread out around him at the kitchen table. He looked up at me and smiled; seemingly unaware of who I was. His beard was gray and he looked like he was in his late 50s. I reminded him of our previous meeting. If Jim from BP remembered me he acted like he did not.
I sat down across from Jim from BP and he began to talk. Would I like a cold water? Any food?
Though friendly and hospitable, Jim from BP was obviously a busy man. He told me he worked 13 to 15 hours a day. The truth about how hard everyone was working at BP did not get out into the media, he explained. Jim from BP then told me his full name and title and that everything he would say was to be off the record. I was in the throne room of Oz; yet here I could only listen (not record) the Wizard’s words.
Jim from BP said that BP always followed the strictest safety measures so he was shocked that the Deepwater Horizon disaster had happened. An obvious believer in industry regulating itself Jim from BP explained that BP never cut corners. He explained that the spill was a, “Thousand year spill.”
Regarding conversations he had had with other high ranking and experienced Petroleum extraction engineers from BP, Jim from BP stated, “No one knows how such an accident occurred. But we’re going to find the answer once this thing is over… It (fixing the problem) will be like Bridge engineers after a bridge falls. They all meet and figure out the problem. Usually it is one unknowable component which was unaccounted for in their earlier calculations…. In the same way we Oil Engineers will figure out what happened and then we’ll have the answer and this sort of thing (the oil spill) will never happen again.”
It was a enlightening conversation and I wished Jim from BP would have let me use his real name and title and ask him real questions.
However, this is the problem with BP. It seems almost impossible for BP to be open and transparent. They hide and hold onto “sensitive” information for stock price reasons, for jurisprudential reasons, for “damage control” reasons… and ultimately none of these reasons wash clean.
Later I tried to ask Jim from BP why I had almost been arrested at the Community Outreach Center when he had been in the center, directing it? Why had the fishermen I had been advocating for suddenly not wanted to speak to me anymore? Why was it so hard for Jim from BP to speak on the record?
But Jim from BP could not answer any of these questions besides through the mouth piece of BP media representatives.
Yet, in the middle of this disaster BP has a chance at redemption. This oil spill might become the worst oil spill in the history of EARTH when it is all said and done. As such it is time for BP to forget the corporate line and be open with their workers, the media and the public in general.