This post originally appeared on Mother Jones. The world's most infamous drilling firm, Transocean, has been slapped with a subpoena by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) over one of its projects in Burma. Basically, the drilling-platform operator best known for its exploding Deepwater Horizon rig is drilling in Burmese waters co-owned by a family of drug lords (including the "Godfather of Heroin") with whom it is verboten to do business under federal sanctions. The government wants to know if any sanctioned parties are actually listed on the drilling contract, and if Transocean was aware who it was dealing with. I want to know something different: Who cares? Though it sounds juicy, this story entirely misses the forest for the trees. This isn't the first time Transocean has worked in Burma: It also handled exploratory drilling for Daewoo's stake in the country's giant Shwe gas reserves; but since Daewoo's not blacklisted, that was okay. And Transocean isn't the only American company with interests in Burmese energy. Chevron helps operate a pipeline that earned the dictatorship more than $1 billion in 2008 and is the single largest source of income for a regime that propagates genocide and is allegedly trying to build nukes. But that's okay because Chevron lobbyists got some big fat loopholes in the US sanctions, guaranteeing the company doesn't have to divest. All of which doesn't matter much anyhow, because the plenty of other countries profiting off Burma's resources would be happy to grab up the American companies' stakes if they had to abandon them. Even the Congressional Research Service recently released a report (pdf) saying that more than a decade of US sanctions hasn't had any demonstrable impact on the junta's finances or power. The Transocean probe will likely end up being as inconsequential as the sanctions the company might be violating. "We do not expect the liability," Transocean has stated in company filings, "if any, resulting from these inquiries to have a material adverse effect on our consolidated statement of financial position, results of operations or cash flows." In this case, the company's rosy PR assessment probably isn't just spin.
It's hard to believe BP lets visitors onto its relief-well rig: The guys onboard say that once, a Coast Guard guest took his safety glove off to swipe his hand through some toxic drilling mud; another time, a member of the media, when given access to the control bridge, randomly pressed a button and asked, "What's this do?" It's even harder to believe BP would let me onto its rig, what with the months I've spent trying to get around the company's media blockade and hounding its flacks for access and information. But last weekend the company offered me a rare spot on a flight into the Gulf of Mexico on an S-92A Sikorsky helicopter. Our destination was the Development Driller II—or DDII, as the cool kids call it—one of the two rigs drilling relief wells near the now-capped Deepwater Horizon site. In addition to BP and Transocean reps, there were three other reporters (Times of London, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a TV anchor from Alabama) on board. We all carried emergency medical forms granting authorization for blood transfusions, ready to be pulled from our pockets in the event that something horrible happened to us. The DDIII, just visible across the choppy waves, is the other rig. It's poised to perform a "bottom kill" procedure as soon as the Coast Guard and BP give it the go-ahead, when pressure testing is complete. The DDII is its backup. (It was sent over from another of BP's Gulf projects, the Atlantis field, home to 16 producing wells and a platform that a lot of people are concerned is not safe to operate.) Each rig costs $1 million a day to operate. Assuming everything goes well on the DDIII, the DDII will help permanently shut down the well. But for now, wellsite leader Mickey Frugé says, the word is "Hurry up and wait." As such, it's pretty quiet aboard the DDII. Frugé said some of the crew was doing maintenance. Many of them, one of the guys told us, were hiding because we were there, and I'm not sure how much he was kidding. Wherever they were, they were no doubt engaged in wholesome fun: Per company regulations, no booze, no drugs, and no porn are allowed on the rig. Frugé listed Wii, foosball, Internet surfing, watching movies, and "walking around the helipad" as popular shipboard activities. Everything on the guided tour seemed swell. We met many charming and confident personnel. We were told we had to keep our hard hats securely fastened to our shirt collars by a strap, lest the wind knock them off our heads; even so much as a styrofoam cup that gets dropped into the ocean, we were reminded several times, has to be reported to BP's environmental department. We were shown the lifeboats, two of them, which seat 88 people each, enough to fit exactly every single person onboard. We met two guys in the Main Drill Cabin, or drill shack, a glass-fronted cage overlooking the hole where drill bits are lowered, or mud is pumped—or where an explosion would originate if something went wrong. Like plenty of the workers, the one of the two young guys manning the control chairs knew someone who'd died on the Deepwater Horizon. "Does it make you nervous that this is the worst place to be sitting if something blows up?" I asked his coworker. "Well, the goal is not to let it blow up," he said, shaking his head like I was being silly. He rattled off about 19 safeguards and contingency plans for possible problem scenarios, gesturing beyond the roof of the drill shack, where equipment hung high overhead, waving his hand in the direction of the blowout preventer control panel, a colorful computerized touch-screen graphic on the wall. "Nah, I never worry about it. There's nothing to worry about if you stay on top of your shit." What the guys did seem a little concerned about was how this whole scene was being taken in by the visiting press. Every chat I had with a rig worker included him asking me at some point, sort of nervously, "So what do you think?" One of the captains asked me what I was going to write about. I told him I didn't have anything hard-hitting to say about the nice things I'd been shown. "So you're not going to bury us?" he asked, because it probably sucks to work hard for an industry vilified by large portions of your country. The ROV control roomThe ROV control room We asked several of the workers we encountered how they felt about the deepwater drilling moratorium. Are they worried about their jobs? Their futures? Not really, they said. There's no reason to think the ban will be indefinitely extended. "I've been at this company for 20 years, and my family's been in this company, and there's no point in worrying," Frugé told me before we left. "I'm not going to think about it unless it's actually declared." And so, after a couple of pleasant and uneventful hours on the DDII, we said goodbye to the crew. Fortunately, the jokey warning Frugé had issued to us earlier had proved unnecessary. "If you see me runnin'," he'd said, smiling, when we'd first arrived, "y'all better be runnin' too."
This post originally appeared on Mother Jones. Given the size and far-reaching devastation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you may have assumed that it qualifies as a federal disaster. Though you'd have been wrong, you wouldn't have been alone. "I am shocked that the Stafford Act has not been used for a declaration of federal disaster," says Mitchell Moss, disaster expert and professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University's Wagner School. "This is exactly why we have this policy tool—to provide federal aid in this kind of crisis." And that aid could be crucial to some coastal communities' survival. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the US law by which a federally declared disaster triggers the financial and logistical support of FEMA in any event that state and local governments aren't equipped to handle, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to chemical spills. It's invoked by the president, by the request of an affected state's governor. Though the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have all declared states of emergency, none has publicly requested the federal designation. (Eight days of calls to the office of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal—whose state got most of the washed-up oil—and to the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness didn't turn up anyone who would comment on the issue.) What difference would a federal disaster declaration make? FEMA could provide assistance to individuals, local organizations, and governments. For example, a FEMA spokeswoman explained to me, FEMA could step in and buy the food if a church that was running a food bank ran out of money to buy meals. As it stands, "the only person responsible is BP, but BP doesn't have any idea what response and recovery means from a human perspective," says Tom Costanza, chair of the Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership, a collaboration of 60 local organizations. BP is required to pay for certain environmental damages under a slew of federal laws—the Oil Pollution Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and the Superfund statute. "But there's no funding for human recovery. Since May, Catholic Charities of New Orleans has been delivering more than $100,000 worth of emergency grocery and bill assistance; last week, the organization announced that it's out of money. "Right now we have people standing in food lines," says Costanza. "If this were a federal disaster, we'd get disaster food stamps. We'd get disaster case management. Disaster mental health. Disaster unemployment." The Stafford Act would also activate an interagency task force that includes the American Red Cross, which so far, Costanza says, "didn't raise a dime. Neither did the Salvation Army." Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.), whose district includes fishing communities from New Orleans, "has not pressed the case for the Gulf Coast to be declared a federal disaster because he feels strongly that BP, not taxpayers, should be held strictly accountable for the damage it has caused," according to a spokesman. But Costanza points out that government assistance doesn't have to preclude BP accountability: The Department of Labor sent $27 million in support to affected Gulf workers and will bill BP for the cost; the federal government has collected tens of millions from the company for its spill-response expenses. Regardless of who ultimately foots the bill, NYU's Moss says the Stafford Act is the communities' best chance for long-term assistance at a time when initial relief is running out. Next week, Catholic Charities is cutting services to St. Bernard Parish, many of whose residents are struggling with the spill's effects. Many local fisheries still aren't open. BP is drawing down its cleanup operations, the only job many unemployed fishermen have been able to get. The Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership has repeatedly asked BP for a $12 million grant to help continue emergency humanitarian services for the next several months, but has yet to get a response. "There's no legislation that tells them what to do," Costanza says. The fate of the fishermen rendered unemployed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill suggests the devastation that can occur in the absence of federal aid. Victims were ultimately able to extract $1.1 billion in compensation from the company, but only after 19 years of litigation. "A lot of them are dead, or bankrupt, or divorced," says Brian O'Neill, the lawyer who tried the case. "The impact of the spill on both the natural environment and their abilities to make a living resulted in huge social disruption in the fishing communities. There were increased rates of alcoholism, domestic violence. Whatever social services existed were unable to handle it. Some communities didn't survive or are half the size they were in 1988. Whatever assistance BP is giving these people now, that will taper off drastically when this is off the front page."
This post first appeared on Mother Jones. "WASHINGTON (AFP) – With BP's broken well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface clean-up and the question on everyone's lips is: where is all the oil?" NEW ORLEANS (Mother Jones) – I don't know who the fuck these everyones are, but I'm happy to help out them, and ABC, and this AFP reporter writing that due to BP's stunningly successful skimming and burning efforts, "the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up." I sent one text message to Bloomberg's Lizzie O'Leary, who's standing on Grand Isle, Louisiana, right now, asking how the beach looks. "Lower part past the barrier untouched with globs of oil that washed up last night," she said. By "untouched," she means by cleanup crews, and that "barrier" she's talking about is the one the press isn't allowed past. I sent another text to Drew Wheelan, who's also in Southwestern Louisiana, doing bird surveys for the American Birding Association, asking him how big the biggest tar mat on Grand Terre—the scene of those now famous horrifying oiled-bird photos—is. "20 feet by 15," he said. "But bigger ones submerged slightly." If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let's hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, "What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it," can locate some more with the staff and craft of the United States Coast Guard at his disposal. As for the reporter's alarmingly unsubstantiated claim that "The beaches should be relatively painless to mop up," I can't even count the number of correspondents down here who've pointed out that digging a finger under the surface of supposedly clean sand turns up crude, or the number of cleanup workers who've said cleanup efforts are strictly cosmetic, or that no matter what they do the contamination just keeps bubbling up. It's BP's job to whitewash this story and make it easier to indulge the desire to forget about the scope of the devastation, guys. Not the media's.
This story originally appeared on Mother Jones. I hear about the race riot at Daddy's Money almost as soon as I arrive on Grand Isle, Louisiana. My friend and I are going to the bar tonight to catch the "female oil wrestling" oil-spill cleanup workers have been packing in to see on Saturday nights. When we stop by the office of the island's biggest seafood distributor, he tells us that two days ago a bunch of black guys and a bunch of white guys got into a big fight at the bar. It spilled out all over the street and had to be broken up by a ton of cops. According to the Census, 1,541 people live in this slow Southern resort town. An estimated 2.9 of them are black. That was before the spill. The seafood guy gestures in the direction of the floating barracks being built on barges in the bay to house the lower-skilled cleanup workers, and says that people think the barracks will keep those workers—who are mostly black—from "jumping off" onto dry land and causing trouble. That night, dozens of men in race-segregated packs crowd around to watch strippers dance around and then tussle inside the bouncy inflatable ring set up inside Daddy's Money. Female oil wrestlers need, obviously, to be oiled. Plastic cups full of baby oil are being auctioned off, along with the right to rub their contents all over one of the thong-bikinied gals. "I hope there's no dispersant in that oil!" someone quips. The bidding before the first match starts at $10; it ends pretty quickly when some kid offers $100. "He outbid me!" the guy next to me yells. His name is Cortez. He bid $80. He has dollar bills tucked all the way around under the brim of his hat, and piles of them in his fist. He has spent $200 of his $1,000 paycheck already tonight. "I am coming here every Saturday from now on," he says. He gestures expansively at the scene—writhing women; hollering, money-throwing men. "Sponsored by BP!" he yells, laughing, then throws his arms around me and grabs my ass. Upstairs, on the open-air deck, the supervisors and professional contractors drink. One comes over to talk; he calls me a Yankee when I don't get that when he says "animals" he means black guys. Another tells us about the crime-prone "monkeys." I have already stopped counting how many times I've heard the n-word on Grand Isle today. Back downstairs, the testosterone is still spewing. It's not just the men screaming at the now-topless girls rolling around trying to pin each other to the floor. An ex-Army Ranger so drunk he can hardly stand asks me if I have a boyfriend. When I lie and say that I do, and that he's right over there somewhere, the Ranger scowls and pushes me. I move to the other side of the ring, where some guy wraps a tight grip around my waist. "You can have some of BP's money too if you let me make love to you," he says. "I'm not a prostitute," I inform him, backing up to create some space between our pelvises, but he presses an insistent forearm harder into the small of my back. "I'm not trying to play you like a prostitute," he says. "I'm just saying: Whatever it takes." I extract myself with a firm fist to his chest. Two Grand Isle girls who are the only other non-strippers in the bar are trying to inch away from a teetering drunk who won't take his hands off them and is encouraging them to get in the ring. I turn around to see if an Interior Department firefighter I talked to earlier, who seems like a nice guy in that he offered to buy me dinner rather than offering money to have sex with him, is still behind me. Just in case. Because he's a hero he steps in and tells the teetering guy to back off. "That's my wife," he says, towering over the drunk and pointing at one of the girls. "I don't care," the teetering guy says. That's where it ends. The fireman has a thick four-inch-long scar behind his ear where he was once hit with a bottle; he doesn't start bar fights anymore. Which is a lucky thing for his coworkers, because he's a very buff Pawnee, and he's sick of them calling him "Tonto," "Chief," and "Indian Joe." The near-desperate levels of racial and sexual aggression in this horde aren't what you usually get at a strip show in a bar. It feels more like a strip show in a prison yard. My friend says he's leaving because he can't bear to be here with all the stupidity and "stale testosterone" anymore. He returns from the bar across the street within 10 minutes. He walked in and walked right back out; it was the same scene. Last week, someone was stabbed there. Upstairs, one of the cleanup supervisors announces that a nearby Canadian engineer hasn't had any pussy in 10 days, and could die. The guys say there's an old Vietnamese lady with a notebook full of available hookers' ages and races who wanders the cleanup workers' haunts, but she's not here right now. Anyway, the workers are forbidden from bringing hookers into the houses and hotel rooms their employers are putting them up in, under threat of being fired. "How long are you going to be here?" I ask the contractor who's worried about the sexless Canadian. "We aren't leaving till this is all clean," he answers, "we" being M-I SWACO, a cleanup contractor that just built a giant orange-pipe-jumble sand-washing machine on the beach (and which is not to be confused with the contractors who are doing only "window dressing" operations, as one of the other supervisors at the bar describes his job). M-I SWACO is not just going to polish the destruction off the surface. They're going to have oiled sand from all over the island brought in by the truckload, then dig out the contaminated layers, wash it, and put it back, at least 40 tons of sand an hour. They're going to save this place. "We'll be here as long as oil keeps washing up," the contractor says. "So..." I laugh sort of helplessly. "A year?" "Three years..." he says. "Five years..." "Hopefully forever," the guy next to him says. "I need this job if I can't work offshore anymore." Last week, the emcee that accompanies the oil wrestlers yelled into the microphone, "Let that oil gush! Let that money flow!" The workers—part of the new Grand Isle scenery of helicopters, Hummers, and National Guardsmen, serious people in uniforms and coveralls and work boots—the workers around the wrestling ring, drunk and blowing cash from jobs that might kill them, cheered.
This story originally appeared on Mother Jones. The New Orleans house I'm sitting in at the moment is finished with meticulous detail: cypress crown molding and trim, recycled loblolly-pine posts, Art-Deco Oriental rugs. To my left, there's a bathroom with wood wainscoting and a refinished 100-year-old claw-foot bathtub on a decorative-tile-lined platform. Almost exactly five years ago, all of this was submerged by toxic floodwaters. Its restoration was made possible by two years of sweat, occasional tears, and a Road Home grant from the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Now a supplemental appropriations bill that passed the House earlier this month would take $400 million from post-Katrina recovery programs like Road Home in order to fund other projects, including $304 million for Deepwater Horizon-related remediation and investigation. To some Louisiana residents, using any taxpayer money, much less hurricane-relief money, to clean up BP's oil just adds insult to injury. "Any provisions related to the spill should be paid for by the responsible party," says Monika Gerhart, director of policy and government relations for the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. "We're not yet recovered. So don't take our housing money." For anyone who hasn't been to New Orleans lately, here's an update: It still needs so much work that visitors pay to take "disaster tours." In a June 7 letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, Louisiana Recovery Authority Chairman David Voelker pleaded that the rescission of already-dedicated rebuilding funds be stricken from the bill. Without them, Voelker estimates, 19,000 homes statewide will go unrestored, nearly 7,000 of them in Orleans Parish. "If you just drive around, you can see the people need it," says Taylor Henry, communications director for Republican Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao, whose district includes New Orleans. The appropriations bill does provide $5.1 billion to FEMA, which could theoretically pay for projects such as rebuilding New Orleans' Charity Hospital or go to city schools that are still waiting for their disaster-relief funds. Or the money could go elsewhere. An executive summary from appropriations chairman Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) notes that the FEMA funds might go toward efforts to clean up after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav, as well as the Midwest floods of 2008 and California wildfires. "The way the money will be used will be up to FEMA's discretion," says House appropriations committee representative Ellis Brachman. Rep. Cao, like every other member of Congress from Louisiana but one, voted nay on the appropriations bill. (Cao also has the distinction of basically telling the president of BP America that he should have to stab himself to death during a congressional hearing last month.) Democrat Charlie Melancon was the only rep who voted for it. Though he argued against the cutting the rebuilding funds, according to a statement on his website, he supports spending for other provisions in the bill, like funding the Afghanistan surge and assisting those impacted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Rep. Melancon's communications director says that he is "working with Sen. Landrieu, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to remove the cuts from the final legislation so Louisiana can continue to rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita." Likewise, Cao's spokesman says that "We're doing all we can to persuade our friends in the Senate not to pass this." If the Senate does approve the cuts, it could be bad news for a lot of New Orleans neighborhoods. Like the one I'm staying in. This house has been painstakingly restored. But both the houses I can see out my front door are abandoned.
This post originally appeared on Mother Jones. Rip Kirby's got the 365-nanometer UV flashlight and I've got the shovel. He's a grad student in the University of South Florida's geology department, and we're standing on Pensacola Beach in the middle of the night digging a hole so he can show me the layers of tar buried beneath new sand the tide has washed up. Some of the tar mat is so thick that it's visible to the naked eye. Other traces of contamination are so subtle that they can only be seen with Kirby's ultraviolet light, which makes crude fluoresce an unnaturally bright orange. Photos: Rip Kirby, Alexander Higgins, Mac McClelland We trek around Pensacola Beach with the oversize light, illuminating oil everywhere: on decks, driveways, boardwalks, handrails. Blobs of it, smears of it, perfect imprints of footprints glowing neon, far beyond the waves washing oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak ashore. "The problem," says Kirby, who works with USF's Coastal Research Lab, "is that they're not using proper decontamination practices in the cleanup. What they should be doing is stopping the workers at the edge of the contamination area"—the shore within the reach of the waves—"and having them get totally cleaned up or stripped down before they walk away." He complains about the machines that drive around collecting sand in giant sifters that are supposed to collect the tar balls while redepositing the pretty white sand. "But the sifters are breaking up the tar balls and spreading them all over the place," Kirby says. "This operation and the traffic are spreading the contamination everywhere." The "traffic" would refer to tourists. Though Pensacola was hardly at full capacity this 4th of July weekend, there were plenty of beachgoers out. "We're having fun at the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach!" the reservations clerk at the Hampton answers. In the lobby, the lady in the asymmetrical top on HLN says the beaches are closed; past the blaring TV, families outside frolic in the emerald surf. As the hotel desk will tell you, the beach is indeed technically open. The Escambia County Health Department has erected some signs warning people to "avoid" swimming, and that children and pregnant women should avoid the area altogether. I drove down 15 miles of beach and saw only two such warnings. It's definitely possible I missed some—they're about the size of a sheet of computer paper. "Did y'all go swimming?" I ask a couple coming off the beach in swimsuits and towels. They did. Did they see this sign, I ask, pointing? They lean in closer. They didn't. "Oh!" the woman says. "Well, lotsa people are swimmin' out there, and it seems fine." It does. But for the tar balls, Pensacola Beach is still jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And the messages coming out of local government are confusing. The little signs on the beach say "oil product" is present and dangerous even if it's not visible. But health department director John Lanza made comments to the Miami Herald urging people to stay out of the water only if they saw oil in it or felt it on their skin while swimming. He also said, "We are not advising that anyone go in the water," right before he said, "If you really want to go into the water, you're welcome to do that.'' He admitted that the EPA hadn't yet determined if the water is safe, but not that the University of West Florida Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation is consistently finding crude in its water samples. Nor did he acknowledge that there appears to be no information available about the presence of BP's dispersants, which, tourists may or may not know, with excessive repeated exposure can make your red blood cells explode. The director of the Louisiana ACLU has pointed out that it's nobody's business to forbid you from rolling around in tainted sand if you're so inclined, any more than government officials can slap a cigarette out of your mouth. But as with warnings on cigarette packs, it is government officials' responsibility to make clear how seriously you could be compromising your health. "Being on the beach will cause respiratory problems," a woman at the Escambia County citizens' information line told me. "A lot of people who've been in contact with the oil are having that." When I ran that past the county public information officer, she said she had no idea what I was talking about, and that neither the EPA nor the health department had advised the county to shut down the beach. The Escambia County commissioner says he's "not afraid to close the beach'' if he gets "the right kind of information." But, understandably, he doesn't "want to err on the side of putting several people into bankruptcy.'' One anonymous health department employee knows that Pensacola's economics will continue to temper the official messages about possible health effects. "The only way this beach is going to close," he admitted to a group of environmentalists, "is if it's on fire." In the meantime, the top of the Escambia Disaster Response web page announces, "The beaches are open and ready for business!" And so, there are people everywhere, under the impression that they're "fine," picking up and spreading contamination, the full extent of which is visible only under Kirby's UV light. One of the resorts has put up oil-washing stations on its beaches—not, according to the accompanying signs, for health reasons, but so you don't bring it into the buildings. The pier is packed with tourists fishing. When I arrive there, someone has just caught a blacktip reef shark longer than me. I join the crowd to watch the fisherman wrestle it onto its side, pin it beneath his knees, and start stabbing it to death. Just a few yards further down the pier, another fisherman has snared another one, almost as big. He picks it up by the tail, and when I turn my face away before he can swing it face-first into a wooden post, I see that the guy watching next to me is also wincing. "This is horrible," I say to him. "Yeah," he nods, but then reconsiders, and relaxes his furrowed brow. "Though I guess with all this oil, it was just gonna die anyway."
This post originally appeared on Mother Jones. Everyone knows by now that BP is still blocking press access to oil-spill sites even though they're not supposed to anymore. I've been blathering about it for weeks, and it's been all of three days since four contractors wouldn't let me through the Pointe Aux Chenes marina outside Montegut, Louisiana. And though as of June 16 the federal government was saying helicopters could fly reporters as low as 1,500 feet around spill sites, on June 17 I was on a helicopter that was prohibited from flying below 3,000 feet (and whose pilot flipped silent birds at the "military guys" coming over the radio and hassling him about being in the area at all). But a Louisiana sheriff's deputy* pulling over a video camera-wielding private citizen because the head of BP security wanted to ask him some questions is a whole other level of alarming. Last week, Drew Wheelan, the conservation coordinator for the American Birding Association, was filming himself across the street from the BP building/Deepwater Horizon response command in Houma, Louisiana. As he explained to me, he was standing in a field that did not belong to the oil company when a police officer approached him and asked him for ID and "strongly suggest[ed]" that he get lost since "BP doesn't want people filming": Here's the key exchange:
Wheelan: "Am I violating any laws or anything like that?" Officer: "Um...not particularly. BP doesn't want people filming." Wheelan: "Well, I'm not on their property so BP doesn't have anything to say about what I do right now." Officer: "Let me explain: BP doesn't want any filming. So all I can really do is strongly suggest that you not film anything right now. If that makes any sense."
Not really! Shortly thereafter, Wheelan got in his car and drove away but was soon was pulled over. It was the same cop, but this time he had company: Kenneth Thomas, whose badge, Wheelan told me, read "Chief BP Security." The cop stood by as Thomas interrogated Wheelan for 20 minutes, asking him who he worked with, who he answered to, what he was doing, why he was down here in Louisiana. He phoned Wheelan's information in to someone. Wheelan says Thomas confiscated his Audubon volunteer badge (he'd recently attended an official Audubon/BP bird-helper volunteer training) and then wouldn't give it back, which sounds like something only a bully in a bad movie would do. Eventually, Thomas let Wheelan go. "Then two unmarked security cars followed me," Wheelan told me. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I was specifically trying to figure out if they were following me, and every time I pulled over, they pulled over." This went on for 20 miles. Which does little to mitigate my own developing paranoia about reporting from what can feel like a corporate-police state. The media liaison for the government-run Deepwater Horizon Response Joint Information Center told me BP would get back to me for comment on the incident. I'm still waiting. * Correction/Update: This story originally stated that a Louisiana state police officer pulled Wheelan over, per Wheelan's recounting of the incident. My apologies to the state police for misreporting their involvement. After many calls made and messages left, I've finally confirmed that the cop in question was actually a sheriff's deputy for Terrebonne Parish. The deputy was off official duty at the time, and working in the private employ of BP. Though the deputy failed to include the traffic stop in his incident report, Major Malcolm Wolfe of the sheriff's office says the deputy's pulling someone over in his official vehicle while working for a private company is standard and acceptable practice, because Wheelan was acting suspicious and could have been a terrorist.