Photo by Brian Merchant
1. It’s Not a Photogenic Disaster … Yet
I spent the last 10 days traversing the Gulf coast,
and I hardly saw few traces of actual oil. I know that there are videos
out there that show how devastating the spill is — the one that shows the ‘Gulf bleeding’
is especially powerful. But I’m afraid it’s not powerful in the
conventional sense — most people probably don’t see the copper colored
water and the oily sheen over the waves as tragic, necessarily, but
There is no doubt that
the millions of gallons of oil currently floating around in the Gulf of
Mexico will be supremely hazardous to wildlife and the local economy.
But it sometimes seems the whole event is registering closer to a
curiosity than a tragedy to those not immediately connected to it.
Photo via Oil Spill Solutions
2. Chemical Dispersant Cover-Up
Which brings us to what may be BP’s greatest aide in furthering this aim: the chemical dispersants.
BP’s plan to spray the dispersants on the leak from the source — as
well as dump them from planes flying above — will effectively prevent
oil from reaching the shore in the same form that the notorious slicks
did in famous spills like the Exxon Valdez.
Despite the fact that
nobody is sure exactly how toxic the stuff is, or how being deployed on
such a large scale will effect ecosystems, it will have at least one
effect: it will delay public outrage by masking the apparent extent of the spill’s damage.
After all, BP must know how damaging the Valdez spill was for Exxon’s
image — some people still conjure up pictures of oil-coated birds at
the mention of the brand. But make no mistake — chemical dispersants
will disrupt ecosystems in a massive way, even if you never see the
true effect with your own eyes.
Watch CBS News Videos Online
3. BP, Feds Cutting Off Press?
But there are other concerns as well. Most recently, video surfaced of the Coast Guard turning press away,
claiming it was BP’s orders. An NPR team was turned away when trying to
access the oil-hit Chandeleur barrier island chain. The workers hired
to cleanup the spill seem to be under pressure not to talk to press —
whenever I would approach a hired fisherman or contractor, they’d most
often wave me away, or refuse to talk on record.
When I contacted a BP
community liaison, he essentially dared me to call his bluff: he didn’t
deny the contractual clause, but he did say "I’ve got fishermen in my
office all the time — you want to talk to one right now?" But that was
hardly reassuring, and obviously not an acceptable circumstance for an
I attribute some of the press
exclusion from the feds to a messy bureaucratic command structure —
officials flown in from all over the nation were giving, deflecting,
and misinterpreting orders, and sending them on down the line to crews.
But there does seem be a pointed effort, especially from BP, to
drastically restrict press access.
4. Relative Public Apathy
oddly colored water, a collapsed hi-tech rig — it all might seem more
like a strange spectacle than a catastrophe. Fox News’ anchor Brit Hume
summed up the apathy the other day when he retorted "Show me the oil."
Of course, the thousands
of people who are losing their livelihoods and the conservationists who
understand the impact oil will have on undersea food chains are
confidant that this is nothing short of a disaster. But without
pictures of devastated wildlife — which thus far have been few and far
between — or blackened coastlines, I fear that most will continue to
underestimate how damaging this spill will be. That would, of course,
play directly in BP’s favor — and undercut further investigative
Photo via Greenpeace
5. It’s More Convenient to Conceal the Devastation
One oft-voiced worry among
conservation groups and other press that I heard as I trekked from
marina to marina, city to city around the Gulf, was that there would
only be interest in ensuring that justice was brought to those impacted
by the spill as long as the cameras were rolling. And without any
distinctly shocking material to film, those cameras would be rolling
away sooner rather than later.
Which is why it’s
important that the Coast Guard explain a concrete policy for press
access and that BP encourage the fishermen who’ve been out in the field
to speak up about their encounters with the oil. If they have nothing
to hide, then why clamp down, right? It’s a spooky thought, but if
there are images of gruesomely oil-slicked beaches and blackened birds,
the public has a right to see it. Even if this does sound distressingly
like a call for sensationalism — it’s in part because that very
sensationalism will help bolster conservation efforts and strengthen
sound policy initiatives.
And of course, I believe that
the use of chemical dispersants is far too dangerous a gamble, and not
only because it helps prevent people from grasping the severity of the
spill, but because of the unknown long-term threats they pose to marine
habitats. This stuff could yet emerge as the dominant narrative of the
Gulf spill in hindsight, damaging food chains for generations, or
The point of all of this is:
don’t believe just your eyes — listen to reports coming in from
legitimate conservation scientists and investigative journalists. Much
of the press down there are out on the boats every day, desperately
trying to get the best sense of what’s going on — and being thwarted
by weather, BP, the dispersants, and sometimes evidently the Coast
Guard. For 10 days, I was trying my best, too — and I can tell you,
it’s looking like we may never see the worst of this spill with our own
More on the Gulf Oil Spill
EPA Gives BP 24 Hours to Stop Dumping Toxic Chemical on Gulf Spill
Oil Spill Expert: BP Dangerously Using "Two Conflicting Cleanup Technologies" (Video)