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BP's Oil Spill Fouls Water, Land and Air

Dennis Berstein

Pensacola Beach, Fla., last week. (Globe and Mail)

On a morning last week, Floridians
along the pristine beaches of the Florida panhandle found themselves
the latest shoreline victims of the underground volcano of oil and
dangerous gasses released by BP into the Gulf of Mexico.

And again, the disaster was winning in the water, on the land -- and in the air.

pitiful," said Buck Lee, the executive director of the Santa Rosa
County Island Authority. "It took us four hours to clean up 50 to 60
feet of beach and I don't see this stopping for a while."

the Pensacola area hoped to salvage the region's peak tourist season of
July Fourth, cleanup crews worked through the night, sucking up oil and
waste near a Perdido Key barrier island.

they still failed to prevent a three-mile-long oil slick from being
washed up between the Pensacola Beach pier and Fort Pickens National

Dominic Mogavero and his
wife, Cyndie Lepori, live about 50 miles due east of Pensacola, smack
in the middle of the panhandle right, in Ft. Watson Beach at the docks
at Kid's Point. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico lap up against the
perimeter of their property.

Florida couple has been alarmed for weeks about the lack of action and
preparation, by BP, the Coast Guard and local officials.

an environmentalist and longtime Florida resident, said she had just
returned from Alabama where she went to rescue endangered dolphins and
was now preparing for what was headed for Florida's beaches.

hope in going there was to learn what they were doing in order to save
their dolphins and their back bays and their nurseries, in order to
provide safety and education for the people here in Florida since, I am
living here in Ft. Watson Beach," said Lepori. "And it was an education
to say the least."

A Living Nightmare

Lepori described a living nightmare, reeling off a list of images, one worse than the next. 

went through an oil pool, right at dusk, when we were out looking for
the dolphins, trying to make sure that they were all right," she said.
"As soon as we hit this it was like you had cut our air off. 

couldn't breathe, we couldn't speak, we were all throwing up over the
side," she said. "We were all very experienced boat people... We were
trying to keep an eye on the dolphins. This is a very special dolphin
pod. It's called the Friendly Dolphins pod. They have lived there for
as long as anyone can remember. Essentially they were trapped."

in Florida, the couple was on high alert as the rolling slicks of thick
gooey brown sludge crossed from Alabama to Florida.

husband, Dominic Mogavero, became quite alarmed as he observed children
playing in the sand - and the tar balls - at Destin Harbor.

was walking along the beach," said Mogavero, "I came across a young
family and the young kids were playing in the sand on the beach, making
sandcastles. They were decorating the sandcastles with tar balls...

were literally picking up these pieces of tar, this oil, toxic oil with
other toxic chemicals, with their bare hands and putting it on their
sandcastles, because it made their sandcastles look pretty. ... The kids
said that. I said what are you doing? ‘We're making pretty sandcastles'
and yet they're playing with toxic chemicals."
said he approached the parents, to see if they understood the dangers
the kids were facing and they appeared "clueless."

said do you realize what these kids are playing with and they had
absolutely no idea that the young kids - they were 4 or 5 years old -
were playing with tar balls," he said.

Don't Scare the Tourists

of the concerns is that the local officials want to downplay the
hazards from the oil spill to avoid alarming tourists and driving even
more people away from the beaches.

official story," said Mogavero, "is that the water is clear, and there
are a few tar balls but it is safe to swim in and I feel that is in
direct opposition to the reality of the situation...

you've got this detergent, this dispersant in the water - coming in - I
have first-hand experience with burn marks on my skin with these tar
balls that these children are playing in that potentially could cause
their death."

The long-time
Floridian is also shocked to see people swimming so close to where
clean-up boats, with workers in hazmat suits, were cleaning up the
toxic sludge.

"It is
probably a couple hundred yards across, right smack in the middle of
Destin Harbor," he said. "And there are two boats dragging a boom,
obviously skimming the surface oil within 20 yards of where there were
people on the beach, entering the water, and going swimming."

next day, Lepori went to investigate reports of another school of sick
dolphins. As soon as she got to the water's edge, she became dizzy and
nauseous, similar to her experience out on the Gulf off Alabama.

minutes of getting on the beach with families swimming in the water and
it was maybe because I was so exposed to all these chemicals, I was
sick," she said. "I had a headache, I couldn't breathe, again, I was
dizzy and I ended up having to leave the beach.

again, there were families. I walked along the beach telling the
families along the beach, did you know this water's poisonous that
you're putting these children in? ...There were no signs, no one telling
anyone anything about the toxicity of the water. And you know sometimes
I don't even have words. And none of those people knew."

and Lepori are outraged that the corporate bottom line - and business
concerns about tourism - seem to be limiting the flow of crucial
information that could prevent serious injuries and illnesses.

suspect that BP's secrecy, and the Coast Guard's willingness along with
other responders at the federal level to let BP call the shots, has
undermined the clean-up and made a terrible disaster even worse.
Fighting for Information

I spoke with Coast Guard Commander Scott Linsky, a spokesperson at the
Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Center in Houma, Louisiana, I got a
very different take on the crisis, much more upbeat and positive.

[clean-up] organization," Linsky told me, "has just grown immensely
over the last month. We have about 11,000 people in the field, on the
beaches, out on the water skimming and burning oil...

front we're working covers hundreds of miles of the entire coast line. 
And the steady growth and improvement of the clean-up effort is just

The Coast Guard
Commander said - based on his extensive intelligence, including aerial
flyovers, satellite data and first-hand experience out in the Gulf -
major progress is being made, especially after the personal
intervention of President Barack Obama.

focus on the clean-up has certainly delivered a number of resources
that have really helped us succeed," said Commander Linsky. "I was on
an over-flight ... and there is certainly oil in many places offshore but
there is also a tremendous amount of area where there is not oil. ...  

have more than 300 wildlife personnel from a multitude of agencies and
disciplines working with the oiled birds, and sampling and researching.
And their efforts are just incredible in the things that they are able
to do. We had a real success story yesterday as 35 previously oiled
brown pelicans were taken to Texas and released."

But problems continued to plague efforts to reduce the flow of oil into the Gulf.

week, for instance, a robot bumped into BP's jerry-rigged venting
system sending dangerous gas shooting up through the vent that carries
warm water down to prevent ice crystals from forming, creating the
potential for an explosion. The cap was removed allowing a large surge
of oil into the already highly polluted waters around the
uncontrollable well.


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Credibility Gap

residents have also grown increasing skeptical of whatever they hear
from BP or the government agencies. Some residents complain that BP
continues to gag its workers from discussing concerns about oil spill
and its potential health risks.

native Elizabeth Cook, a co-founder of a new grassroots action group
called the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster, said
dozens of residents attended an emergency meeting in New Orleans and
vented their anger at BP, for its secrecy and lack of action, and at
the U.S.  Coast Guard for "defending and covering up for BP."

myself, I am questioning everything that's being told to me,
particularly by the officials in charge of the oil spill response,"
Cook said in an interview. "I think we have to be suspicious of
everything they're saying to us. We have to assume they're withholding
the information, that they are possibly even falsifying information, so
as not to cause a panic, because I think the last thing they want is an
outraged, panicked public to face."

She said the federal government and the Coast Guard are marching in lockstep with BP, adding:

the government and BP are one and the same right now. And that's a
really frightening thing to say I realize that, but that's what I see.
Because the information, whether it's the public officials, whether
they're someone from the EPA, or NOAH, or BP, it's the same."

said members of the group spoke to several BP workers who said had been
"threatened by BP with being fired if they spoke publicly, either about
what they saw or about getting ill as a result of their work" on the

Cook said the Coast
Guard is busy "obfuscating for BP at every turn, withholding
information, bending to the will of BP...letting them control the flow
of information."

Not so, says
Commander Linsky. The restrictions on the movements of the press and
others seeking information are intended to protect injured wildlife and
the safety of Gulf residents, clean-up workers and the journalists.

are working very hard to increase media access," Linsky said. "We are
trying to facilitate that to the best of our ability, safely for
everyone involved.  We are just asking that anybody that is around the
clean-up operations be cognizant of the fact that it is a difficult
business to recover wildlife, and to reduce the trauma on the wildlife
that we are recovering."

July Fourth

Florida, east of the Panhandle, Dominic Mogavero and Cyndie Lepori said
local officials are in a bit of a panic over the upcoming July Fourth
holiday, one of the most lucrative weekends for tourism.

boats were already experiencing major cancellations, losing hundreds of
thousands of dollars, even before the oil sludge started to soil the
legendary whites sand of the coast.

they close down the beaches and order people out of the water, posting
the kinds of danger signs and warnings that Lepori and Mogavero now say
are crucial to save live, the local economy will take a devastating hit.

feeling is that a lot of the local authorities, or those in charge of
making decisions about the health and welfare of this environment are
leaving information out to protect the bottom line of financial gain
from tourism," said Mogavero.

the tourists really knew the circumstances as to the water hazard, the
fish hazard, the food hazard as a result of this they would not be
here. And yet, economically it would be extremely detrimental and I
believe local authorities are doing everything they can to protect the
bottom line, at the risk of peoples' health."

Other people I spoke with in the Gulf region also raised health concerns.

Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade which
supports communities affected by the oil and chemical industry, said
"hundreds if not thousands" of Louisianan's are being made sick by oil
spill and are receiving very little effective help.

workers are out on boats and getting sick," said Rolfes, "and People
are being ... told that it's heat exhaustion. I mean, there is no
question that it is really hot down here. But there is also no question
that they are working with really dangerous chemicals.

I think the really disturbing thing is that it's not just BP that's
pushing aside their concerns but it is also the government agencies"
like the OSHA and the EPA "who really ought to be protecting them and
all of us," she said.

Living in Fear

resident, Elizabeth Cook, said everyone is living in fear in the Gulf,
with the first hurricanes brewing and the rain starting to get heavy.

this stuff -- the dispersants -- are evaporating into the air," Cook
said. "When we had several bad rain storms, I noticed at the end of the
day, a slight smell of oil and I felt sick to my stomach, literally
sick, and it's not the first time I felt sick."

There is a growing appetite among Gulf residents and activists for a criminal prosecution.

is the Department of Justice, or the Department of Wild Life and
Fisheries, where is the Department of Labor," asked Rolfes. "Certainly
a cover-up of the crime this big ought to be investigated."
In neighboring Mississippi, emotions also were running high. Last
Friday, most shrimping was banned at the Mississippi coast, and the
industry essentially closed down.

have been begging for help from the federal government, from BP, from
the Coast Guard, but particularly from our Governor, Haley Barbour, and
from our congressman in the fourth congressional district of
Mississippi, Jean Taylor, but no help has been forthcoming," said Lynda
St Martin, a coordinator of Gulf Oil Disaster Responders in Mississippi.

Taylor and Haley Barber have been lying to us for more than six
weeks. They have been telling us that we were prepared, when and if it
comes ashore here and it may or may not come ashore in Mississippi, but
we are prepared. Well, we are not prepared. The barrier islands are now
being inundated by that horrible monster. And we are not prepared. "

The failure to protect the barrier islands, said St. Martin, has put
the entire region's ecosystem in grave jeopardy.

have failed to protect that placid, beautiful sound," she said, "that
is the beginning of the food chain for the entire Caribbean Basin,
about to be inundated. I wanted those islands boomed and protected. ...

main reason was because if we could protect the Barrier Islands, and it
is still not too late, if they would just do something,  if we could
protect the barrier islands we can still restock the Gulf and save the
marine life. 

"By not
protecting those barrier islands, our sea life has no place to go. 
That's where they all go to lay their eggs, lay the larvae. That water
is very rich in nutrients and that's where life in the Gulf starts."

St Martin said she believes Mississippi inaction goes right into the
governor's office and is explained by Barbour's close business ties to
the oil industry.

"If you
ever looked at the Web site of Barber, Griffith and Rogers, our
governor's lobbying firm, you will see that one of his main clients is
big oil," she said. "I think he is in bed with BP and he would say
anything he could or do anything he could to protect his big oil

Just like in
Louisiana, St Martin said, many people are getting ill in Mississippi
and the impact is being felt well inland.

get sick every time I go out and smell the stuff.  I go out there to
try to look at it and I also have been on boats taking the media out
there. And if I'm close to it and I smell it makes me very
nauseous. I can't imagine what it's like for people that are out there
trying to work all day in the stuff, because it does give me a

Bernstein based this report primarily on interviews done for
"Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio
archives at You can get in touch with the author at


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