BP’s Politico puff piece wasn’t just shady journalism ethics — it was mostly a lie

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BP, with a huge assist from the popular Beltway-insider website Politico, stirred up the muddy waters of the Deepwater Horizon spill aftermath this week when it published a corporate-love-letter-disguised-as-news entitled, “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf.” Anyone expecting humility from a firm whose court-certified wanton negligence killed 11 people and seriously polluted America’s most precious natural resource clearly hasn’t followed the story lately.

The story hit the Internet Wednesday morning and caused an immediate stir — but mostly on the topic of journalism ethics. For one thing, the story initially had the trappings of a news article, without the large label of “Opinion” that such an op-ed is expected to carry (that changed after the outcry); readers got to the bottom of the piece before learning it was written by BP’s in-house spin-doctor-in-chief, corporate spokesman Geoff Morrell. What’s more, enterprising reporters noted that BP has been a long-time major advertiser with Politico, raising eyebrows whether the favorable treatment was an ethically dubious quid-pro-quo.

All of that troubled me, to be sure. Anyone who cares about open and fair public discourse should be worried about the state of modern journalism. But the ethics controversy wasn’t what troubled me the most. What bothered me about the piece — and should bother all readers — is that the claims by Morrell are sometimes dubious, sometimes misleading, and much of the time just an old-fashioned lie. Those of us who’ve followed the story for the last four years can feel pretty confident in saying this:

Yes, BP actually did ruin the Gulf.

Let’s look at some of the key points in Morrell’s argument:

— Remarkably, Morrell peddles a bogus storyline about the 2010 oil spill — that in his words, “most of the environmental impact was of short duration and in a limited geographic area.” In reality, the widely respected National Wildlife Federation reported just this year that devastating impacts on marine life, on tourism, and on animals as well as humans, remain. I’d like to see Morrell sell his “short duration” line to the Gulf’s sea turtles — who are stranded, in distress, at five times the rate before the 2010 disaster, or to dolphins still struggling with disease and miscarriages four years after the spill.

— Morrell also claims that the Gulf waters recovered quickly both because of its resiliency and because of the offshore, deepwater location of the 2010 accident which, again, in his words, caused “a lot of oil to dissolve, evaporate, deteriorate or be physically removed before it reached land.” Incredibly, Morrell makes no mention of the real trick that BP used to make so much of the spilled oil disappear so quickly: By spraying 1.8 million gallons of a highly toxic, hazardous dispersant known as Corexit, whose lingering impact has sickened not just the Gulf’s marine life but hundreds of coastal residents who volunteered for the clean-up effort.

This summer, a team of researchers reported that the toxic dispersant is still in the Gulf, confounding the “experts” who claimed it would dissipate. As I reported this summer, scientists have found evidence of altered blood profiles among some of an estimated 170,000 Gulf residents who were exposed to BP’s poisonous brew of crude oil and Corexit.

“The combination of crude oil and Corexit is exponentially more toxic than either alone, since they contain many ingredients that target the same organs in the body,” said Dr. Susan Shaw, president and founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute and a toxicologist with the State University of New York. Other toxicologists report that since 2010, along the Gulf Coast, they have found what appears to be an elevated rate of ailments such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, respiratory problems, blood disorders and skin lesions.

— Morrell’s slanted piece strongly suggests that in 2014 that the Gulf of Mexico is completely free of oil. But that would come as a huge surprise to the dedicated workers who still regularly clean up the beaches of Florida’s Gulf beaches or those even closer to Ground Zero, like Louisiana’s Grand Isle — where hundreds of pounds of BP-linked tar balls still assault the sandy shoreline on a regular basis, and even more so after a bad storm.

As I noted in July of this year:

For example, 1,400 pounds of oil washed ashore at a beach near Pensacola in March of this year, not far from where crews had just the year before dug up 450 pounds of oil under the sand, using a backhoe. Since June 2013 (in other words, a time period beginning more than three years after the BP spill), officials in Florida have officially reported finding more than 44,000 tar balls, and that is probably just a fraction of the actual amount. On a recent day this June, workers in Escambia County, Fla., covering only about 1,000 feet of beachfront, harvested some 1,544 pounds of oil, believed to have come from BP. Other times officials encounter much larger tar mats – massive rectangles of oil in the water or the sand; one such tar mat, found this June on Fort Pickens beach in Florida, weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Again, remember: This oil that continues to come ashore nearly four years after the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig was finally capped.

And that’s on top of the badly damaged Louisiana marshlands — the state’s fragile barrier of protection against tropical storms — that are still polluted with crude oil and continue to erode, as well as tons of BP oil believe is still buried at the bottom of the Gulf, pushed down by BP’s reckless dispersant plan.

— Morell’s piece claims that the shrimp industry has fully rebounded and implies that the same must be true for the broader seafood industry. But local reporters on the ground in the Gulf Coast have found the exact opposite, both by crunching the numbers and by anecdotally talking to fishing captains. As Houma Today reported just last month, the 2010 spill is still having a major impact on the Louisiana seafood industry. Specifically regarding the shrimp catch: “Catches of white and brown shrimp dropped 14 percent and 32 percent respectively from 2010 to 2013 compared to catches recorded from 2002 to 2009.”

— As noted today in an outstanding takedown of Morrell by the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, BP’s claim that investigators haven’t found soiled oyster beds in the years immediately after the 2010 spill overlooks the fact that experts expected a roughly three-or-more-year-lag in pollution’s impact on oysters, and that is exactly what we are seeing in 2014. Hiltzik notes that “according to the Gulf Seafood Institute, gulf harvesters fear that they’re seeing the oil spill impacts right now” — especially since historical trends had suggested this year’s haul would rise, not plummet.

I could go with numerous examples but I think you’ve probably gotten the gist — that Morrell’s corporate press release is pure Fantasyland, in no way depicting the ongoing struggles of depressed and demoralized Gulf seafood workers or the alarming state of this natural habitat. I will mention one other thing that’s especially disgusting about the Politico whitewash — the part where Morrell lumps praise on some 100,000 cleanup workers whose, he says, “massive, sustained effort greatly minimized the spill’s impact on wildlife and their habitats.”

If BP wants to give thanks to its cleanup crew, why is the firm currently spending millions on a legal fight aimed at blocking fair medical payments to thousands of ailing Gulf cleanup workers. Remarkably, BP is trying to use a technicality to prevent the hugely profitable oil giant from paying the doctor’s bills for clean-up contractors whose lives have been turned upside down by headaches, nausea, blurry vision, and other ailments. That’s the real BP — venal, double-crossing, hellbent on profit preservation — that those of us who get our facts from daily life along the Gulf Coast, and not from slick Washington-placed op-eds, have come to know since 2010.

That’s why it’s so important not to shrug off the the millions that BP is spending to whitewash its image, or the media enablers like Politico who let them get away with it. Their lies must be challenged on every battlefield. We can’t let them toss four years of environmental devastation down the memory hole — or let them weasel out of paying for that destruction.

If you must, here’s a link to the BP op-ed in Politico: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/10/gulf-coast-recovery-expectations-112088.html#.VEkNApyw67Q

Read the National Wildlife Federation’s devastating 2010 report: https://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Protect-Habitat/Gulf-Restoration/Oil-Spill/Effects-on-Wildlife.aspx

Haverford scientists report that Corexit is still in the Gulf four years later: http://www.pnj.com/story/news/2014/07/26/bp-oil-spill-dispersants-still-environment/13213759/

Check out the Houma Today analysis on BP’s impact on commercial fishing in Louisiana: http://www.houmatoday.com/article/20140925/NEWS0101/140929738/-1/opinion?p=2&tc=pg&tc=ar

Here’s my special report from Aug. 4 on how the Gulf is still sick: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/in-depth-the-gulf-is-still-making-marine-life-and-people-sick/. Here’s my initial report on the Gulf environmental crisis from July 28: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/in-depth-the-gulf-is-still-sick/

Read the entire Los Angeles Times of the BP controversy: http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-bp-offers-a-lesson-20141022-column.html

Gulf oysters at zero population: http://gulfseafoodnews.com/2014/04/21/gulf-oysters-at-zero-population/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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