Warning: You may want to hold off on booking that Gulf Coast vacation – because the beaches aren’t as clean or safe as official reports indicate. According to a whistleblower lawsuit filed in New Orleans, BP cleanup crews intentionally left oil debris on Mississippi beaches while company officials falsely reported that the areas were adequately cleaned. (So much for public safety.) The lawsuit alleges that BP fired August Walter Jr. after he discovered the coverup and took it upon himself to inform federal officials about the “true status of the cleanup.”
Meanwhile, BP is funding a slick, big-budget advertising campaign to lure tourists back to the Gulf Coast, featuring young children frolicking in the sand and surf as a voiceover rambles on about how “the water is beautiful.” (Please pay no mind to all the fresh tar balls washing up on the beach and the tar mats lingering just offshore.) Clearly, the oil giant’s capacity to lie and cheat knows no bounds.
Here’s how the Times-Picayune’s David Hammer covered the story on Jan. 24:
A Covington man who helped develop oil spill cleanup plans for BP has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the oil giant, alleging that he was fired for telling federal overseers that his bosses were falsifying data to make it look like Mississippi beaches were cleaner than they really were. August Walter Jr.’s allegations before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans come more than a year after oil from BP’s blown-out well came ashore. They also follow BP’s spending of $14 billion on cleanup operations that have cleared all but a few miles of oiled beach.
But Walter claims that just last fall, BP was refusing to pick up oiled debris on beaches and islands and then falsely reporting the areas were clean, all in an effort to wrap up its responsibilities early and leave the remaining cleanup to the Coast Guard.
Mr. Walter’s allegations are devastating, and the timing couldn’t be worse for BP as the company dramatically scales back cleanup efforts and prepares to defend its actions in court next month. Falsifying official documents is a serious charge, particularly when public safety is an issue. This dubious behavior should be considered when determining punitive damages against the company. More from the Times-Picayune report:
The lawsuit says that Walter discovered BP’s Mississippi operation was taking shortcuts – refusing, for instance, to clear smaller oiled debris while removing larger tar balls from beaches along the Gulf Islands National Seashore – and he was reprimanded by BP bosses when he tried to report the true status of the cleanup.
BP’s decision to fire Walter lays bare, once again, the company’s culture of putting profits above all else. It has long been BP’s modus operandi to harass, intimidate and punish those who present “problems” for the company – from independent researchers to spill claimants to public officials to members of the media. Here’s how the Times-Picayune covers the timeline of events leading up to Walter’s dismissal:
In October 2011, Walter said he rewrote plans to meet a Coast Guard directive to clear away oil from areas where a protected population of eagles would be nesting, but BP ignored them. It was then that BP’s response lead, Cory Brown, “tried to harass” Walter, the complaint states.
And after that, on Nov. 3, Carla Fontenot, vice president of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, threatened Walter that she “had people watching him that would call her” if he kept insisting that BP follow approved environmental plans, the lawsuit alleges. It also says that Fontenot told Walter that his cooperation was necessary “as it would have an upward impact on BP stock prices.”
Walter’s complaint says that BP Operations Section Chief Mike Harrison rejected Walter’s presentation of cleanup data to the Coast Guard on Nov. 7, stating the Mississippi numbers “‘did not fit with the story’ (Harrison) wanted to tell the Unified Command.”
When Walter told Harrison that certain areas in Mississippi had to be recleaned because they had failed inspections by a joint government-BP Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team, “Harrison basically demanded that Walter falsify the data,” the complaint says.
When Walter refused, Harrison changed the data himself and reported it to the federal on-scene coordinator, the lawsuit alleges.
… Walter claims he was placed on administrative leave on Nov. 9. For the next month, BP interviewed Walter’s co-workers “to come up with pretextual reasons for his termination,” then fired him on Dec. 9, the complaint states.
We can only hope that BP is held accountable for its despicable actions in this case, as it pertains both to Mr. Walter’s dismissal and the risk to public safety tied to BP’s falsifying of official cleanup reports. It certainly appears to me that Louisiana’s Environmental Whistleblower Act should have protected Mr. Walter from being fired.
We’ll have to wait and see how presiding federal Judge Carl Barbier rules. But one thing is for sure: Evidence is stacking up in a way that’s going to make BP’s defense of its actions surrounding this entire disaster exceedingly difficult to sell.
Read David Hammer’s report in the Times-Picayune here: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2012/01/fired_bp_worker_files_whistleb.html
Check out one of BP’s far-fetched “come back to the Gulf” commercials here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q2tjWBIXEc&feature=endscreen&NR=1
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