The biggest scandal of the BP oil spill was, and is, the coverup


Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that triggered an environmental calamity in the Gulf of Mexico. For many of us the region, it’s an anniversary tinged with vivid and painful memories. As I recount in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Assault on America, we were in the skies over the Gulf that next morning, flying from Miami back into New Orleans, when we saw the thick, alarming spiral of black smoke off in the distance. That instant, we realized that life on the Gulf Coast would never be quite the same — and we were pretty much right.

Over these last 60 months, there’s been some outstanding journalism produced about both what happened aboard the rig and how the gusher of some 4-5 million barrels has harmed marine life and human life in around the Gulf. One of the best reporters on the case has been Mobile-based Ben Raines. In those first, frantic days after the explosion, our research and our experts were telling us that not just BP but the federal government were greatly misrepresenting the size and the scope of the oil spill; Raines was perhaps the only journalist who was on the case. In a new piece, he tells for the first time the backstory of how confidential sources helped him blow the lid off the real extent of the unfolding tragedy, forcing the feds to eventually admit the truth. Here is a particularly revealing excerpt:

The next day, I received another email, this one from a mysterious source whose address indicated only that the sender liked playing guitar. The email said simply, “This link backs up Ben Raines’ story.”

The email bore a link leading to an internal federal website. At my click, a video began loading on my screen. It turned out to be a 45-minute sequence shot in the federal government’s hastily established “war room” for the spill in Seattle, Wash. In the video was a close up of a dry erase board with an estimate of the amount of oil flowing from the well. The numbers blew away anything that the government had admitted publicly. “Estim. – 64K-110 K BBLS/day,” it read. Translation: 4.6 million gallons a day.

The video provided proof that behind closed doors, government officials believed the oil flow was 2,000 percent bigger than they were letting on. I choked up as I tried to explain to my editors what 4 million gallons of oil a day would mean to life in the Gulf. I remember the chief editor holding me by the shoulders and asking if he needed to slap me to calm me down.

We collected the video and posted it at, along with a story that suggested the government had spent two weeks drastically downplaying the spill, despite knowing otherwise.

Almost immediately, the video disappeared from the federal web site, while CNN, Fox, MSNBC and other major media began linking to our story and airing portions of our captured video.

Then the White House called. On the line was one of the president’s deputy press secretaries, who demanded to know how I’d obtained the video and commanded me to henceforth provide the White House with all my reporting prior to publication. I told him that I had found the video on the web and said that I’d send my stories as soon as my bosses published them. I suggested that he should return my calls in the future. He slammed down the phone.

This is the most misunderstood — and outrageous — aspect of the BP oil spill: The cover-up. Folks had expected that the Obama administration — especially given its supposedly progressive bent on environmental issues — would be fighting for the people against the pollution of BP. Instead, the spill exposed how deeply Big Oil has its many tentacles wrapped tightly around every branch of our government, regardless of who’s in the White House and who controls Congress. The truth is that the feds are not only biased toward powerful energy interests — a relationship greased by large campaign contributions — but they’re also eager to cover their own mistakes, on spill preparedness, regulatory oversight, and on other key issues.

Raines recounts a couple of these in his piece, and these are critical points:

— Preparedness. Simply put, if the feds had reacted more forcefully to the real extent of the spill, instead of wasting valuable days on trying to validate BP’s ridiculously low estimates of the amount of leaking oil, there would have been an excellent chance of keeping the crude away from valuable wetlands, from our sandy beaches, and from coastal communities where it made people sick. Writes Raines: “Crews working with a single boom can burn 75,000 gallons an hour. Theoretically, with the BP well leaking at a rate of 191,000 gallons per hour, three fire boom crews could have captured and burned all of the oil every day. But despite a federal plan calling for immediate deployment of fire booms to combat spills, the U.S. government had not a single one on hand at the edge of the one of the largest oil fields in the world.” Neither did the oil companies, including BP.

— Seafood safety. In order to ensure there would not be widespread panic over the quality of Gulf seafood — a major employer in the region — the feds did something shocking: They raised the threshold for oil contamination by a factor of  three. Raines: “The lack of a plan was also evident when it came to figuring out whether the seafood in the Gulf was safe to eat. For reasons I still don’t understand, federal officials decided to ignore the long-standing safety standards used to protect people from oil-contaminated seafood after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and other major spills in Oregon, Rhode Island, California and Maine. Instead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration chose to allow three times more oil in Gulf seafood than had been allowed after past spills.”

Indeed, in 2010 researchers working for my law firm and other environmental advocates noted that the government’s seafood safety regimen seemed based on a deeply flawed testing regimen. As I write in Crude Justice:

The government boasted in late 2010 that it had tested more than 10,000 seafood samples from the Gulf and found no evidence of problems, but the vast majority of those tests were what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “sensory testing.” You and I might call it a smell test, and that’s hardly adequate for finding traces of hydrocarbons that are odorless yet highly toxic. Meanwhile, Paul Orr, who is Marylee’s son and also the unofficial riverkeeper for the Lower Mississippi, gathered samples of shrimp, crab and fin fish from 20 different locations in the Gulf off the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline and conducted tests that instead showed high levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons, even in seafood from areas that had been declared safe for fishing.

The series of human failures that led to the BP oil spill is heartbreaking, but the inability of government to protect the basic health and safety of its citizens is something that cuts much, much deeper. Much as it did for me, learning that hard truth — with the future of this splendid natural resource, the Gulf of Mexico, at risk — affected Raines emotionally. “Crying comes rarely and never easily for me,” he wrote. “Except for the three months that began in the spring of 2010. During those months, I cried.” Many of us did — and I think that explains why — five years later — so many of us have a burning passion to keep fighting to prevent this from happening again.

Read Ben Raines’ remarkable account of covering the BP oil spill on

To read more about our early efforts in 2010 to show the truth about size of the the BP spill, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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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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