The Heart-Wrenching Photos That BP and the U.S. Government Didn’t Want You to See


It’s one thing for bloggers like me or for environmental activists to tell you about the widespread devastation that was unleashed two years ago by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill — especially the grim toll on the rich marine wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. Many times at this site, I’ve informed you about a surge in dolphin deaths, shrimp without eyes, lesion-covered snapper and endangered sea turtles strangled or sickened by a thick coating of oil — all of it taking place in the aftermath of the worst oil disaster in American history. But, frankly, it’s hard with mere words to paint a true picture of the brutality of this assault on such an American natural treasure — an assault caused by the wanton disregard of British Petroleum and its contractors.

For nearly two years, the U.S. government has been sitting on dozens of the most heart-breaking photos you will ever see in your lifetime. They were taken in July 2010 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA — apparently part of an effort to document the destruction caused by the unhindered leak of 50,000 barrels of oil a day, and to fully assess damages against BP. The thing to remember is that these pictures were taken right when the government — all the way up to President Obama — was assuring the public that aggressive clean-up efforts were working, with a focus on scores of turtles and other oil-fouled creatures that were successfully rescued. For nearly two years, environmental groups have been filing Freedom of Information requests with Washington with the hopes of giving the American people the true story of what happened in the Gulf. For nearly two years, those requests were stonewalled by our government.

These were the pictures they didn’t want you to see. And now, months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster has faded from the front pages and the top of newscasts, with BP continuing to pump millions of dollars into its ad campaign and its PR charades to convince Americans that everything in the Gulf is just hunky-dory, NOAA has finally released its photographs to the environmental group Greenpeace. They prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody in a position of power — not BP and not the government that is supposed to be regulating them — wanted you to know how bad things are.

The images made me sick to look at. A number of them depict dead sea turtles — in nets, on the coastline, splayed out on a sheet of paper — covered in layers of thick brownish goo. Many of the dead turtles appear to be Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a species that was already highly endangered even before the destruction let loose from the Deepwater Horizon. Another photo shows a worker amid plastic bags of deceased marine life. Yet another set of images captures what appear to be three adult sperm whales and one juvenile sperm whale swimming through a thick coating of oil — which is particularly alarming since federal wildlife officials had warned that just a few deaths in the northern Gulf could prove catastrophic for this endangered species. John Hocevar, the director of ocean campaigns for Greenpeace, said the group was struck by the contrast between what public officials were saying in the spring and summer of 2010 and what was really going on. He told the Washington Post that “they had all these shocking pictures of dead turtles, turtles in garbage bags, turtles in boxes that present a very different image of the impacts of the disaster.”

The release of those photographs is highly upsetting, but should come as no surprise at this stage of the game. In February of 2011, I reported here that NOAA seemed to be actually impeding turtle rescue efforts, with only five boats in the water despite evidence of thousands of sick or stranded turtles. Now, it seems like every day we get a disturbing new report about the lengths to which BP, other Big Oil companies, and their allies inside the government went, all to in order to cover up the environmental risks both at the troubled Deepwater Horizon rig as well as similar deepwater drilling projects. Consider this alarming new report from the veteran muckraker Greg Palast: He revealed this week that BP failed to disclose that in 2008 a similar rig in the Caspian Sea suffered a blow-out that was almost identical to the one that took place in the Gulf of Mexico two years later. What’s more, one of the major causes — the money-saving technique of using substandard “quick dry” cement to plug holes — was also the same in both disasters. Had BP been more forthcoming about the accident in the Caspian — and had U.S. government officials been more aggressive in pursuing the information they did have — it’s quite possible that steps would have been taken that would have saved the 11 workers who instead perished on the Deepwater Horizon, not to mention scores of dead turtles, dolphins, and other precious sea creatures.

But the cover-up mentality was pervasive among both the industry and the folks that we’ve tasked to regulate it — and things were especially bad at BP. Also this month, a former BP employee who worked at the Macondo well pleaded not guilty to charges of a criminal cover-up involving the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The government alleges that former engineer Kurt Mix deleted text messages to his bosses at BP indicating that more oil was leaking than the public was being told about. It’s good that federal prosecutors are finally going after the blatant criminality surrounding the Deepwater catastrophe, but you also have to ask what took them so long. We knew at my law firm — as did environmental activists in the Gulf — within a matter of hours that BP was was lying about the extent and nature of the accident.

Hopefully, these pictures will jolt the American people into understanding not just the horrific damage that resulted from BP’s negligence, but that there is much more work that needs to be done. A recent survey by Gallup found that Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill continue to have lower overall emotional health, and more cases of depression, than their peers elsewhere in the United States. That’s because they live with the everyday realization of what the government documented in these pictures and tried to hide for nearly two years: That things are worse on the Gulf than they are telling you, and there is a lot more work that needs to be done.

You can see a report on the newly released NOAA photos and see a slideshow here:

A separate Washington Post article in the 2010 pictures is here:

Read Greg Palast’s report on the BP cover-up of a 2008 blow-out in the Caspian Sea:

For more on the government’s criminal case regarding the cover-up at the Deepwater Horizon rig, check out

For more information about the emotional health of Gulf residents, read

Read my May 31, 2010 report on dead sea turtles here:

Here is my February 2011 report on NOAA and BP impeding efforts to rescue sea turtles:

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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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