A Surge of Stories Spews from the Darkness of the Deep Ocean BP Oil Leak

October 15, 2010

The Beat


Photo © Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.


Along with a mammoth, months-long stream of oil, the disaster at BP's oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico unleashed a torrent of news coverage.

Even after the ruptured well was capped, plentiful follow-up coverage continued. The Beat would be remiss not to reflect a few facets of the kaleidoscopic variety of the reporting that accompanied an event widely called one of history's worst environmental catastrophes.

Here's an important up-front proviso: This column presents only a tiny sample of the journalistic outpouring during the weeks that the oil flowed from the crippled well and afterward. It aims to offer only a sense of the diversity of the Gulf coverage, with no claim to be comprehensive or representative.

There were, of course, key recurring themes that spanned the months of coverage of the big spill's recorded and possible environmental impacts. One such topic was the use of dispersant chemicals to break up the oil.

Just 10 days after the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and started the spill, the non-profit ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten presented an early examination of the issue, "Chemicals Meant To Break Up BP Oil Spill Present New Environmental Concerns."

[See the Inside Story interview with Lustgarten to learn more about ProPublica's extensive BP coverage.]

Another early and detailed look at dispersants appeared in the Orlando Sentinel two days later. In "Oil-spill disaster: Chemicals used in cleanup add to toxic mix" Kevin Spear wrote:

Environmental advocates and scientists consider dispersant the lesser of two evils when faced with what could turn out to be the nation's worst drilling-related offshore oil spill. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that "dispersants used today are less toxic than those used in the past, but long-term, cumulative effects of dispersant use are still unknown."

Attention to the subject was continuing at this writing, as illustrated by Ben Raines' Aug. 1 article in the Mobile Press-Register, "Some say effects of Deepwater Horizon spill will be felt for years to come."

Raines quoted one Louisiana State University chemist who believed dispersant had hastened bacterial breakdown of the spilled oil. A scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi believed dispersant use "had broken the oil down into small enough particles that it was able to work its way beneath the larval crabs' shells."

Meanwhile, John McQuaid, a former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter, had an article on Aug. 9 in Yale Environment 360, "Past Disasters Offer Lessons on Legacy of Deepwater Spill." He wrote:

The toxicity of the dispersant BP has used, Corexit 9500, is hotly debated. [One toxicologist] says he believes the use of dispersants facilitated the release of toxic oil components — including benzene, a carcinogen, and toluene, which can cause neurological damage — that remain in the water.

Three days earlier, the debate's manifestation in Washington was reflected in a blog post by The Hill's Ben German:

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is challenging test results that EPA is using to defend BP's spraying of large volumes of oil dispersing chemicals during the Gulf of Mexico spill.

For a number of outlets, blogs provided a frequently used medium for much spill coverage.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, was especially prolific in the spill-related posts on its Greenspace blog, written by several reporters.

Following a terse seven paragraphs about the spill on April 28 ("Oil slick may hit Louisiana coast by Friday, Coast Guard says," by Geoff Mohan), the blog had (by The Beat's perhaps imprecise estimate) between 300 and 400 posts on the subject.

The 10 blog headlines from one day — April 30 — suggest the scope of the prolific effort that was mobilized by the Times soon afterward.

  • "Latest NASA satellite photo"
  • "Big Easy worried but busy"
  • "NOAA map shows landfall projections"
  • "President Obama will not be visiting the Gulf Coast this weekend"
  • "The lawsuits are piling up"
  • "Fishermen hope for hazmat jobs"
  • "Officials warn BP to work harder"
  • "The military moves in"
  • "Choppy seas frustrate effort to contain oil spill"
  • "The Halliburton connection"

Another highly productive blogger, the Houston Chronicle's business writer Tom Fowler, was still cranking out numerous spill-connected posts for his NewsWatch Energy blog on Aug. 10.

Nine of his 11 posts between 6:45 a.m. and 5:35 p.m. that day bore headlines about the spill's aftermath or related industry developments:

  • "Food experts assure people Gulf seafood is OK to eat"
  • "Chevron develops new subsea pipeline repair system"
  • "Shell in line for second new Noble drilling rig"
  • "Plains fined $3.25 million over pipeline spills"
  • "Singer Jack Johnson will give $70K for Gulf relief"
  • "BP's relief well delayed by weather"
  • "Government opens 5,000 miles of Gulf waters to fishing"
  • "BP pressure tests at wellbore will help plan relief well intersect point"
  • "Oil spill civil suits go to New Orleans, securities cases to Houston"

News coverage of the spill by daily newspapers in New Orleans and Houston — both energy-industry centers, both situated along the Gulf Coast — included work by some of their best-known journalists.

In the case of the Times-Picayune, they included two Pulitzer-winning staff members, Mark Schleifstein and Bob Marshall.

Schleifstein's long experience covering environmental issues in Louisiana was evident in the contextual detail he brought to numerous stories such as "Gulf oil spill only the latest environmental battle waged in Lake Pontchartrain," published July 6:

The 1,700 pounds of tar balls from the Gulf oil spill corralled in Lake Pontchartrain during the holiday weekend are just the latest in a long stream of environmental insults foisted on the 640-square-mile ecological gem bordering New Orleans.

Marshall, the Times-Picayune's outdoors editor, has also been involved in various special projects on environmental issues, including the "Oceans of Trouble" series about the world's fisheries, co-written by Schleifstein and McQuaid, that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1997.

One of Marshall's spill articles was published July 20, headlined "Louisiana blue crabs are tough, but Gulf oil spill might be tougher." An excerpt:

With their armored bodies and menacing pincers, Louisiana's blue crabs were shaped by nature to be tough guys in the highly competitive coastal marsh. But evolution hasn't prepared them for the test they'll face during the next two months: The species' peak spawning activities will take place where BP's oil is most prevalent — the coastal beaches and near-shore Gulf.

The Chronicle's showcase project on the spill, "Voices of the Gulf," presented feature stories by staff columnists who were termed the newspaper's "best writers."

With the exception of an outdoors writer, these columnists don't normally cover environmental subjects, but focus on subjects such as professional sports and local and state government.

One "Voices of the Gulf" contributor, for example, was Ken Hoffman, who does a freewheeling pop-culture column as well as a syndicated column, "Drive-Thru Gourmet," in which he reviews fast-food restaurants' menu items. 

His installment in the Chronicle's spill series, datelined from Biloxi, Miss., was headlined "Biloxi quieted by spill anxiety," and had a lead that focused on an eatery that was empty when the writer visited:

Around this time last year, you had to wait 30 minutes for a table at Snapper's Seafood on Beach Boulevard. The owner had to assign a bartender around back to keep customers from giving up and going someplace else to eat.

I ordered the Seafood Platter — fried fish, shrimp, oysters and stuffed crab. The waiter asked, "Would you like that with tartar sauce, cocktail sauce or BP oil?"

Anxiety — the condition that had "quieted" Biloxi, according to the Chronicle headline – was a topic that also appeared as the focus of other coverage of the spill's toll on Gulf Coast residents.

Some examples:

"Survey Finds Broad Anxiety Among Gulf Residents," by The New York Times' Shaila Dewan on Aug. 2:

Most [Gulf Coast residents in a Columbia University survey] do not think it is safe to eat local seafood.

More than a third report children with new rashes or breathing problems, or who are nervous, fearful or "very sad" since the spill began. And even though the gusher of oil has been stanched, almost a quarter of residents still fear that they will have to move.

"Expert sees big mental health effects from BP spill," by Michael Peltier for Reuters on June 29:

The mental health impacts of the BP oil spill will dwarf those encountered after the last major oil spill off U.S. shores, a sociologist who studied the Exxon Valdez spill told Florida volunteers on Tuesday.

"The Spill's Psychic Toll" by Time's Bryan Walsh in the magazine's Aug. 9 edition:

Already there's a spike in demand for counseling, as well as increased reports of stress, excessive drinking and domestic violence. For a region that was still recovering from the serial traumas of hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, the spill couldn't have happened at a worse time.

"Depression, Abuse, Suicide: Fishermen's Wives Face Post-Spill Trauma," by Mac McClelland for Mother Jones' Web site on June 25:

Joycelyn Heintz, coordinator of the St. Bernard Project's Mental Health and Wellness Center, is bracing herself for the psychological damage this disaster is going to inflict both on her companions and on her client base. "Once we see the full impact," she says, "it's gonna be worse than Katrina. "

Mother Jones identifies McClelland as its human rights reporter, and a few of the headlines from her blog posts suggest the range of her attention to some of the spill's social, economic and political aspects:

  • "BP Fires 10,000 Cleanup Workers"
  • "Is BP Making Louisiana Charities Beg?"
  • "Mainstream Media Helps BP Pretend There's No Oil"
  • "BP Cleanup Workers Gone Wild" (The magazine elaborated in a preview line: "Sex, race, and booze collide during a night of female oil wrestling on the Louisiana coast.")
  • "Louisiana Tea Partiers Rally for More Drilling"
  • "ICE Running Immigration Raids on Oil-Spill Workers"

McClelland was just one of a number of journalists reporting for Mother Jones, which, like ProPublica, is an investigative outlet that decided to jump on the big breaking-news story represented by the BP disaster.

The magazine, in a news release in July, cited the coverage decision as one key factor behind its "record-breaking [Web site] traffic and a significant increase in digital revenue during the second quarter of 2010."

The Mother Jones release elaborated:

"The BP oil-spill story needs to be covered by reporters who know the science, the landscape, and the politics. That's also how we approach our coverage of Beltway politics. It's the kind of journalism that Mother Jones does best," said editor Clara Jeffery.

Jeffery also pointed to Mother Jones' participation in the Climate Desk, a new journalistic collaboration that includes The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Slate, Wired, and WNET's Need to Know.

"Our readers respond to solid, informed reporting that breaks beyond the headlines, and that's what we aim to deliver day in and day out," Jeffery said.

On Aug. 9, the magazine announced that it was continuing its spill coverage in its September/October cover story:

In "The BP Cover-Up," Julia Whitty reports on new science that reveals the worst effects of the spill may be hidden in the darkness of the deep ocean. ... In "Bad Breakup," Mother Jones' Washington-based environmental reporter Kate Sheppard details why BP isn't required to tell us, or even the government, exactly what the dispersants do.

The spill spurred other investigative reporting, which often provided background and context on operations by BP, regulators and/or others in the oil and gas industry.

A few examples: 

"Renegade Refiner: OSHA Says BP Has 'Systemic Safety Problem,'" by Jim Morris and M.B. Pell of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity on May 16:

Two refineries owned by oil giant BP account for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows.

"BP Decisions Set Stage for Disaster," by Ben Casselman and Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal on May 27:

A Wall Street Journal investigation provides the most complete account so far of the fateful decisions that preceded the blast. BP made choices over the course of the project that rendered this well more vulnerable to the blowout, which unleashed a spew of crude oil that engineers are struggling to staunch.

"Regulators Failed to Address Risks in Oil Rig Fail-Safe Device," David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz, Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina of The New York Times on June 20:

An examination by The New York Times highlights the chasm between the oil industry's assertions about the reliability of its blowout preventers and a more complex reality. It reveals that the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, repeatedly declined to act on advice from its own experts on how it could minimize the risk of a blind shear ram [a crucial safety device] failure.

"Gulf awash in 27,000 abandoned wells," by Jeff Donn and Mitch Weiss of the Associated Press:

More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one — not industry, not government — is checking to see if they are leaking, an Associated Press investigation shows.

"BP collecting millions in government stimulus funds for California power plant," by Will Evans of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch:

The federal government is giving a joint venture involving oil giant BP millions of dollars in stimulus money to build a power plant on farmland near the tiny Kern County town of Tupman, even as the company faces heavy government pressure and a criminal probe into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In Louisiana, an important, state-level aspect of the BP story (with obvious national ramifications) was the locally popular proposal seeking federal approval to build offshore sand berms to protect the state's vital marshes from incoming oil.

There were also local misgivings about the wisdom of the plan, however, which were duly reflected in The (Baton Rouge) Advocate.

Strongly promoted by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the berm idea had detractors among scientists, including members of an expert review team set up after a permit application was filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Advocate noted such concerns in an editorial, "Sand berms questioned," on June 14:

We believe the urgency of the emergency made the appeal of the sand berms irresistible to Jindal and to local officials wanting to block some specific areas from oil intrusion. ...

But we hope this project is watched closely and vetted carefully by science and not just the political appeal of dosomething, do-anything.

In a subsequent news story headlined "Sand berms partially political," The Advocate's Amy Wold reported on July 11 that while "very little was heard from the science community in Louisiana" when the berm proposal was introduced, members of the review team had "told state officials that in their opinion, the risks outweighed the benefits."

One scientist told Wold that "politicians and others" had "vilified scientists as being obstructionists" for voicing their concerns that the berms could do more harm than good.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.  He can be contacted at b.dawson@earthlink.net

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2010 issue. 

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