And again, the disaster was winning in the water, on the land -- and in the air.

"It's pitiful," said Buck Lee, the executive director of the Santa Rosa County Island Authority. "It took us four hours to clean up 50 to 60 feet of beach and I don't see this stopping for a while."

As the Pensacola area hoped to salvage the region’s peak tourist season of July Fourth, cleanup crews worked through the night, sucking up oil and waste near a Perdido Key barrier island.

But they still failed to prevent a three-mile-long oil slick from being washed up between the Pensacola Beach pier and Fort Pickens National Park.

Dominic Mogavero and his wife, Cyndie Lepori, live about 50 miles due east of Pensacola, smack in the middle of the panhandle right, in Ft. Watson Beach at the docks at Kid’s Point. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico lap up against the perimeter of their property.

The Florida couple has been alarmed for weeks about the lack of action and preparation, by BP, the Coast Guard and local officials.

Lepori, an environmentalist and longtime Florida resident, said she had just returned from Alabama where she went to rescue endangered dolphins and was now preparing for what was headed for Florida’s beaches.

“My hope in going there was to learn what they were doing in order to save their dolphins and their back bays and their nurseries, in order to provide safety and education for the people here in Florida since, I am living here in Ft. Watson Beach,” said Lepori. “And it was an education to say the least.”

A Living Nightmare

Lepori described a living nightmare, reeling off a list of images, one worse than the next. 

“We went through an oil pool, right at dusk, when we were out looking for the dolphins, trying to make sure that they were all right,” she said. “As soon as we hit this it was like you had cut our air off. 

“We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t speak, we were all throwing up over the side,” she said. “We were all very experienced boat people... We were trying to keep an eye on the dolphins. This is a very special dolphin pod. It’s called the Friendly Dolphins pod. They have lived there for as long as anyone can remember. Essentially they were trapped.”

Back in Florida, the couple was on high alert as the rolling slicks of thick gooey brown sludge crossed from Alabama to Florida.

Lepori’s husband, Dominic Mogavero, became quite alarmed as he observed children playing in the sand – and the tar balls – at Destin Harbor.

“I was walking along the beach,” said Mogavero, “I came across a young family and the young kids were playing in the sand on the beach, making sandcastles. They were decorating the sandcastles with tar balls…

“They were literally picking up these pieces of tar, this oil, toxic oil with other toxic chemicals, with their bare hands and putting it on their sandcastles, because it made their sandcastles look pretty. … The kids said that. I said what are you doing? ‘We’re making pretty sandcastles’ and yet they’re playing with toxic chemicals.”
 
Mogavero said he approached the parents, to see if they understood the dangers the kids were facing and they appeared “clueless.”

“I said do you realize what these kids are playing with and they had absolutely no idea that the young kids – they were 4 or 5 years old – were playing with tar balls,” he said.

Don’t Scare the Tourists

One of the concerns is that the local officials want to downplay the hazards from the oil spill to avoid alarming tourists and driving even more people away from the beaches.

“The official story,” said Mogavero, “is that the water is clear, and there are a few tar balls but it is safe to swim in and I feel that is in direct opposition to the reality of the situation…

“When you’ve got this detergent, this dispersant in the water – coming in – I have first-hand experience with burn marks on my skin with these tar balls that these children are playing in that potentially could cause their death.”

The long-time Floridian is also shocked to see people swimming so close to where clean-up boats, with workers in hazmat suits, were cleaning up the toxic sludge.

“It is probably a couple hundred yards across, right smack in the middle of Destin Harbor,” he said. “And there are two boats dragging a boom, obviously skimming the surface oil within 20 yards of where there were people on the beach, entering the water, and going swimming.”

The next day, Lepori went to investigate reports of another school of sick dolphins. As soon as she got to the water’s edge, she became dizzy and nauseous, similar to her experience out on the Gulf off Alabama.

“Within minutes of getting on the beach with families swimming in the water and it was maybe because I was so exposed to all these chemicals, I was sick,” she said. “I had a headache, I couldn’t breathe, again, I was dizzy and I ended up having to leave the beach.

“And again, there were families. I walked along the beach telling the families along the beach, did you know this water’s poisonous that you’re putting these children in? …There were no signs, no one telling anyone anything about the toxicity of the water. And you know sometimes I don’t even have words. And none of those people knew.”

Mogavero and Lepori are outraged that the corporate bottom line – and business concerns about tourism – seem to be limiting the flow of crucial information that could prevent serious injuries and illnesses.

They suspect that BP’s secrecy, and the Coast Guard’s willingness along with other responders at the federal level to let BP call the shots, has undermined the clean-up and made a terrible disaster even worse.
 
Fighting for Information

When I spoke with Coast Guard Commander Scott Linsky, a spokesperson at the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Center in Houma, Louisiana, I got a very different take on the crisis, much more upbeat and positive.

“The [clean-up] organization,” Linsky told me, “has just grown immensely over the last month. We have about 11,000 people in the field, on the beaches, out on the water skimming and burning oil…

“The front we’re working covers hundreds of miles of the entire coast line.  And the steady growth and improvement of the clean-up effort is just amazing.”

The Coast Guard Commander said – based on his extensive intelligence, including aerial flyovers, satellite data and first-hand experience out in the Gulf – major progress is being made, especially after the personal intervention of President Barack Obama.

“His focus on the clean-up has certainly delivered a number of resources that have really helped us succeed,” said Commander Linsky. “I was on an over-flight … and there is certainly oil in many places offshore but there is also a tremendous amount of area where there is not oil. …  

“We have more than 300 wildlife personnel from a multitude of agencies and disciplines working with the oiled birds, and sampling and researching. And their efforts are just incredible in the things that they are able to do. We had a real success story yesterday as 35 previously oiled brown pelicans were taken to Texas and released.”

But problems continued to plague efforts to reduce the flow of oil into the Gulf.

Last week, for instance, a robot bumped into BP’s jerry-rigged venting system sending dangerous gas shooting up through the vent that carries warm water down to prevent ice crystals from forming, creating the potential for an explosion. The cap was removed allowing a large surge of oil into the already highly polluted waters around the uncontrollable well.

Credibility Gap

Gulf residents have also grown increasing skeptical of whatever they hear from BP or the government agencies. Some residents complain that BP continues to gag its workers from discussing concerns about oil spill and its potential health risks.

Louisiana native Elizabeth Cook, a co-founder of a new grassroots action group called the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster, said dozens of residents attended an emergency meeting in New Orleans and vented their anger at BP, for its secrecy and lack of action, and at the U.S.  Coast Guard for “defending and covering up for BP.”

“For myself, I am questioning everything that’s being told to me, particularly by the officials in charge of the oil spill response,” Cook said in an interview. “I think we have to be suspicious of everything they’re saying to us. We have to assume they’re withholding the information, that they are possibly even falsifying information, so as not to cause a panic, because I think the last thing they want is an outraged, panicked public to face.”

She said the federal government and the Coast Guard are marching in lockstep with BP, adding:

“Essentially, the government and BP are one and the same right now. And that’s a really frightening thing to say I realize that, but that’s what I see. Because the information, whether it’s the public officials, whether they’re someone from the EPA, or NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], or BP, it’s the same.”

Cook said members of the group spoke to several BP workers who said had been “threatened by BP with being fired if they spoke publicly, either about what they saw or about getting ill as a result of their work” on the clean-up.”

Cook said the Coast Guard is busy “obfuscating for BP at every turn, withholding information, bending to the will of BP...letting them control the flow of information.”

Not so, says Commander Linsky. The restrictions on the movements of the press and others seeking information are intended to protect injured wildlife and the safety of Gulf residents, clean-up workers and the journalists.

“We are working very hard to increase media access,” Linsky said. “We are trying to facilitate that to the best of our ability, safely for everyone involved.  We are just asking that anybody that is around the clean-up operations be cognizant of the fact that it is a difficult business to recover wildlife, and to reduce the trauma on the wildlife that we are recovering.”

July Fourth

In Florida, east of the Panhandle, Dominic Mogavero and Cyndie Lepori said local officials are in a bit of a panic over the upcoming July Fourth holiday, one of the most lucrative weekends for tourism.

Charter boats were already experiencing major cancellations, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, even before the oil sludge started to soil the legendary whites sand of the coast.

If they close down the beaches and order people out of the water, posting the kinds of danger signs and warnings that Lepori and Mogavero now say are crucial to save live, the local economy will take a devastating hit.

“My feeling is that a lot of the local authorities, or those in charge of making decisions about the health and welfare of this environment are leaving information out to protect the bottom line of financial gain from tourism,” said Mogavero.

“If the tourists really knew the circumstances as to the water hazard, the fish hazard, the food hazard as a result of this they would not be here. And yet, economically it would be extremely detrimental and I believe local authorities are doing everything they can to protect the bottom line, at the risk of peoples’ health.”

Other people I spoke with in the Gulf region also raised health concerns.

Ann Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade which supports communities affected by the oil and chemical industry, said “hundreds if not thousands” of Louisianan’s are being made sick by oil spill and are receiving very little effective help.

“The workers are out on boats and getting sick,” said Rolfes, “and People are being … told that it’s heat exhaustion. I mean, there is no question that it is really hot down here. But there is also no question that they are working with really dangerous chemicals.

“And I think the really disturbing thing is that it’s not just BP that’s pushing aside their concerns but it is also the government agencies” like the OSHA and the EPA “who really ought to be protecting them and all of us,” she said.

Living in Fear

Another resident, Elizabeth Cook, said everyone is living in fear in the Gulf, with the first hurricanes brewing and the rain starting to get heavy.

“Remember this stuff -- the dispersants -- are evaporating into the air,” Cook said. “When we had several bad rain storms, I noticed at the end of the day, a slight smell of oil and I felt sick to my stomach, literally sick, and it’s not the first time I felt sick.”

There is a growing appetite among Gulf residents and activists for a criminal prosecution.

“Where is the Department of Justice, or the Department of Wild Life and Fisheries, where is the Department of Labor,” asked Rolfes. “Certainly a cover-up of the crime this big ought to be investigated.”
 
In neighboring Mississippi, emotions also were running high. Last Friday, most shrimping was banned at the Mississippi coast, and the industry essentially closed down.

“We have been begging for help from the federal government, from BP, from the Coast Guard, but particularly from our Governor, Haley Barbour, and from our congressman in the fourth congressional district of Mississippi, Jean Taylor, but no help has been forthcoming,” said Lynda St Martin, a coordinator of Gulf Oil Disaster Responders in Mississippi.

“Jean Taylor and Haley Barber have been lying to us for more than six weeks. They have been telling us that we were prepared, when and if it comes ashore here and it may or may not come ashore in Mississippi, but we are prepared. Well, we are not prepared. The barrier islands are now being inundated by that horrible monster. And we are not prepared. “

The failure to protect the barrier islands, said St. Martin, has put the entire region’s ecosystem in grave jeopardy.

“They have failed to protect that placid, beautiful sound,” she said, “that is the beginning of the food chain for the entire Caribbean Basin, about to be inundated. I wanted those islands boomed and protected. …

“The main reason was because if we could protect the Barrier Islands, and it is still not too late, if they would just do something,  if we could protect the barrier islands we can still restock the Gulf and save the marine life. 

“By not protecting those barrier islands, our sea life has no place to go.  That’s where they all go to lay their eggs, lay the larvae. That water is very rich in nutrients and that’s where life in the Gulf starts.”

St Martin said she believes Mississippi inaction goes right into the governor’s office and is explained by Barbour’s close business ties to the oil industry.

“If you ever looked at the Web site of Barber, Griffith and Rogers, our governor’s lobbying firm, you will see that one of his main clients is big oil,” she said. “I think he is in bed with BP and he would say anything he could or do anything he could to protect his big oil clients.”

Just like in Louisiana, St Martin said, many people are getting ill in Mississippi and the impact is being felt well inland.

“I get sick every time I go out and smell the stuff.  I go out there to try to look at it and I also have been on boats taking the media out there. And if I’m close to it and I smell it ….it makes me very nauseous. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people that are out there trying to work all day in the stuff, because it does give me a headache.”

Dennis Bernstein based this report primarily on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at dbernstein@igc.org.

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