Op-Ed: Reporters Covering Oil Spill Stymied

Worker cleaning beach i i

A worker collects oiled sand at Grand Isle State Park in Grand Isle, La. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Worker cleaning beach

A worker collects oiled sand at Grand Isle State Park in Grand Isle, La.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Mac McClelland, human rights reporter for Mother Jones, traveled to Elmer's Island off the coast of Louisiana in May to cover the damage.

But she was "stymied at every turn by Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies brought in to supplement the local police," and ignored by cleanup crews.

In her piece for the magazine, "It's BP's Oil," McClelland writes of her difficulties covering the oil spill.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page. Along the Gulf Coast, crews work around the clock to clean up what seems like a never-ending mess. But sometimes journalists find it difficult to get to the scene to do their jobs. Many reporters have been denied access to public areas by BP contractors and local law enforcement, prompting allegations that the oil giant is trying to control the story. BP denies it.

And at a recent news conference, national incident commander Thad Allen insisted that he's told BP to give journalists access to safe and secure areas. In a piece for Mother Jones, reporter Mac McClelland wrote that she was stymied at every turn by Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies brought it to supplement the local police. Deputies, she reports, that were following the orders of BP.

Do you think you're getting the full story on what's happening on the beaches and in the marshes along the Gulf Coast? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Mac McClelland joins us from a studio in New Orleans. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. MAC Ms. McCLELLAND: (Correspondent, Mother Jones): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And describe the incident that I just mentioned. You were driving down to which island?

Ms. McCLELLAND: Elmer's Island.

CONAN: And what happened?

Ms. McCLELLAND: It's a wildlife refuge that you can get to on your way off the Louisiana One on your way to Grand Isle. And it was totally inundated by oil that had washed up. It had taken heavy oil. There were a lot of animals there. And there's a blockade - that was weeks ago and it is still there despite, you know, the reports that the access is easier now. And the sheriffs basically told me that I couldn't go down there unless I got permission from someone at BP.

And if you go and talk to the BP people that they have stationed there, they also won't let you go, even now if you don't have an escort.

CONAN: So they want to send you with, you'll excuse this expression, a minder.

Ms. McCLELLAND: That's right. Yeah. You have to have handlers.

CONAN: And because?

Ms. McCLELLAND: I think that the excuse is ostensibly something about liability. But, you know, the guys who were working on Elmer's Island when I got there, it's not as though anybody gave me any protective clothing once I did arrive. You know, there were - I was with another reporter who was wearing flip flops on this oiled beach and nobody was taking any issue with that. And all the workers who were working weren't wearing protective suits. They were just wearing shoes and jeans and t-shirts. So I think that the liability issue is a pretty flimsy excuse.

CONAN: And have you - as you discussed this with the BP officials, have you discussed it with government officials?

Ms. McCLELLAND: I have talked to - I've spent a lot of time talking to BP officials down here because you have to talk to them if you want to do anything. Local authorities will pretty much tell you that they can't comment. They are just doing what they have been told to do. You have to talk to BP. And BP says that, you know, it's, just about safety and they're working together with the local authorities, not that they are in charge of the local authorities.

Although, you know, to anybody who's on the ground here, it certainly appears that everyone is doing BP's bidding.

CONAN: So when Admiral Allen says that he's told BP to give journalists access to safe and secure areas, BP gets to define what's safe and secure.

Ms. McCLELLAND: That's sort of like BP saying that it's going to settle all, quote-unquote, "legitimate claims," right? He sort of put that qualifier in there and then who knows what they're talking about? I mean, as I'm sure you've heard just a couple of days ago, an ABC reporter was harassed on a beach. I was on a beach on Thursday when some of the cleanup crews, you know, the subcontractors for BP, came up to me and said, we don't need this on camera.

So these orders from Thad Allen, you know, if he does even have jurisdiction, are clearly not making it down to the people who are actually working here.

CONAN: But from your description, you did get on to that wildlife refuge that you were trying to get onto before.

Ms. McCLELLAND: I did. I had to wait for two days. And two days, you know, will kill a lot of possibility for reporting. You're not here on unlimited budgets and unlimited time. So a lot of reporters who were turned away couldn't stick around for two days and just wait it out and never made it. And I was here again a week ago with some cameramen - with a cameraman from PBS, and they told him he would also have to wait two days. And of course for him, that was a deal-breaker. And so PBS, for example, never got the footage of this island.

CONAN: There are - I'm sure you see TV too. There seem to be a lot of pictures of a lot of oily marshes and a lot of oily birds.

Ms. McCLELLAND: That's true. That's true. There are and people are getting, you know, to turtles and things like that. But there are also, for example, the islands that I ended getting onto last week, I kayaked to...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McCLELLAND: ...from Grand Isle so that I wouldn't have to have the wait and so I wouldn't have to have any handlers. And there you can see the cleanup operations. You can see the - you can actually talk to the crews, you know, if they will talk to you because they've all been warned not to. But if you are not with a minder, they're a lot more likely to tell you what's going on, how many people are working there, how effective they think their cleanup operations are, which unanimously everyone that I've talked to have said not, not at all. And I took some pictures last week of the cleanup operations and those are the sorts of things that people haven't been getting that much access to.

CONAN: And you described it in your piece where there's a bunch of guys all along a shoreline and they rake up the oily sand and dump it into bags where it's sent off to be processed, separated the oil from the sand and then the sand is, I guess, dealt with in some other way. But then they just wait for the next tide to come in and there's more oil.

Ms. McCLELLAND: That's right. And another thing that is difficult to see if you can't just roam around by yourself on those islands is that those guys don't take up that much space on these islands. And I - one of the beaches that I arrived at the other day, which was also a wildlife refuge but you can't get to by road so there's no sheriff's blockade and it's completely covered in oil. And there are zero workers on it.

CONAN: See if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Mac McClelland, a human rights reporter for Mother Jones and the author of "For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War." She wrote the piece called "Its BP's Oil" for Mother Jones for May 24th. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Eric(ph) is on the line from San Francisco.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. I was just going to say this is tantamount to allowing a murderer to decide who has access to the crime scene. I mean, why are law enforcement - why are they taking their marching orders from BP anyway?

CONAN: Mac McClelland, any idea why they're - these local deputies are taking their marching orders from BP?

Ms. McCLELLAND: Well, if you ask them why they're taking orders from BP, they certainly would tell you that they are not and that they're still the ones who are in charge. But as the BP liaison that I wrote about in that piece told me, who coincidentally is married to one of the sheriff's deputies, said - she was telling us, you know, we have a lot of sway over the sheriff's department. We have a very close relationship and we're basically in charge. Because this is our oil, we are the ones who are running this show.

CONAN: And they are the people paying all the cleanup workers.

Ms. McCLELLAND: Yes, they are.

CONAN: Okay. Eric, thanks very much for the call.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next - this is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Bend, Oregon.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hello. Are you there?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air, Jason. Go ahead.

JASON: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to see if anybody has any comments on the fact that - the rumors that BP is paying fishermen to go around and gather up the dead fish and birds and stuff so we don't see it on TV.

CONAN: Have you heard that, Mac McClelland?

Ms. McCLELLAND: I haven't talked to any - I mean, I've talked to a lot of people who talk about that fishermen are working for BP and doing cleanup and things like that, but not that they are disposing of the bodies of dead wildlife. In theory, they're supposed to call, you know, Fish and Wildlife Services and then they come and pick them up. And they've actually - I actually went to the center where they were taking them the other day. And theyre freezing them and then sending them off for autopsies. So...

JASON: Yeah, but there's video of them doing it in on YouTube. And, you know, also them turning around CBS News reporters, telling them that they can't come near the water by orders of BP with two Coast Guard officials standing right there. So they're not letting people in there at all.

Ms. McCLELLAND: Sure.

JASON: Because this theyve hit something down there that they're not going to be able to stop it, from what I understand. They hit like a volcano down there or something and its just going to keep going and going and going.

CONAN: Well, we'll have to see about that. But Jason raises a good point - and thanks very much for the call. Mac McClelland, in this age of YouTube and cell phone video, it seems impossible to control this story.

Ms. McCLELLAND: Right. I mean, of course, you can't get total control over it. You just have to try to get as much control as possible, I guess, over the people who were taking the video and taking the pictures. I mean, certainly we would have a lot more footage if people had unrestricted access to these beaches, which right now they certainly still don't even though there's been a lot of lip service to providing that in recent days.

CONAN: So describe the process for us, if you will. I mean, if you say you wanted to get to access to a beach, a marsh, do you first go the incident headquarters there at Grand Isle, the BP place?

Ms. McCLELLAND: Yeah, they have you go to the community center where they have set up a bunch of BP liaisons basically, and you have to talk to them. You tell them who you are and then they tell you, you know, whatever they tell you. You have to wait X amount of time and then a liaison will take you.

CONAN: And until a liaison can have the time to take you wherever you need to go?

Ms. McCLELLAND: Correct. Well, the last time that I was there, when I was there with PBS, they told us that the reason we were going to have to wait 48 hours was that they had to put gravel all over the road that goes down to Elmer's Islands. And I actually have - there's a worker who is working on Elmer's Island who got a hold of me through Mother Jones, who checks in with me. And, you know, he has to be anonymous obviously because they are all threatened with being fired if they talk to the press.

But he called me to tell me that he felt bad that they had told me that the reason we couldn't go was this gravelling because it had, in fact, been finished the day before I arrived. And the day that they told me I couldn't go, 20 other trucks and vans and cars had driven up and down that road for the cleanup process.

CONAN: Which suggests that they were at least misinformed. But this is a giant corporation. People can be misinformed.

Ms. McCLELLAND: Sure. I suppose that's part of the problem is there's a lot of - I mean, the chain of command is very confusing down here. But I can't say that I necessarily believe that if all the workers, the standard $10-an-hour workers working these shifts on Elmer's Island, were aware that this road, which is only a mile away from where these BP people told me I couldn't go, you know, that they really had no idea that it was safe to drive on. Also, it's going to take them 48 hours to figure that out.

CONAN: Mac McClelland is a human rights reporter from Mother Jones. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And again, she also is the author of a piece called "It's BP's Oil," and there's a link to that piece on our website. You can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Tony(ph), Tony with us from Salinas in California.

TONY (Caller): Yeah. Hi, folks. Yeah, it's Bolinas, actually. It's on the coast, just north of San Francisco. Yeah, I've had a lot of - quite a bit of experience dealing with the bigger companies. We had that diesel, you know, spill on the bay a couple of years back and they definitely don't want the public at large to know what's going on.

Much like your guest was mentioning today, I was threatened with arrest three times and that was after local efforts were pretty much the reason that anything happened in that area in the positive. And it was really interesting to deal with the bigger companies. And even on a local level, on a community level, the governments were unwilling to let the public in and let the public find out what was going on. It was really an interesting experience.

CONAN: Was there any danger to the public from the oil?

TONY: No, not at all. Much like your guest said, I mean, you know, most of the workers had, like, you know, just your regular paper jumpsuits on and plastic rubber boots. And as a matter of fact, I mean, the locals basically we're able to get the local communities to train us so that we could go out and do most of the cleanup ourselves. And it was really critical. And I think it's really important that the public be made aware that the companies aren't going to let them in, that they do everything they can to take care themselves in those local communities.

CONAN: Where liability waivers signed so that...

TONY: Exactly. Yeah. The local - the liability was the same issue that they used with us, you know. We weren't - we didn't know what we were doing and we're unqualified. And as a matter of fact, I mean, the locals - if it wasn't for the local efforts, you know, we knew more about what to do on the coastlines than somebody who was shipped in actually from Georgia, which just blew my mind.

CONAN: Yet, presumably the company was taking responsibility for them and did not want to take responsibility for you.

TONY: That's correct. Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. Okay. Thank you, Tony.

TONY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. In any case, as you look at the situation as it's developing in the Gulf Coast, Mac McClelland, it's pretty - you seem to be - less than transparent might be the most charitable way of explaining this.

Ms. McCLELLAND: That would be a really charitable way of explaining it. I wrote another piece last week when I got an email - you know, there's this guy from the Navy who sends out these official emails from the response center that says, here's what we've been doing, here's how the cleanup effort is going, here are, you know, all the stats that you need. And I called this lieutenant commander to ask him to check up on one of the stats which said that there are 24,000 responders working on the spill right now.

And I was just - I mean, I was just curious, does that include, for example, Audubon volunteers who are, you know, cleaning up birds? Does that only mean people are on the BP payroll? And so I called this guy from the Navy and asked him, do you have the breakdown for these numbers? And he said, I don't have them and they're not actually our numbers. Those are BP's numbers and so I'm going to have to get back to you on that.

So not only is the government releasing BP numbers as official stats, they're not even fact-checking them. I mean, this guy didn't have a spreadsheet that could explain what the breakdown was. And it took several days for BP to get it back to him.

CONAN: When you talked to Coast Guard officials, did they defer to BP?

Ms. McCLELLAND: No, and that's - this guy, you know, was part of the - one of the guys who had called me. Originally, when I was reporting that I couldn't get onto this beach, Coast Guard people started looking for me and saying, you know, so they called eventually and said, we don't know why this is happening, this practice. In theory, it should not be taking place and we want to help you. And, you know, this was weeks ago, but the scenario is still exactly the same.

They say - you know, they're very adamant, of course, that they are overseeing the whole operation. This is a government-run show. They have all the oversight but there's just the overwhelming evidence, sadly, does not point to that.

CONAN: And this is going to run and run and run, do you have any indication that the strategy behind this is going to change anytime soon?

Ms. McCLELLAND: I mean, I - yeah, you'd think I would stop being surprised at the lack of, you know, oversight at this point, but it seems like if anything, it's getting worse. You know, the spill is getting bigger landfall wise, you know. It's spreading along more coasts, more people are getting involved. And the chain of command seems to be getting even more confusing. It seems like the government had less of a handle of all this information, you know, than ever.

CONAN: Mac McClelland, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Ms. McCLELLAND: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Mac McClelland, human rights reporter from Mother Jones. She's been covering the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana. Again, you can find a link to her piece, it's on our website. That's at npr.org. She's also the author of "For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War. She joined us today from New Orleans.

Tomorrow, advice for the new director of National Intelligence, join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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