Women and the Gulf Oil Spill, One Year Later

By Megan Shank
Ms. Magazine, April 18th, 2011

One year ago this Wednesday, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, two explosions rocked the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which burst into flames and sent its terrified workers scattering for safety in the smoky, roaring darkness. Survivors threw themselves into burning lifeboats or jumped into the water 100 feet below. Eleven people died on April 20, 2010. Two days later, the rig sank and the well gushed. It would become the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and the world’s largest accidental spill. While mourning their dead, Gulf Coast residents braced themselves for other losses—their land, their economic livelihood and their way of life.

In her masterfully reported book Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, author Antonia Juhasz demonstrates the systematic failures that led to the BP oil spill, uncovers the tragedy’s environmental impact and explores the direction policy and popular opinion have taken in the year since the disaster–a direction, Juhasz powerfully argues, largely steered by unprecedented, unhampered oil industry lobbying.

Clearly a master of her material, Juhasz (who also authored of The Tyranny of Oil and The Bush Agenda, among other works), begins Black Tide by taking us to that fateful night at the Macondo well–or, as some workers dubbed it because of its instability, “the well from hell.” The BP job was behind schedule and over budget. Corners had been cut to catch up. And workers were discouraged from protesting.

Juhasz gives voice to these men—and women (there were six onboard)—painting their lives before and after the disaster. Particularly riveting is the story of 23-year-old Andrea Fleytas. Several minutes after the explosions rocked the rig, enflaming the deck and cutting off electricity, Fleytas noticed no one had yet sent out a distress call. She grabbed the radio to call the Coast Guard. “Mayday, Mayday. This is Deepwater Horizon. We have an uncontrollable fire.” When the captain realized what she’d done, he reprimanded her.

Women played a variety of notable roles in assessing the scope of the problem, contributing to clean-up, leading community-strengthening activities and advocating for better energy policies. We meet Casi Callaway, the feisty executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, one of the largest environmental organizations in the Gulf Coast, who rallied people on both sides of the political spectrum to take action; LaTosha Brown, co-director of the Gulf Coast Fund, who led brainstorming efforts on how to help families who’d lost work; and the plucky Wilma Subra, a 67-year-old chemist who worked to educate doctors and community leaders about health symptoms associated with contact with crude oil and dispersants.

Dr. Samantha Joye, a biogeochemist oceanographer at the University of Georgia, is also a recurring figure. She led an independent investigation to track the BP oil and gas spill. From the outset, her team knew the numbers BP and government agencies were releasing were too low to be accurate. Her team tracked down vast oil plumes, the existence of which the other parties originally denied existed. Joye knew the oil wasn’t just surfacing, evaporating and dispersing, as BP and federal agencies had said. Although her team’s results were ultimately vindicated, her fight with the authorities provided another sickening example of the government’s failure to robustly scrutinize the oil industry and its findings.

Now well documented, the government’s failure to regulate BP and the company’s avarice led to the fateful events of April 20. That BP led the disaster response was troublesome, Juhasz argues, and that the federal government, which had so woefully failed to regulate the oil company’s activities, was expected to supervise the company’s response even more so. In light of this, independent women’s efforts—and, indeed, the effort of Juhasz herself to write this authoritative work—have proved incredibly valuable. But more must be done.

Lack of transparency on behalf of both BP and government, and millions of dollars’ worth of political spin, have rendered the full picture of the tragedy and offshore drilling as murky as the now-sullied deep waters of the Gulf. Governments must be more accountable; journalists, politicians and citizens must question the information presented about offshore drilling.

Juhasz is at her most powerful when she takes on these failures to ask the right questions and poses a few damning ones of her own:

This was the fourth-largest corporation on the planet, supported by the second-, third- and fifth-largest corporations in the world, in turn supported by the wealthiest government the world has ever known. Surely they all knew what they were doing? Surely they’d prepared for such an event?

The book’s answer? A resounding no. None of the five major oil companies had a response plan designed for the site or, for that matter, the Gulf. In fact, all of the major oil companies’ response plans were cut-and-paste jobs originally written for Arctic operations–and there aren’t any walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. Three of the companies, including BP, listed a consultant biologist who had died four years previously.

Despite this evidence, the other oil companies, determined to exculpate themselves from wrongdoing, created a smear campaign against BP, hoping to isolate it as a singularly bad player in an otherwise decent industry. If the status quo continues, Americans may soon find out the hard way it is not so.

Juhasz isn’t just writing about the BP spill–last week, she attended BP’s annual shareholder’s meeting in London, where she bravely stood up to BP’s top executives. She criticized them not just for their handling of the spill, but for their failure to allow into the meeting some Gulf of Mexico residents who had come there with shareholder proxies. Here’s the video of Juhasz’s talk, and the BP executives’ unimpressive response:

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