Helicopters over Deepwater Horizon, Part 2


“So all the dispersants are gone,”  I ask.

“Yes,” says John from NOAA.

“So, again, at this point it would be a scientific impossibility for them to persist, given their volatile nature?”

“Yes, maybe a few ‘in between compounds’, but yes, pretty much they should be entirely gone.”

Based on simple chemistry, if BP did in fact quit using dispersants as of July 15th (which the company is on the record saying), the compounds have to be gone. I press.

“So, the only way that they could be out there is if BP is doing this on the sly, as some fisherman have argued.”

Crickets. I let it go. With the helicopter noise, they can feign ‘selective hearing.’ But, I’ve already arrived at the answer to my own question. I don’t believe these NOAA folks are spinning me, I believe that they believe what they’re telling me.

I turn the discussion towards a need for independent sources that will corroborate claims about the efficiency of the microbes eating up all this dispersed oil. Nicolle Rutherford, the NOAA biologist, keeps pointing me to Dr. Terry Hazen’s work. I look at it. Sure enough, it says mostly what she insists it will.

But guess who paid for the study? To the tune of $500 million? To be fair, it seems that only industry on earth that would commission a study on oil eating microbes is the oil industry. But it still smells fishy to me. I want something totally independent.

The drone of the helicopter blades and the pressurized air is making me sleepy. We’re now out over the open ocean and the delta mud color is replaced by blue. There isn’t much to see, just a few gentle white caps on the surface of the water. I had expected this ride to be more dramatic, a little more unsteady. It’s so stable it’s kind of boring.

Then, we arrive. And no one announces it. This, to me, is exceptionally bizarre. Eleven men were killed here and there is no elegy, no admission that tragedy struck here, nary a mention. All we’re here to see is “exceptional progress.” The copter stays way, way off the site as we circle it. I’ve got a 300mm lens on a high resolution camera, and still I can’t make out the words on the relief well platforms. Why are we so far away? It bugs me, but the distance is obviously intentional.

Besides the three relief wells, I count 27 other “things” (boats, barges) in the water. I ask the BP guy what all these other boats are doing.

“Oh, these are vessels engaged in facilitating the incident response effort,” he says.


“Can I quote you on that?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says, obviously not picking up on the dripping sarcasm in my voice. Engaged in facilitating the incident response effort. This is the best thing I’ve heard on the trip so far by a factor of ten. Man, seriously? I’m watching the other reporters write this drivel down. Seriously? None of the journos seems to think this is as absurd as I do, save for one guy from The Hartford.  Another asks, where is the Deep Water Horizon?

Back on land, we have a chance to talk to the NOAA folks in a waiting room area. They’re good people. One in the group actually cries because she’s so upset about how poor the messaging has been from NOAA. She believes it is at the root of all the fear and distrust that’s been caused amongst the communities all over the Gulf Coast. Her tears are genuine, but I want to tell her it’s way more complicated than just the failure of her own agency. Nicolle (her name) is not a spin doctor, she’s a doctor doctor, of biology. As such, she’s not necessarily looking to investigate her own agency, and no one working here has gone without media training.

When we first arrived, the NOAA folks showed us samples taken of the ocean at various sites showing that it contained a lower concentration of oil than a comparison sample comprised of a bit of dust off the side of the freeway in the same volume of water. It’s a gimmick that says, “look, the side of the road is more toxic than the Gulf.” Those kinds of gimmicks offend thinking people.

Clarity and truth. It’s what I’ve asked for everywhere I go down here. But the more I learn, the more I believe that clarity, truth and justice are not things we’re going to see in this region for years, maybe decades. Damn it.

Editor’s note: Travel editor Stiv Wilson is reporting exclusively from the Gulf of Mexico this month. Read Part 1 of this story, and all of his dispatches, here.