Walking the Beach

Walking the Beach
BP Surveillance Team in Pass Christian on Memorial Day Weekend

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Who's on first?: The search for a strategy in the Gulf

So, I need to understand something…there is a hole in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, that according to the NYTimes, is spewing out between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil a day. And this is day 73...and how are we going to clean it up? Take a look at the image to the right, I wonder if you are having the same reaction I did. In the image, workers search the beach for tar balls and other forms of oil on the beach. Workers pick the oil up with a shovel, and put it in a small baggie. The baggies are collected and taken to an off-site staging location.

I have seen where oil has invaded the marsh-lands of Louisiana, cand over the once white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. Thousands of miles of devastation, and millions of gallons of oil yet to visit the marshes and the beaches. Honestly, if this is the best we can do, I say we let the workers go home, and pay them to stay there and watch the unfolding mess on television. I am not upset with the workers, they are doing what they have been instructed to do, in order to receive a pay check from BP (I assume it is from BP). I also assume that some these checks are rather large -- while having lunch on Pensacola Beach, I was told by a waitress today that a colleague of hers received a $160 tip (from one of the workers)...on a $40 bill...but I digress. I just think that in a time when I rambblers like me and create a blog in 25 minutes, and upload pictures, and video (ok, still having trouble with these), with a reasonable expectation that someone will read it -- then we can find a more efficient way of getting oil off the beaches, and out of the marshes. I'm just saying...
The beach clean up is a low tech operation through and through. This morning before I drove to Pensacola, I stopped by Orange Beach, Alabama again, just to see if any progress had been made from yesterday. What I fond there were worker staging stations -- I guess that is what one would call them. There were boots, gloves, brooms and shovels, all wrapped nicely in plastic wrap. Am I the only who sees the irony of this. Maybe its biodegradable plastic -- yeah, ok, I am sure it is. Anyway, the worker staging packets were distributed along the beach as far as I could see. There was also a water cooler, I assume filled with cool refreshing water. And that is another thing - it was 10am when I was there, and it was already 80 degrees and about 100% humidity -- the working conditions are horrible (OSHA, I hope you're reading this) -- but I guess the money is good (see the $160 tip mentioned above). I digress again. I assume that the workers pick up the gear and adorn it before they start removing the oil from the beach the supplied gloves and tools

The low tech clean up may serve one purpose -- putting more people to work, etc.. When I thought about it on my drive from Pensacola to Tallahassee, it made some sense. If you use low tech methods of cleaning the beach, you employ more people, and give the clean-up effort the look and feel of a massive operation, which it will be and is for some time to come. The more people you have organizing worker packets, placing worker packets, using worker packet, collecting dirty worker packets...well, you get the picture...the more people who are able to benefit from being employed by BP -- that is a good thing...right? Of course it is, people who might have been struggling to find a job before the oil disaster are now able to find employment that pays well enough to give $160 tips (I am sure not all workers are able to show such generosity) -- but you get the point. On the surface, the low-tech clean-up is a good idea for many reasons...on the other hand, there are some alternative explanations that could account for the employ of low tech methods.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the American public has begun for BP. It will be a long and protracted battle that will be waged in private and public places. During my stay in Venice, La I had first hand experience with BP hires who were unwilling to say anything about working conditions, work objectives, or anything else that might remotely be perceived as negative towards BP. These people were trying to hold on to their jobs -- and I get it, I really do. Here is the issue -- in their battle for the hearts and minds of workers, BP has taken away the voice of those likely to have been most impacted by the gulf tragedy. Who speaks for the young Black men who were afraid to have their picture taken with me because " 'they' don't want us talking to anyone," or the security guard who held/hid his/her badge from me when she confessed that conditions for the workers is too harsh and the hours are too long

This is going to be a long and protracted campaign, balance is going to have to be struck among the interests that are trying to be served. From workers to wildlife, from corporations to NGOs and from state and local to federal and international there has to be a better, more strategic approach to prioritizing what and how things get done. If not, there is a real possibility that the considerable investment being made by all will be ineffectively and inefficiently deployed. There is a role for coordination across these interests, and it is unclear to me who is attending to all the interests in a transparent and deliberate manner. And of course there is the PM (post-media) moment -- when the cameras are turned off, and the next story emerges -- it is precisely while the eyes of the world are upon us that the time to demand that accountability and responsibility be established and communicated.

Tomorrow, I will summarize some of the key lessons I have learned during my trip. I welcome any thoughts, questions or comments you might have regarding any of the observations I have made. These ramblings have been meant to give a view of the situation on the ground. There are many aspects (and views) that I have not covered, because they have not been part of my experience here -- what I have attempted to do is to give you a broad sense of the scope and scale of the issues that are and will continue to emerge as the Gulf gusher continues to give us grief.

Stay tuned.

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