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“5 Million Barrels of Oil Does Not Disappear”: Author, Activist Antonia Juhasz on the BP Spill, One Year Later

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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the worst maritime oil spill in history. Last year on April 20 an oil rig leased by oil giant BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and releasing nearly 200 million gallons of oil, tens of millions of gallons of natural gas and 1.8 million gallons of chemicals. We speak to Antonia Juhasz, author of the new book, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. Juhasz attended the BP shareholders meeting in London last week and spoke on behalf of Gulf Coast residents denied entry. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This week marks the first anniversary of the worst maritime oil spill in history. Last year on April 20th an oil rig leased by petroleum giant BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers, releasing nearly 200 million gallons of oil, tens of millions of gallons of natural gas and 1.8 million gallons of chemicals.

At the BP shareholders meeting last week in London, security officers blocked the entrance of a delegation of four fishermen and women from the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast area heavily damaged by last year’s oil spill. Environmental groups and residents argue BP has yet to fulfill its financial and legal obligations. Maritime life and communities in the area remain devastated.

JOHN HOCEVAR: Most of the oil is still there in the Gulf today. It’s in the water. It’s on the sediment. It’s on the seafloor. A lot of it’s washed up into the wetlands, and it’s still there. It’s still being eaten by marine life today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by a guest who says the largest oil disaster in history could happen again. Antonia Juhasz is the author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, a book that’s just been published this week. She’s also director of the Energy Program at Global Exchange. Antonia attended the BP shareholders meeting last week and spoke on behalf of Gulf Coast residents denied entry.

BP did not respond to Democracy Now’s repeated requests for comment.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened last week.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: I went to the London BP annual shareholder meeting, the first meeting of shareholders since the disaster happened one year ago. There were five representatives from the United States Gulf Coast who came, including the head of the Louisiana Oystermen’s Association, the head of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association. We came in order to address the shareholders, the CEO, the board of directors, to make sure that they all understood that the Gulf oil disaster is far from over, BP is far from adhering to its legal obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to that clip of you confronting BP executives last week.


ANTONIA JUHASZ: We still have oil coating the bottom of the ocean. We still have dispersant coating the bottom of the ocean. We still have waves that roll in, and oil rolls in with it. We stick a stick in the sand, and there’s still oil there. What we don’t have at the bottom of the ocean is the light that is supposed to be there.

AMY GOODMAN: That, thanks to UNI Films. Antonia?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, so the representatives from the Gulf Coast were denied access into the meeting, even though they held legal proxies. I was able to get in, because I own shares, and address the audience. And while I was there, I made sure that BP knew that we were still holding them to account, but also delivered a message that I had been sent to London to read, which was a statement by Keith Jones, the father of Gordon Jones, who is one of 11 men who died aboard the Deepwater Horizon. He wanted to make sure that the company knew that he knew why the disaster happened, and that was because they were cutting costs, they were cutting corners, and they did not know how to do the operations in the deep water that they set out to do. And what I added to the shareholders was, neither does any other company actually know how to do these deepwater operations, and nothing has changed since the disaster to make us any more certain that such a deepwater disaster won’t happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your journey through the Gulf after the oil spill and all that you have found.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Spent eight months embedded in those communities most directly impacted by this disaster, sleeping in people’s homes, going to their churches, walking on their beaches. What I learned in that period of time was that 210 million gallons of oil don’t disappear. We saw oil everywhere, but we continue to today. So oil is on the bottom of the ocean. A layer of dispersant is coated above it. And people have been fighting this oil now for a year, and it has made them sick, the combination of the oil and the dispersant. It has made them exhausted. It has made them frustrated, because one year later the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten this tragedy, and our policymakers, one year later — not a single piece of legislation — not one — written to respond to the disaster has become law. And the money that BP is supposed to be paying has not come to the ground. The care — the claims that are supposed to be filled, the health provisions, the environmental provisions, none of it is there right now, and the U.S. Gulf Coast is still suffering under this glut of oil and chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who is in charge? Who’s in charge of the compensation? The news reports now, as we come on the first anniversary, about how, with ExxonMobil — the Exxon Valdez oil spill, how they didn’t compensate people right away, but BP didn’t even have to, and they did.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Well, BP set up a claims process right away, and that’s because, as a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster, we had a great piece of legislation passed: the Oil Pollution Act. We need legislation like that now. One of the things the Oil Pollution Act did was require an immediate claims process to be established. BP set that up. But at this date, one year later, less than 40 percent of the claims that have been filed have even been processed, much less paid out.

When BP was in control of the process, they made it incredibly difficult, incredibly bureaucratic. People were not getting their payments. They’ve been out of work for a year. They also can’t eat what they harvest, which is — this is a subsistence area. People fish not just to make money, but to live on that fish. And people haven’t been able to eat their fish or sell it.

Then the process was taken over by Kenneth Feinberg, supposedly an independent process, and it’s continued to drag on. Feinberg has actually said that of the $20 billion that was pledged — and let’s just remember, it was pledged — only about $3.5 billion has actually been paid, that he expects he’ll only pay out about half of that money.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the reports that have come out since then. I think there’s very much a sense that it’s not as bad as everyone thought.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: The reports have actually been damning, especially the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon. Actually, every investigation that has gone into this disaster has said, one, five million barrels of oil were spilled. That oil does not disappear. One of the amazing people I covered in my book was Dr. Samantha Joye. She has, from the beginning, been going deep into the water, studying oil on the bottom. She’s one — part of the team that discovered the oil plumes. She is deeply aware that five million barrels were released, and the oil still remains in the Gulf.

But what each of the commissions have found is that this is a systemic problem within the oil industry, that the oil industry itself was moving beyond its own capacity to do its operations, but even more so, that federal regulators have no clue what they’re doing. They do not know how to regulate this industry, and the industry has pushed beyond its own capacity. And every report that has come out has said that. It’s been universal, that this is a serious, ongoing, devastating disaster in the Gulf Coast, but that the industry is to blame — BP, Transocean, Halliburton, Cameron most immediately in this disaster — but all of the oil companies were involved. Remember, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, they all sat down at a table after the explosion and said, “Wow! How do we cap a deepwater blowout? Oh, boy, it turns out we actually don’t know how to do that, even though we have 148 deepwater wells around the world. Boy, we said that we could handle a 300,000-gallon-a-day — or barrel-a-day oil spill. Boy, it turns out we couldn’t even handle 80,000 barrels a day.” None of them know what they’re doing. And the federal regulators don’t know, either. And every report has been — has concluded those outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: BP has requested permission to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, less than a year after the oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers. They want to resume in 10 existing wells in the Gulf by July, the request to U.S. regulators coming just a week after the Department of Justice confirmed the company is facing potential manslaughter charges and other civil and criminal penalties in connection with the explosion and the deaths of the workers.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: They absolutely should face criminal charges, I believe. If every report has demonstrated just utter failure — managerial failure, operational failure, cost cutting — on the fact — on the part of BP. But it’s not just BP. Transocean, which is the owner and operator of the rig — and the vast majority of the employees on the rig worked for Transocean — is the largest owner and operator of all offshore rigs in the country. Their failures need to make us worried about all operations. But yes, BP is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the United States. They have massive holdings all across the country, all across the Gulf. One of the things that the oil industry tried to do as a result of the disaster was isolate BP and make this look like a BP problem: it’s just this rogue British company. Well, BP definitely has very problematic operations, and I do not believe that they should be given the right to continue to produce those wells. We need to think very seriously about their operations.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Obama administration, that has said that offshore drilling can resume?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: We shouldn’t be allowing offshore drilling to continue, particularly —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is and why it’s allowed in this country.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: There’s — let’s see. Deepwater drilling, most offshore drilling historically has occurred at about 400 feet below the ocean surface. Deep offshore drilling in this well is 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to the ocean floor. Then this well, another 13,500 feet below that. One of the deeper wells — not the deepest — right now in the Gulf is as far down as Mount Everest is up. This is technological wonders that is so wondrous we actually don’t know how to do it. But the reason why they’re pushing out this far deep is that there’s a lot of oil out there, and they want to get to it.

What we know, however, is that they have not — they don’t have the technology to do it. So, when the Deepwater Horizon — when the blowout happened on the Macondo well, the oil industries tried to apply the technology for that 400-feet shallow water operations to operations that were 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. It turns out they didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know how to cap it. They didn’t know how to clean it. They applied, as you said, two million gallons of chemical toxic dispersant to try and separate out the oil. They burned it on the ocean surface. They allowed this chemical-oil cocktail to spill. And the federal regulators had no idea what to do while the disaster was happening. And they still do not remotely have the capacity to address continued operations.

So, if we recall, it was about a week before the Macondo well blowout and the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened that President Obama implemented a Bush policy, which was lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. We have the moratorium — we had it, because in 1969 there was a huge offshore blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara. Activists organized all across the country in response. They got the Clean Air Act. They got the Clean Water Act. And about 10 years later, they got a moratorium on offshore drilling. That moratorium has been picked away at. And the one place it didn’t exist was in the Gulf of Mexico. A week before this disaster, President Obama lifted much of the moratorium. Nothing had changed in terms of the technology, when he did it. There just had been enormous pressure from the oil industry to put it into place.

Nothing has changed in terms of the technology since the disaster happened, yet the offshore drilling has begun again. And the presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon, President Obama’s own commission, has said, you know, federal regulators don’t have the capacity, they don’t know what they’re doing in these instances. And what we also know is that the cost is so very high, because there is so much oil and the distance is so great to get to it and try and address it, that there is no reason to believe that this much oil wouldn’t be released again in the case of another blowout.

AMY GOODMAN: You had this surreal moment, Antonia Juhasz, with Transocean, the company that owned the offshore rig that exploded, being awarded — awarding its top executives these bonuses, and in doing so, saying —- it described the, quote, “best year in safety performance in our company’s history.” The bonus for the Transocean CEO Steve Newman was $400,000. Amidst tremendous criticism, he said he would give it to the families of the -—


AMY GOODMAN: Oh, he said he would give a part of it to the families of the dead workers. What are those families saying? And what about this, Transocean rewarding their executives for the best year in their history?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Nine of the 11 men who died aboard the rig worked for Transocean. I interviewed and spent a good amount of time with Sherri Revette, whose husband Dewey died aboard the rig. They do not believe that Transocean had its best safety year ever. They do not believe that its executives and CEO should be given bonuses. What they feel is that this is an affront to their loss, but most important, that it’s a symbol that Transocean hasn’t learned and accepted that massive, massive errors occurred, and that by awarding those bonuses, and by awarding them for safety, what has been clearly demonstrated is that Transocean has not learn the lessons of this disaster and Transocean, the largest owner and operator of offshore rigs in the country, hasn’t changed its policies, which means we have a lot to be worried about when Chevron, when Shell, when Exxon, when all of the companies continue their operations in the deep water.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what has to happen now, from cleanup to prosecutions? What do you feel, after writing this book over this past year?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: It’s the one-year anniversary of the disaster. This is our opportunity as activists to apply massive pressure. We need fundamental policy change, and it’s only going to happen if people continue to feel the passion they did when the oil was flowing, to push now as the oil still remains. We have to have payments go out to those who have filed claims. We have to have restoration of the Gulf. We have to have BP actually pay the full amount of money it owes, not fight us to say they owe — we know they owe $20 billion just for the oil spill. BP is trying to pay just $3 million. We need the Obama administration to ensure that charges are made, that BP’s policies are forced to be changed, and that BP is held fully to account. And for the listeners out there, this is the opportunity, the one-year anniversary, to come together and really push and to show that the public is still paying deep attention and will hold BP to account and make sure the Obama administration helps us and that the Congress helps us in that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations on the release of your book, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. You’ll be speaking tonight at powerHouse Arena at 37 Main Street in Brooklyn, on its release. Antonia Juhasz.

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