DON’T blame the Lady. Katrina killed no one. In fact, she missed the city of New Orleans completely, going wide to the east. It wasn’t Mother Nature that drowned, suffocated, de-hydrated and starved nearly 2,000 people in 2005. Here’s the real story, the one you won’t see in the lamestream media — or hear on National Petroleum Radio…
Chapter 4, “The Coon-Ass Riviera”, from Vultures’ Picnic.
A RUBBER DINGHY OFF THE GULF COAST, MISSISSIPPI, OCTOBER 2010
This was my first investigation of fish homicide, so I figured Rick and I needed a boat because Professor Steiner’s submarine had just cleared the Panama Canal and wouldn’t arrive in time for our filming.
However, Badpenny couldn’t hook up a canoe, let alone a skiff, because BP had put every Coon-Ass captain on its payroll for the oil clean-up, which mostly involved floating around looking busy when CNN showed up. BP would have to OK our taking one of their indentured boats, and BP never said OK unless they controlled the fish story.
But it is my experience with the human animal that cold cash can make people forget about their contracts (and their marriage vows, the Ten Commandments, and all sense of self-respect). Still, the boatmen told Badpenny, “Non, cheri.” BP’s string of cash was longer than mine and that wouldn’t change anytime soon.
Dr. Steiner told us to meet him at a particular dock behind a casino hotel in Biloxi. So we flew into New Orleans and drove to the coast town whose only claim to fame is that it’s three hundred miles due south of the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
Just after sun-up, and without enough coffee, Ricky Ricardo Rowley and I headed through the casino past the exhausted, straggling gamblers who refused to leave until the last of their cash was taken from them.
Beyond the slots, a door led out to a dock, where the resourceful Professor Steiner and his crew were waiting for us in a Zodiac, a rubber- hull dinghy bolted to two screaming 150-hp outboards, which could shoot us to the crime scene like a rocket.
The biologist aimed for a barrier island a mile offshore, then, a hundred yards from the beach, killed the engine and told Rick and me to jump out. Who was I to question the man? I stepped off, fully clothed, sank right up to my sack, and headed through the yuck to the beach, like MacArthur returning to Bataan.
Rick followed, his baby, his precious camera over his head, still filming, followed by Steiner, who reached the beach and began with a religious invocation: “Holy Christ! Smell that!” I really didn’t need to schlep along a PhD to tell me I was on the edge of throwing up my breakfast.
Black ick, crude oil. The professor’s stunned look, though, surprised me. This man had seen it all: dogs drowning in oil slicks in China, the Caspian cesspool off Baku, Alaska’s dead beaches (where he lives and literally breathed the Exxon Valdez spill), and the oil smear in Africa known as the Niger Delta, where Steiner had been only two days before on some UN mission.
He’d seen it all, but not this. He did not expect viscous tar mats the size of sofas and hardened oil slicks like driveways to nowhere half a year after the blow-out and a hundred miles away from the well head.
Steiner picked up what looked like a large bovine bowel movement and dumped it into my hands. It was a glop of BP’s spume with, he explained, “hydrogen sulphide in it, heavy metals but, also, the polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons. . . .”
Those are my favorites!
“. . . And, you know, things like benzopyrene and benzofluoranthene and such like . . .”
Fish hated the stuff because it killed their children and their children’s children.
“. . . Very highly toxic, they’re carcinogenic . . .”
But humans just love the stuff, if you look at the news footage. Right after the Deepwater Horizon blew up, fifty thousand grinning volunteers hit the Gulf Coast beaches and—God Bless America!—picked up the stuff bare-handed, or scooped it with beer buckets, garden rakes, picnic coolers, whatever.
“. . . It doesn’t kill immediately but lasts, you know, things like nerve damage, physiological injury, behavioral changes, reproductive changes . . .”
I dropped the tar ball.
“. . . leukemia.”
But this just can’t be! Fully two months earlier, in August 2010, Dr. Terry Hazen of the University of California’s prestigious Lawrence Livermore Laboratory announced in The Washington Post:
We’ve gone out to the sites, and we don’t find any oil.
They didn’t? No oil plumes in the water? How do you miss a floating oil turd bigger than a quarter horse? If the tar ponies are riding up the beach, they had to be swimming in the water column. As the biologist Yogi Berra once said, “It’s amazing what you can see when you’re looking.”
Two months before we got there, Zach Roberts (our man working under the name “Ronald” Roberts, fish expert) said this gunk was all over the place. So how had these biologists missed this?
Badpenny and I discovered the problem: In February 2007, there had been an oil spill in Dr. Hazen’s lab: British Petroleum had squirted half a billion dollars into his laboratory to pay for studies of the biology of oil spills.
That’s billion, with a b.
Hazen couldn’t keep it all. He was tasked with spreading BP’s easy- squeezy throughout the academic community. As a result, by the time Deepwater Horizon blew, nearly every biologist from China to Chattanooga had their gonads in ajar on Lord Browne’s old desk in London.
Hazen’s can’t-see-no-oil-plumes study was signed by thirty-two scientists and printed in Science magazine. Drill deep down in the footnotes (we did), and you’ll find that thirty-one of the thirty-two co- authors were suckling at the laboratory’s BP money teat. Therein lies your problem, professors. No need to panic, you’re not blind! You have BP’s dollars taped over your eyes.
This reminded me of Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover: a baby underwater reaching for a dollar bill.
But how come no one laughed the rent-a-scientists right out of the journals? Answer: Independent biologists were locked out.
While walking the smeared beach, Dr. Steiner told me he had asked to go along on BP boats to take samples with their scientists and look at their raw data. In other words, to keep the science honest.
Forget it. No way. They weren’t going to let Steiner and his sampling bags anywhere near the test sites. Rogue scientists, not to mention reporters, are banned from these beaches, supposedly for our own safety. It’s locked off like Area 51. Now I understood why Steiner had us invade from the sea, unannounced, and walk the plank.
If BP’s scientists didn’t find oil plumes, what did they find? “We don’t find any oil, but we do find the bacteria,” said Hazen. They found germs. Magical germs.
From the Science monograph:
Our results show the potential exists for intrinsic bioremediation of the oil plume in the deepwater column without substantial oxygen drawdown.
“Intrinsic bioremediation” means that oil spills can clean themselves up. Bacteria in the ocean will simply eat up the oil. Yum. And so, virtually all the oil that spewed out of the well just . . . vanished!
Discover magazine gushed, “Hazen’s results suggest that the deep ocean has its own janitorial crew that is standing by to mop up the threat of oil contamination.”
Thus, the science from BP is this: There’s no problem with drilling the hell out of the Gulf’s deepwater. If a well blows, you just let the Good Lord’s bacteria chow down. It’s not true, but hey, it’s true enough for U.S. reporters. I found the stories of the microbes who just love oil spills on CBS, NBC, CNN, and, of course, National Petroleum Radio.
NPR broadcast a long interview with Hazen on a program called Science Friday. It should be called Science Payday, a reliable mattress for corporate rent-a-profs. No researcher with an actual beaker of goo was invited to reply, and BP’s funding of Hazen was not mentioned. (Nor was BP’s funding of NPR, for that matter.)
From my time in Alaska, I know all about the oil-eating bugs. Two decades ago, Exxon had news crews film the dumping of boatloads of waxy, marble-size miracle germ balls all over the beaches. It didn’t work, but by the time the failure was evident—and little Native kids began swallowing the balls—the cameras had long since departed.
Now, without shame, BP and the Interior Department are using this same “Bugs Ate the Oil” stunt in the Gulf. They added a twist. Maybe it didn’t work perfectly in cold Alaska, but bacteria just love Mississippi.
This Mississippi island was impressively oiled, but I wasn’t impressed. Something was missing.
Habeus corpus picis? Where are the fish corpses, Professor?
In the water, Steiner explained. While we would see a couple of oil- packed fish carcasses on the beach, the big slaughter is actually going on way out there, in the fishing grounds and beyond.
The killer: BP, that is, Bacterial Plumes.
Steiner told me that bacteria were indeed eating up some of the hydrocarbon from the blowout, “but mostly the methane, not the heavy crude.” Bacteria certainly munch on some of it (good), which encourages bacteria to make bacterium babies by the trillions (bad). As the bacteria feast, said Steiner, they breathe, as all creatures do. The result: not much oxygen left in the water for fish. The fish can’t breathe and they drown.
In the third grade, my science teacher, Mrs. Schneider, told us that oil floats on water. Oil industry scientists have yet to graduate beyond third grade semi-facts. In fact, microscopic droplets stay deep rather than pop to the surface. The plumes of berserk bacteria, tall as the Empire State Building and wide as Manhattan, are creeping around under the surface, a roving fish holocaust.
After BP’s thirty-two scientists said they could not find these oil and bacteria plumes, Steiner’s submarine arrived. BP wasn’t expecting that. He found the killer plumes as distant as three hundred miles from the well head.
Far down at the island’s tip, Ricardo’s telephoto lens picked up Black men, about two dozen of them, bobbing up and down, up and down. We waded back to the dinghy, approached, and jumped off once again.
The sun was up and murderous. It didn’t burn away my bald scalp only by the grace of the network chief in London who personally authorized me to put my hat on my head. (And you thought TV executives had no excuse for their existence.)
We waded in.
The Black men went up and down. Up and down.
It was clear now we’d found a BP clean-up crew. In rhythm, they dipped down to stick their long clean-up tools into the sand and lifted up the stuff to pour into buckets. They inched forward in the vicious sun, shoulder to shoulder. Bend, shovel, lift; bend, shovel, lift.
At any minute, I expected them to start singing:
“Breaking up tar balls on the chain gang, HA!
Breaking balls and serving my time, YAH!”
Down the shore, we found the work gang’s supervisors in the shade of a green tent: three white guys, college age, sitting on folding chairs. BP’s young, shaded Caucasians gave us little yellow booties so we could safely walk across the poisonous black tar to observe the African Americans at work.
Alaskan Natives have long ago learned you never handle decaying oil without wearing head-to-toe Hazmat spaceman suits complete with hooded respirators. Here, the African Americans were dressed for picking cotton: shirtless or raggedly covered in the brutal sun. BP didn’t allow the yellow safety suits—they looked bad on TV.
Bend, shovel, lift.
The work gang wielded some new piece of equipment I hadn’t seen on the Alaska clean-up. When we reached them, I saw that the specialized instruments were pooper scoopers—the ones you buy at K-Mart to clean out your kitty litter box—duct-taped to broom handles.
I approached one scooper man, who gave his name as Raphael Gill. How deep can you get with that “equipment”?
“A quarter inch. They want you to do it like this. Skim the top.” Gill and his coworker showed me the required dainty skimming move. Meanwhile, Steiner walked down, out of the sight of the laid-back supervisors, motioned me over, took out a utility knife, and dug maybe eight inches before he hit a layer of oozing crude. This ooze layer runs, Steiner said, “for about six hundred miles.” That’s the official underestimate.
Gill said, “The deeper you dig, the more you find.” But he didn’t dare dig. They catch you digging, he said, and you lose your job. And there are no other jobs.
“They really don’t want you digging.”
They don’t? OK, Steiner, if they’re not digging out the oil, then what exactly is the pooper scooper crew doing?
“The term,” said the professor, “‘is Clean-up Theater.’” Politicians and news crews fly over or float by on BP media tours and it looks pretty impressive.
The BP crew had completed about two hundred yards of beach. The island is four miles long. They had been skimming that same two hundred yards for “a week or so,” said the overseers in the tent. “A month or so,” said Gill. Every storm repaved the two hundred yards, so they had to start again.
Two hundred yards a month. Let’s do the math. Six hundred miles of crud carpet all the way to Steinhatchee, Florida. That’s 3.168 million feet at 600 feet (200 yards) per month or task completed in September 2450, that is, in a little over four centuries. By that time, BP biotechnicians will have created life forms that enjoy tanning on crude-smeared beaches.
Bend, skim, lift. Bend, skim, lift.
In the 147 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, Mississippi’s population of color has gone from picking cotton balls to picking tar balls.
Observing this scene, I knew my old science teacher, Dr. Bruce, with his honey-dipping expertise, would have been here on the line if he hadn’t somehow emancipated himself.
BP had learned much from the Exxon spill twenty years earlier. What they learned was that you don’t have to pay $26 an hour as they had done in Alaska. These men got $14.
For $14 an hour, they were instructed not to talk, not even to each other. But Gill gave me the lowdown anyway, while never ceasing to bend-skim-lift. He would not give the straw bosses any excuse to dismiss him.
“I don’t care if they fire me for telling the truth, because I want to work seven days and they won’t let me. I lost everything due to the oil spill.”
He used to work in a casino, but he was laid off when Coast tourism drowned in BP’s oil. For Gill, that was blow #2, after Katrina.
“I ain’t got no way to be here no more. No car, they don’t want to pay me, help me get no car. I don’t know what to do. I give up. That’s what’s brought me out here. I got my bread and my bologna in the refrigerator. That’s it. A couple of hot dogs.”
And what about your kids? He said he has three.
“Well, they—I don’t eat sometimes. It’s all right.”
President Obama offered to provide unemployment compensation to Mississippi, completely funded by the Federal Treasury. But Republican Governor Haley Barbour turned it down, as did the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. They wanted to show off their anti-Obama macho to fellow Republicans.
Why are there only baloney-sandwich jobs here, craps tables or pooper scooping? Decades ago, when I was here on a murder-and-accounting investigation, Gill’s choices would not have been so limited. The Gulf
Coast from Louisiana to Biloxi had been a strip of commercial fishermen’s sheds, busted docks, really bad housing, really bad deep-fried food served in newspapers from shacks, dis-repaired A.M.E. churches, and Waffle Houses. The beachfront, such as it was, was home to the typical citizens thrown off the good Delta farmland: Black folk, Cajuns, and what genteel members of Mississippi society called “White Trash.” But the trash—white, Black, French—at least had their homes, their little boats and little shops. They had something.
Then, in 2005, giant casinos fell on their houses and crushed them. Really. Let me explain: Mississippi, a very pious Christian state, did not allow gambling. But it did allow casinos, as long as they were not actually on Mississippi land proper, but offshore, floating in the Gulf on large pontoons.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina lifted up these huge floating hotel-casino hulks and threw them right on top of the fried chicken shacks, boat sheds, homes, and churches of the locals.
The religious people of Mississippi called it an Act of God. God clearly wanted casinos, not homes and churches, on the beachfront, which was now prime real estate, and henceforward, Mississippi allowed casinos on dry land. Governor Barbour obtained over half a billion dollars in federal hurricane recovery aid to repair the damage to homes and shops. Somehow, the money ended up rebuilding the casino hotels on the plots of the little homes that were smashed or washed away.
The Coast’s flooded-out poor were exiled, joining the ranks of America’s Katrina refugees, dispersed to Texas and Florida. The few that remained were put to work manning the craps tables, parking the cars, wearing the g-strings, and guarding the slot machines in the new Green Felt Plantations.
Five years later, when the well blew, the beaches in front of these casinos were put at the top of BP’s list for clean-up. The skim job looks good, but you wouldn’t want to swim in the water. That doesn’t matter: There is no such thing as a gambler who swims, and their bored wives tan by the pool.
The thirty Waffle Houses strung out along the coast, built of brick and stout as military pillboxes, stood their ground through the hurricane. As a result, Biloxi is today a gleaming city of mostly-empty twenty-story gambling cathedrals separated by Waffle Houses. In the one next to the Hyatt, I met the Pink Poodle waitress. She dyes her hair pink and curls it to look like a toy poodle. She told me she’s worked the Waffle for thirty years. Best job in town, she told me.
I believe it.
There are damn good reasons why BP grabbed science by the balls and kept independent experts like Steiner off this beach, barred from the crime scene.
After the Exxon Valdez crack-up, the government put professor Steiner and a bunch of other PhDs on a team to investigate the oil’s harm to Alaska’s ecosystem. Their research put a harpoon through the oil companies’ nonsense excuses and tiny hearts. It cost the BP-Alyeska consortium plenty for the safety upgrades on the Alaska tanker route Steiner’s team recommended: double hulls, escorts, all that. In other words, Science was not Big Oil’s buddy, that is, untamed science was not.
In the 1989 Exxon case, the government chose the scientists for the official investigation. This time, the feds allowed BP to choose half the experts to investigate the company. “That’s like the Mafia having half the seats on the FBI directorate,” Dr. Steiner said.
Before sundown, he sped us back to the casino dock so he could grab a plane home to Anchorage, I assumed so he could start the semester at the University of Alaska.
I assumed wrong. I asked when classes start. He said, “I’m not teaching anymore. I was fired.”
Steiner had taught there for three decades. He had tenure. He is an international star. How do you fire a tenured professor? Was he caught with an undergraduate under the Bunsen burners?
Worse. He testified before Congress against offshore drilling. He told the Congressmen not to trust BP. Nor Shell nor Chevron nor Exxon.
He shouldn’t have done that. An internal memorandum revealed that George Bush’s Commerce Department displayed displeasure with the professor’s foolish act of reckless honesty. The university charged Steiner with un-academic “advocacy” for using the words tragedy and disaster to describe the tragic Exxon Valdez disaster.
The politicians thought up a way to get rid of Steiner: You can’t fire a tenured professor, but you don’t have to pay him. The feds cut off his funding, the university just smiled, and Steiner and his sample bags were forced out on the street.
“Rather than working within this [Administration’s] network as I have asked Mr. Steiner to do, he has chosen to be a maverick.”
There was no appeal to Alaska’s Governor over the issue of the sanctity of independent scientific thought at the state university. Why? Because Governor Sarah Palin knew that Steiner was going to Hell. Palin, a fundamentalist Christian, insists that the Earth was created five thousand years ago, and anyone who doesn’t say so is going to burn for Eternity.
Furthermore, the idea of “extinction of species” just doesn’t go with God having created all the animals on the Fifth Day of the Creation Week, that is, a Thursday. Only God can snuff his own stuff.
For Palin and the creationists, “environmentalism” and “Satanism” are only seven letters apart. The Earth, in Palin World, is a disposable model. At five thousand years old, it’s practically brand-new and can be remade from scratch (or Chaos) in just six days. And furthermore, the Earth and all its creatures are going to be wiped out anyway in the Apocalypse, which is right around the corner, well before the 2050 global warming doomsday date. The Apocalypse is followed by the Rapture, when antiabortion Republicans will rise into the Lord’s heavenly hotel- casino in the sky.
But the Lord was not made wroth by Steiner; rather, the professor had pissed off Shell and BP and so Governor Palin.
Steiner noted, “Alaska politicians can’t get elected unless they swear they drink a cup of crude oil each morning with breakfast.” A month after Steiner was fired, Palin guzzled petroleum on the floor of the Republican Convention, where she accepted the party’s nomination for Vice President. The party faithful chanted, “Drill, Baby, Drill!” Palin promised that, if elected, she’d let Exxon and BP and Shell punch more holes in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
Sarah says she’s a Christian, but she practices Saks Fifth Avenue, and that ain’t cheap. The Governor and her hubby, Todd, and the rest of the Wasilla Hillbillies went to town at Saks on a GOP credit card when she grabbed those Jimmy Choo knee-high “Hallie” boots with the four-inch heels to die for: $1,195. The credit card bill was paid for by GOP donors. The party’s new #1 corporate donor is Koch Industries, which recently joined BP’s Alyeska consortium. Now as well shod as a thoroughbred, Palin ran her race as Big Oil’s Drill Babe.
Dr. Steiner once had a second career for income. In Alaska, herring has always been more valuable than education, so the biologist and some friends bought a commercial fishing boat for $370,000. It was 1988, a year before the Exxon Valdez hit the reef. Since then, for two decades now, no one has caught a herring in Prince William Sound. Steiner’s partnership went belly-up with the fish.
So there I am on the filthy Mississippi beach with the fired professor and failed fisherman, who dresses like an Eddie Bauer catalogue fell on his head (wearing steel-toe Gortex-lined Vibram-soled Timberland boots). Steiner was doomed. In this world and the next.
But the professor went down knowing this: He was right. When he warned against BP drilling Alaska’s Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, he was a damned prophet. And because he was right, they hated him even more.
I like Steiner and assured him I’d be honored to keep him company in Hell. And besides, since Palin’s going to Heaven, I’d rather not.
Nota Bene. No, I’m not a shoe fetishist, I’m a journalist. A reporter has to get behind the mask. You can put on a phony smile, but you can’t put on phony shoes. Nevertheless, there’s a limit to this line of investigation. Right now, Badpenny’s steaming.
“I’M DONE. I’M DONE WITH THIS STUFF. I will not look at another fucking pair of Versace fucking buckle-toe pumps!” ($750, Neiman Marcus). She’s only eight feet away, but she’s sent an email: “THIS WHOLE THING IS SHITE! A VERY DESPERATE WAY OF BRINGING SARAH PALIN INTO IT.”
Desperate, yes. But I’m a desperate man. These are desperate times. “Shite”? She’s writing in her British accent. Not a good sign.
Meanwhile the media was all a-twitter with news that the Gulf would be saved by JFK himself, or at least the man who played him in the movies, Kevin Costner.
Costner had ridden on the Exxon Valdez (in the movie Waterworld at least) and could clean the Gulf, no problem.
Some sharpies had convinced the aging actor, then sliding from A-list to B, to invest $20 million in perfecting a canister, kind of like one of those Orec vacuum cleaners they sell on late-night TV, but bigger, that could suck up 210,000 gallons of oil-polluted water a day and spit it back out clean. Wow!
Congressmen held hearings, fawning on the celebrity; news reporters, looking for something sexier than an oily pelican, scooped it up.
OK, let’s do the math. If the Costner machine scrubs 210,000 gallons of water a day, that’s 16,000 cubic feet of H2O (one cubic mile) of polluted water in 9,120 days. That would mean a Costner machine would have the job done in slightly less than 25,000 years.
Nevertheless, BP and Big Oil loved it. If the public could be convinced that oil spills could go away with an abracadabra Costner machine, so much the better for the oil industry’s offshore drilling plans. Well, no one ever went broke underestimating the mathematical skills of the American public.
BP bought thirty-two Costner sucking machines. By using several at once, BP cut the time needed to clean-up the Gulf to less than eight centuries.
WAFFLE HOUSE, GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI
I looked at BP’s oil slathered across the shoreline and I thought about my favorite secret beach on St. George’s Island, and the Flora-Bama Bar and Grill on the state line. The Flora-Bama had an enormous sign on the roof, big as the building under it: BREAKFAST 6AM BEER BISCUITS AND GRAVY. They serve that fine fare, which looks something like a big blob of mucous, to the seine-net fishermen who want to get a little buzz on before heading out. The evening special at the Flora-Bama was always deep-fried grouper throat.
After the oil spill, this Southern-fried culture, at least as they’ve known it, will be no more. Of course, a case could be made that that wouldn’t be so bad. I looked it up: One-third of Deep South adults are obese. Well, a third of New Yorkers are in therapy. How do you choose?
Ricardo and I scored plush digs cheap in a nearly deserted casino hotel, and after midnight, Rick left his camera and decided to try his luck at blackjack. He went alone: I have no luck to try. Later, Rick told me he played a hand sitting next to a young guy in a little vinyl vest, black shirt, and clip-on tie, one of the crew who parks cars. The parking lot kid was burning up his break-time losing the tips he’d earned since his previous break.
Ricardo folded and left. He looked at the parking lot guy and couldn’t imagine anything more tragic, that is, more tragic than leaving your camera up in the room when you have a chance to film pure heartbreak.
I went to see Poodle Lady.
It’s late. Poodle Lady pours me cup number four. If Matty Pass were here, he would order the pecan waffles, the vegan freak. I like these Waffle House mugs. Poodle tells me to just take one with me when I go out for a “smoke” and don’t bring it back in. Poodle knows I’ll leave a big tip.
As I sat there working on my coffee, I laid out the facts: The Delta coastline is poisoned and dying and BP is to blame.
Everyone knows that. Everyone can see that, right on TV. Here are the bodies—the Gulf Coast, the fisheries, the wetlands—and right there was the smoking, exploding gun, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform.
Two hundred news crews have come ashore at Grande Isle, Louisiana, and filmed the black greasy crud slathered along the beachfront and the stinky gunk infiltrating the swamplands that barfed out of BP’s Macondo well. They filed stories about the precious Coast, its wetlands filled with pelicans and Cajuns, smeared and wounded by BP’s runaway well.
But I had a problem with this. Any time NPR and The Washington Post agree, I figure it can’t be true. Everyone goes along with the official story. BP, those Brit bastards, assassinated the Gulf Coast: It was the “lone gunman, single-bullet theory” everyone accepted. I didn’t buy it, but my only evidence was my memory. And what I remembered was this: Grande Isle was always a shit-hole.
I know. I was there long before BP’s oil sludged up. Twenty-five years ago, while on another nasty investigation for the city of New Orleans, I’d taken my wife for a weekend down here to the Coon-Ass Riviera, what Cajun locals call this Gulf Coast shoreline at the end of the Delta.
For twenty dollars to a guy who spoke an English I couldn’t understand, I rented this old whitewashed bungalow between the beach and a bayou. It stank of cockroach powder and mildew. It was night already. I don’t know why, but in the quiet, in the flare light, I was suddenly, violently happy. I even wanted to make love to my wife. But for her, the idea of placing naked skin against dank, yellowed sheets gave her the creeps. She passed out exhausted, fully clothed.
I took a walk on the beach, which was a litter heap of empty lubricant containers, with weird brown foam at the water’s edge. On the horizon, the flames of the derricks flared gas, burning like candles on a birthday cake in Hell.
And I loved it.
“Oil is a wild animal,” one of my law professors taught us, which no border nor property line nor corporate logo can contain. And that night, under the Creole moon, dark enough to hide the flotsam and garbage, I thought about a civilization that took thousands of years to advance from hunting wild animals to hunting wild black tar. The liquid beast was certainly more ferocious, and here, on Grande Isle, the beast would, at predictable intervals, go mad.
The official story didn’t add up. When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, everyone blamed Exxon, while the real culprit, BP, skulked away without a scratch. And here we go again. Now was it BP’s turn to take the rap for a crime they didn’t commit? Who would tell me the facts, with no BS?
The file cabinet in my head opened to a confidential memo from my Hurricane Katrina investigation:
“Where is the cyanide pill?”
The cyanide was meant—jokingly, I assume—for the man known as “Professor Hurricane.” There’s no question, some powerful gentlemen had to make Professor Hurricane go silent, somehow.
Years back, Professor Ivor “Hurricane” van Heerden of Louisiana State University, like Steiner, staked everything on the truth—and lost. In America, losers are suspect. Government, industry guys, environmentalists, everyone told me to stay clear; so I figured I better get to him right away before he sailed away, literally.
A guy who would rather eat cyanide than bullshit: I figured that made him an expert I could trust not to jerk me around on a tough question: Did BP do it?
1,500 FEET ABOVE THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
I found Professor Hurricane working down in the Delta. We scooped him up from the airstrip at Houma, the dirty navel of Louisiana oil country.
Ricardo asked to have the Cessna’s doors removed. The pilot said no. I liked that pilot.
I had told Rick to get some cool film while flying over the oil damage.
We didn’t see any. From the moment we lifted off toward the rising sun, we saw only gorgeous nature all the way to the horizon, stunning tufts of green isles carved by canals and veined by bayous, a water wonderland.
Damn. We needed film of ugly. I shouted and mimed, frustrated, “SO WHERE’S THE DAMAGE??”
If ignorance is bliss, I must surely have been the happiest man in the air that morning. By cranking up the volume on my noise-enhancing headset to high-pain level, I was able to get an education from Professor van Heerden over the engine’s grind.
Damage? I was looking at it.
Until a few decades ago, this was one of the great cattle ranching areas of America, the Coastal Prairie, where cowboys never heard a discouraging word. “Fifty years ago, the wetlands would have just been a blanket. In fact, they called them prairie marshes because they looked like prairie. You know, they grazed cattle on them.”
Then, bad luck, oil was discovered just about anywhere in the prairie where you could punch a hole. And they punched lots of holes. The cheapest way to get out the oil was to drag drilling rigs through the natural bayous, then cut huge gashes into the grassland, which floats on a soft delta substrate. Unlike the Rockies, where you can see the ugly scars of big equipment, the rig trails in Louisiana simply filled with seawater from the Gulf. That salty water increased the grass kill.
It’s very pretty.
To get the black gold up to the Exxon refinery at Baton Rouge and elsewhere, the crude and gas had to be sucked out with 10,000 miles of pipes. And then barge-ways. “This beautiful carpet, we starved it to death, and then we cut it up; we dissected it with ten thousand miles of canals.”
Each mile of canal and pipe was a slice out of the land. And so the prairie swooned and sank from a million cuts and turned into swampland (“wetlands” if you’re a member of the Sierra Club). At least shrimp moved in—they’ll eat anything—and ’gaters and trash fish.
But they’re going now too, and fast. The saltwater tides chew up the remaining land and the Gulf of Mexico marches a quarter mile a year toward New Orleans. Louisiana is simply vanishing, five hundred square acres a week. And so shrimping and fishing are sinking to their doom as well. After Hurricane Katrina, the rest of America was wondering why the dumb-ass folk in New Orleans built a city below sea level so close to the sea. Well, when the city was founded, it wasn’t anywhere close to the Gulf.
Sucking the oil out from under the soft land also speeds the sinking. And so the Gulf creeps to New Orleans.
But sometimes it sprints. Cypress groves, now poisoned by salt, gutted by canals, once provided an impenetrable mat of natural nails too painful for any hurricane surge to cross. “A cypress grove can reduce the surge by six feet within a mile.” Now the cypress are nearly gone, an open invitation to New Orleans for any mean-minded storm. That’s Ecology Rule #1: When you shit all over Mother Nature, She shits it back on you.
So what I was admiring was, in fact, a poisoned, diseased, dying land. I was enjoying the beauty of the scars of chronic leprosy. What looked like a natural Venice was just the intermediary illness on a land that will soon drown and disappear into the sea. All for its oil.
“The slicing up and the exploration and mining of oil and gas has created most of the wetland loss,” Dr. van Heerden told me. They’d ripped up and lost twenty-five miles of wetlands.
Well, one man’s catastrophe is another man’s profit center. We flew over former ranch-hands’ bunkhouses converted by the oil industry into mid-water accommodations for rig workers.
Then the professor wanted to show me the bad news. The pilot assumed we wanted to get a fly-over shot of the BP Macondo well, gravesite of the Deepwater Horizon. CNN flew out there and back. Everybody did.
I gave the pilot a thumbs-down. At the professor’s request, the pilot turned hard east and dropped us down to three hundred feet. We buzzed the tops of the jack-up rigs and their burn-off flares and skimmed by a platform surrounded by that telltale bloom of shine: an oil leak that no U.S. network would bother showing you, right in the heart of the Delta land.
It was everywhere, sheen and chocolate liquid glopping out near the white markers where over three thousand wells have been abandoned. BP safely capped six hundred of them, at least so they claim, but the hydrocarbons found floating now in the most sensitive areas don’t have a Deepwater Horizon chemical tag. Shell and Chevron abandoned even more than BP. The worst leakers were wells of unknown ownership or owners dead, lost, forgotten, van Heerden told me. Years ago, they had sold their crude to Standard Oil, now Exxon, but Exxon washes its hands of responsibility for the leftover flow of toxins.
The smoking gun is oil, all right. Oil is murdering the Gulf Coast, but it’s an inside job: wells and pipes and canals and the killer poisons and slashing the cypress and the crap these guys dump straight off the rigs. When drilling and pumping is done, they sink the greasy platforms (they call it a “redneck reef”) or just leave them there to defecate from inside the Delta itself.
So who done it? The killers have their fingerprints all over the state’s records. The number of wetlands acres simply removed by each company:
- Conoco 3.3 million acres
- Exxon Mobil 2.1 million acres
- Chevron 2.7 million acres
- Shell 1.3 million acres
And what about Big Bad BP? A meager 234,000 acres, 0.2 million, a number so low it nearly qualifies for Sierra Club membership.
These numbers are crazy sick, yet this is only the acreage of wetlands removed with the permission of the state. The narrow cuts authorized by an oil-maddened bureaucracy become, as the tides gouge through them, wide scars. Eventually, the skinny bits of remaining land give up and give in to the sea.
Bottom line, Professor?
“Well, the total land loss in Louisiana averages twenty-five thousand acres a year.”
If, like me, you don’t own a farm, 25,000 acres translates into 40 square miles of Louisiana disappearing each year. And the BP spill? “We ended up with oil on about five hundred fifty acres of marsh.”
Cold calc: If you measure disaster by the death of Delta wetland, there’s a Deepwater Horizon every week. But it’s not on TV. It’s just not photogenic.
Compared to this wetlands kill rate, the bit of oil that floated in from BP’s deepwater eruption is a cold sore on a cancer, “mostly caught safely by the coastal reeds,” van Heerden says.
BP is innocent? I’m not up to this. The London piggies who killed the coast of Alaska then skulked away Scot-free are now taking the blame, throwing their executives into volcanoes, writing checks to Governor Jindal, and confessing to a crime they didn’t commit? The petroleum chessboard, rotating in seven dimensions now, is getting curioser and curioser. And van Heerden’s tour had barely begun.
Now, from the air, we could see big-ass dredgers. They looked like those humongous Ewok war machines from Star Wars. They were piling up sand into what looked like the world’s biggest kitty litter box. It was, kind of.
The Professor pointed to the growing pile of sand and shouted over the engine, “A BERM,” whatever that is.
The Ewoks had scooped up a million or so tons of Delta bottom and made a big pile.
The pile, the “berm,” was already forty miles long, van Heerden shouted. It would capture the BP oil floating into the wetlands.
I’m thinking, No it won’t.
“IT CAN’T. CAN’T PICK UP OIL,” said van Heerden.
Sand? Walls in the water made of sand?
“IT’S DESIGNED TO WASH AWAY.”
“THREE HUNDRED SIXTY MILLION.”?
Shaw? It’s Shaw??
“YOU’LL HAVE TO LOOK UP THE CONTRACT.”?
No, I didn’t. It was the Shaw Group. Had to be. But van Heerden would not repeat the name. It would be like a Harry Potter character shouting “Voldemort.”
Apt comparison. While there were better-known bastards in the heavy construction business—Bechtel, Halliburton, for example—Shaw Group was heavy metal’s Dark Lord, deep in the shadows.
Sometimes a flicker of light illuminates them. One of their hired Economic Hit Men, after much meditation and mushrooms in the Andes, wrote a Confession. Dr. John Perkins spilled his soul about the coup d’états, threats, and high-finance flimflam that made Shaw and partners roll. Perkins, once an economist with Gucci loafers and a briefcase full of numerical bullshit, had been my nemesis. I was the investigating economist for the environmental groups trying to stop his frighteningly incompetent engineering company client from building nuclear plants. I got used to being the bubble gum stuck to the bottom of his loafers.
But since Perkins came out of the cold with his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he’s now my BFF. I am forever grateful he pulled down the pants of Shaw’s Stone & Webster unit. This is the company I had the government charge with civil racketeering, the company that lost control of a nuclear reactor project, letting the costs rise 1,000 percent, then covered it up with fraud.
Now, skimming low on the coastline, I was looking down on their parent company’s multimillion-dollar sandbox, guaranteed to wash away.
I scribbled: SANDBOX>SHAW?
After flying another hour along the coastline, the Professor told the pilot, “Here!” and we turned hard to the north, running straight at New Orleans, entering what looked like a secret shortcut through the Delta to the city, a kind of man-made Mississippi. That’s exactly what it was. And van Heerden’s career had drowned in it.
Van Heerden’s career dive began with something he said in July 2005 on a British television documentary about New Orleans:
“In a month this city could be underwater.”
And it was. Thirty days after his warning, every resident was told to get the hell out of the city by car or by pony. At least two thousand left the hard way—floating facedown, a vision that makes me ill and furious to this day.
You’d think the Professor would get a medal for being right, tragically right. But Louisiana burghers thought squirting poison into his cornflakes more fitting.
Van Heerden is not some kind of clairvoyant weirdo. Rather, he was deputy head of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, one of America’s top experts on hurricanes, a soft-spoken, thoughtful technician who can be a serious pain in the ass. And when he isn’t a pain in the ass, he is a serious threat to the Establishment.
Van Heerden not only predicted New Orleans would drown, he could name the guilty party. And it was not Katrina. The hurricane never touched New Orleans: “Katrina swung wide east of the city,” van Heerden told me. “Katrina missed the city by thirty-five miles.” So don’t blame the Lady.
The killer goes by the name of “Mr. Go” and he was right under us as we flew north toward New Orleans.
MR-GO, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, is undoubtedly the most boneheaded, deadly insane project ever built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is a seventy-six-mile-long canal, straight as a gun barrel, running right up from the Gulf of Mexico to the heart of New Orleans. I’ve made a little map for you.
MR-GO was Katrina’s welcome mat to the city. Van Heerden calls it “the Hurricane Highway.”
Until the Army Corps made this crazy gash in the Mississippi Delta fifty years ago, that green wreath of cypress and mangrove protected New Orleans. MR-GO was designed to allow tankers to avoid the Mississippi’s twists and turns and shoot right into New Orleans from the Gulf. It also allowed hurricane waves to shoot in as well.
Van Heerden explained that if the Corps and industry had left a natural cypress barrier of just three miles around the city, the surge caused by Katrina’s wind would have gotten lost in the trees, reduced to next to nothing. “Katrina would have been a storm of no note.”
New Orleans would have stayed dry and alive.
After flying about fifteen miles up the canal, van Heerden said, “Down there, ahead, that’s the government’s admission of guilt.” It was a gigantic plug that closed up the canal. President Obama had ordered a half million tons of rocks dumped in to prevent another Katrina. It was the government’s confession written in stones.
Van Heerden then asked the pilot to make a tight, blood-draining circle where MR-GO meets the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The two canals make a perfect funnel pointing to the city. It was sickening, because you can visualize what happened. Two storm surges squeezed into one channel heading straight into New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. The two eight-foot surges then became combined into a sixteen-foot wave. The wall of water moved faster than a locomotive. But this time, the tsunami was man-made.
And the federal government, Big Shovel, and Big Oil knew it and knew it before it happened. Van Heerden said his whole department, “the LSU Hurricane Center, had been warning them for a number of years about this Funnel, the Hurricane Highway,” the tsunami maker, where MR-GO and the Intracoastal Canal meet, and that the levees were too short to hold it back. “Them” included just about every government agency with a listed phone, from city hall, to the Governor, all the way up to George W. Bush’s White House senior staff, whose counsel spoke directly with van Heerden, then ignored him.
The MR-GO slash job on the Delta caused the government’s own hydrologists to raise alarms from Day One of construction. One internal Army Corps report I’ve seen warned of “the possibility of catastrophic damage to urban areas by a hurricane surge coming up this waterway.”
However, the Corps’ engineers were barred from challenging the Big- Oil/ Big-Shovel combine’s sales pitch to Congress.
“So, basically, the port industry, oil and gas and the big construction companies, the civil engineering companies that benefit from all of the Corps of Engineers projects,” sold MR-GO, van Heerden explained.
But again, Mother Nature took the rap for destroying New Orleans when the real culprit was the surge up MR-GO and the missing marshes.
The drowning of New Orleans was not an Act of God. It was an Act of Lobbyists. An Act of Engineering Contractors. An Act of Chevron. An Act of Exxon.
LOWER NINTH WARD, NEW ORLEANS
We landed at a small airfield at the end of the MR-GO gun barrel so van Heerden could show us where the Gulf exploded into the city. The Lower Ninth Ward once had the highest concentration of African-American home ownership in the United States. Now it has the highest concentration of African-American-owned rubble.
It has been five years since the flood and it still looks like Berlin 1946. Half the houses gone and half the remainder empty, each with a big X and some code painted on them.
I walked with van Heerden to a vacant house with I DEAD DOG spray- painted on it, and next to the X sign, I CAT, the number 2, and 9/6 partly covered by a bank’s foreclosure sale notice. The Professor broke the code for me. The house contained one dead dog, one live cat, and two corpses.
The 9/6 meant rescuers couldn’t get to it for a week, so the bodies must have been quite bloated with gases, floating around the living room on top of the Mississippi water. The couple must have paddled with the family pets until the water pushed them into the ceiling and they suffocated.
Van Heerden had tried to prevent this tragedy. I knew that from my first meeting with van Heerden, at the Hurricane Center in 2006.
It was one year after the hurricane and I was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, investigating a company, Innovative Emergency Management, which had the contract for planning the evacuation of New Orleans. Some plan. I dropped into Innovative’s local headquarters for a copy of it. They said they didn’t have the plan. They had a plan, all right: get in your car and drive like hell. But not everybody has a car. But then, Innovative didn’t have a lot of experience in emergency evacuation planning. They’re experience was in Republican Party funding. They knew it. I knew it. And, rather than explain how they got the contract, they thought it best to try and grab our camera and call in the anti- terrorism police. (Bush had put evacuation planning in the hands of Homeland Security.)
We bolted, jumped into the van Matty Pass had idling in the parking lot, and shot over to LSU to find out what the hell was going on.
Dr. van Heerden, at the time the Hurricane Center’s Deputy Director, knocked me over with a revelation. His department, knowing of the goofy IEM plan, developed a real plan for no charge. Bush and the State rejected it.
Good story. But I could see he had something troubling his mind, and I kept filming. Van Heerden showed us on his computer monitor a full- color graphics film re-creating the flood: the levees giving out, 80 percent of the city underwater. Only it wasn’t a re-creation: It was designed years before Katrina.
(The city’s emergency evacuation boss had written across a map of this plan: KYAGB—“Kiss Your Ass Good-Bye.”)
Hence, the calls with the White House. But the professors, like modern Noahs, were ignored by officialdom, especially because they suggested the oil and gas industry should stop savaging the protective wetlands.
We put the story on air, which did not exactly boost van Heerden’s standing with LSU. The university’s response to van Heerden’s revelations was to take away the professor’s computer. Then they took away his chalk, barring him from teaching where he might infect students with curiosity.
When homeless survivors of Katrina sued the Army Corps over MR- GO, van Heerden offered his expert testimony. The university said if he testified, they would fire his ass. He got the info to the lawyers anyway, and in November 2009, Federal Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the Corps’ plugging its ears to the warnings was nothing less than “negligence, insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness [that] resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions.”
The judge ordered the federal government to compensate victims and rebuild their homes, mostly just cheap shotgun bungalows.
When the seawalls failed in Westhampton Dunes, Long Island, in 1992, Congress voted for funds to rebuild every destroyed mansion (average value $3.4 million), even going so far as to haul in hundreds of truckloads of sand to make sure the Wall Street debt vultures did not lose a minute of tanning time on their private beaches. But this was the Ninth Ward, New Orleans. Congress would have to authorize payment ordered by the judge. That wasn’t about to happen.
New Orleans calls itself “The City That Care Forgot.” In fact, it’s the city that everyone forgot.
Out of Washington came a memo, found in university files, demanding to know why van Heerden’s “irresponsible behavior is tolerated.” That’s when LSU’s Robert Twilley made his little cyanide joke. As an established and well-respected expert in hurricanes, the university couldn’t just fire van Heerden. Instead, they pulled a “Steiner” on him: pulled the funding for his post. However, as Professor Twilley wrote, the entire Hurricane Center was a nest of experts run amok. Van Heerden was just one of the “crazies.” So they “Stei-nered” the entire Hurricane Center: They shut it down.
Let me repeat that: Louisiana shut down its hurricane center. After Katrina.
FRENCH QUARTER, NEW ORLEANS
When we got back to our hotel from our grim tour with Professor Hurricane, Ricardo took off for the French Quarter to “vacuum up B- roll.” He brought back film of sloshed white girls showing the camera their tits, trannie hookers wobbling on high heels, and some tourists pretending to have a good time covered with Mardi Gras beads though it wasn’t Mardi Gras. The whole carnival of American decay on parade.
I didn’t need to look at any of it. I stayed back in the room, with my notes to keep me company.
The LSU Hurricane Center had been closed because of “budget constraints.” Really? A quick search found that just three months after van Heerden was axed, there was, suddenly, no budget constraint.
The university had received a big check for $300,000, but instead of funding the hurricane center, the money was tagged for a new “Wetlands Center.” When I say “big check” I mean that literally; it was one of those big poster checks, huge as a desk, used for newspaper photo ops so the donor gets big publicity.
And here it is:
The guy with the beard, holding the check, is the new center’s director, Robert Twilley—Dr. Cyanide. With him is the leader of the civic charity whose name is on the check, an environmental organization, America’s Wetland.
I am a terrible man. I assume that any charity that combines patriotic America with green Wetland must be a front. But for whom?
America’s Wetland promoted “climate sustainability.” A quick check revealed its Climate Sustainability Sponsor is Chevron. Its World Sponsor is Shell Oil, and its backers are the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, BP, and topped, like everything else in Louisiana, by Tabasco Pepper Sauce.
America’s Wetland (AW) wouldn’t say if it got money from big oil or how much, though Shell wasn’t shy, trumpeting its $3 million payment to its front. I noted that, besides oil and hot sauce, America’s Wetland had another sponsor, Shaw Construction.
Matty Pass dialed up tax experts who got us AW’s Form 990, the government filing required of all registered charities. The $300,000 payment couldn’t be identified. Check for yourself.
Despite the name America’s Wetland on the photo-display check, the university had to admit to me that, yes, the money came from Chevron, 100 percent of it. AW was the wet green cover. Three hundred grand from Chevron seems like a nice way for the oil company to say “thank you” to the school for axing van Heerden and friends.
This led me back to my note: SANDBOX>SHAW?
The top layer was easy to excavate. Anyone could do it with a pooper scooper: The Big Sandbox was a Bobby Jindal Special. With Anderson Cooper and CNN giving him a soapbox, Governor Jindal stamped and shrieked that the Mississippi Delta needed “protection right now”—he held up a vacuum cleaner on CNN, Jindal the Cleaner-Upper—and declared that he was seizing the BP fund for spill victims, and . . .
. . . dammit, going to build a wall of sand to protect the precious wetland, right now, whatever it takes, whatever it costs. And that I, Bobby Jindal, won’t let no goddamn pointy-headed environmentalist bureaucrat from some goddamn paper-shuffling office in Washington and some foot- dragging, prissy metrosexual President Obama tell the good folk of Louisiana to wait on some goddamn “enviry-mental impact statement” by some greenie who wants to have gay marriages in the military, stop me, Governor Bobby Jindal, from saving these Precious Wetlands from the tide of oil threatening our Way of Life.
Or words to that effect.
The rednecks, the tea-baggers, and the screw-them-tree-hugging- bureaucrats-in-Washington crowd and Fox and CNN just ate it up, despite the uncomfortable truth on which every expert, bar none, from the Environmental Protection Agency to Greenpeace to the pinhead professors could agree: Jindal was nuts, and his dissolving sandbox was either a hoax or a horror.
What was the Big Sandbox’s big oil capture? One thousand barrels.
That’s it? I pulled out my calculator: 1,000 barrels is 1/5 of 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of the spilled oil. For a third of a billion dollars.
I thought: Jindal’s a genius. A Hindu who found Jesus in time to run for office. The born-again Republican may sound like Baton Rouge, but there’s more Bangalore smarts in that good ol’ boy than he’ll admit.
Here’s a guy who had zero, nada, no plan at all to prepare his oil state for a big oil blowout. Compare Jindal’s Louisiana to the State of Alaska. Post–Exxon Valdez, Alaska forced the oil industry to spend billions on spill response, but Jindal’s state, moving more than ten times the amount of oil as Alaska, demanded nothing. Still doesn’t.
But, with his Big Berm sandbox, Mr. Do Nothing was now Mr. I’m Taking Charge, Mr. Get The Greenies Out Of The Way. And with Anderson Cooper there in the canoe with him, picking up oily birds (I can’t make this stuff up), Jindal’s national recognition numbers made him a presidential contender.
(How do they do it? The voters must take some responsibility. I pulled out my calculator again, and just as I suspected, if Lincoln had simply let Louisiana and Mississippi secede, America’s average IQ would rise by 0.3 percent.)
But why a sandbox? For $360 million?
The question isn’t why? but who? The Shaw Group was the shovel. It was indeed their Ewoks machines scooping up sand from the Delta bottom and making piles. But we guessed that. And who was the biggest contributor to Jindal’s campaign for Governor? Shaw Construction. We could have guessed that, too.
There are lots of other wasteful projects Jindal and Shaw could use to diddle each other. Why this particular goofy boondoggle? Why this bogus affection to save the wetlands that Jindal would happily slash with drilling rigs? Why big berms?
The Answer: America’s Wetland. America’s Wetland was the lone environmental group in the state to back the berms. Back in New York, Badpenny dug in and found out that America’s Wetland had been pushing hard for constructing the great sand pyramids long before the spill. In other words, all this crazy spending had nothing—nothing—to do with stopping BP’s oil from floating into the Delta. Not many environmental groups love big shovels; and, even if they do, they wouldn’t have the clout to move the State of Louisiana to blow a third of a billion on their say-so. Something was missing, and it wasn’t the Tabasco Sauce. Yes, oil companies use green beards, but America’s Wetland was the key to something bigger. I went back to basics: Don’t follow the oil, follow the money.
And the money led me to Whitney Bank, the JP Morgan of the Gulf Coast.
Whitney Bank was not a wild guess, because holding up the check with Dr. Cyanide was a fit, tall man of royal bearing, a gray-maned banker from Central Casting, R. King Milling, former President of Whitney Bank.
R. King Milling, Governor of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.
R. King Milling of Milling, Benson and Woodward, the big oil industry law firm founded by R. King’s granddaddy in the nineteenth century.
R. King Milling, Chairman of Governor Jindal’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. That’s the crew that wrote the official demand to President Obama to build the berm.
No surprise it was King Milling: I knew it had to be one really big Fat Cat that needed a third-of-a-billion dollar litter box.
The King and America’s Wetland were on a crusade: to have the federal government fix the wounded wetlands, a laudable goal, no?
No. If you burn down my house, and you get caught, you pay. I don’t ask the taxpayers to cover your bill. America’s Wetland wanted America, not Big Oil, to pay to clean up Big Oil’s mess.
The oil industry was in full-on panic mode. The Louisiana Supreme Court, by just one vote, four to three, absolved the oil companies from paying for the damage they had wrought on the wetland. That is pretty thin insurance against a liability of several billion dollars. With the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, an angry Louisiana public could easily force amendment of the law.
America’s Wetland won’t say where it gets its money, but Shell Oil is not so bashful, crowing that it gave this “environmental” group $3 million.
With Shell’s $3 million behind it and more, America’s Wetland launched an impassioned campaign to have 100 percent of the U.S. taxpayer’s share of oil royalties given back to the oil companies or to their contractors—like Shaw—for “restoration” work to save the Delta. Even the government of Azerbaijan wouldn’t take that deal, no matter how many shoes you bought Lady Baba.
Big Oil faced new threats after the Deepwater Horizon. Green groups not sponsored by Shell, like the Gulf Restoration Network, called for a moratorium on deepwater drilling and for tighter regulation of the industry, beginning with an end to the oil industry’s slash jobs on the coast. To save the wetlands, you could start by not digging out more of it.
But that wouldn’t do. According to a powerful defender of the Gulf industry called America’s Energy Coast (whose Chairman is R. King Milling), all these regulations are simply strangling the economy of the Gulf and the United States of America.
Milling’s Wetland group agrees with Milling’s Energy group. Rather than regulate industry, Milling’s “environmental” groups call on government to “unlock barriers to increasing the resilience of industry e.g., electric utility and oil and gas sectors.”
And Milling’s bank agrees. Whitney Bank had been chewing its corporate fingernails down to the cuticles over new drilling regulations that threaten its core business. And Eddie the Eagle agrees with Milling’s bank. Eddie is the cartoon and comic book character America’s Wetland created for schoolkids (through a generous gift from Chevron).
Besides, how do we know that the oil companies caused the damage to the wetlands? Anyone with eyes could see that the guilty party is that destructive she-wolf, Mother Nature.
That is, anyone with eyes watching television. The local tube was blanketed by ads from what is easily the most powerful civic organization in the state, Women of the Storm, formed immediately after New Orleans drowned.
These were not women in the storm; rather, Women of the Storm is comprised of that circle of genteel rich white ladies who, after the flood, came out of their plantation houses to wipe the brows of the fleeing Black folk. The Women got awards and praise from Congress but never spent a night sleeping in a FEMA trailer.
Am I being unnecessarily nasty about ladies doing their best to be helpful? Maybe it’s because Stephen of the Storm never got his award from Congress. Stephen Smith, a young Black man I met, can’t swim, but he paddled a floating mattress from attic window to attic window and pulled half a dozen people to safety. He then brought them to a bridge on Highway 10 and watched helicopters pass over for four days. An elderly man with him, who’d given his last bottle of fresh water to his grandkids, died of dehydration, waiting. Stephen closed the lids on the eyes of the corpse. After they were finally picked up, Stephen was herded onto a bus, driven hundreds of miles to an unknown destination, and dumped off. It was Houston. His kids were bused to Baton Rouge. The French Quarter Marriott Hotel fired him and he remains in Texas, working for minimum wage, unable to afford to bring over his family.
But I digress.
The Women of the Storm ran these slick, slick, slick ads. I want you to take a look at one.
It opens with Mother Nature, that harpy, ripping up the coastline. The winds howl. The trees bend and waves crash while a voice tells us, “Crippling storms . . . hurricanes . . .”
The ad continues: These storms and hurricanes are not threatening birds or fish but . . . “our energy security.” It’s that beast Nature against the defenseless . . . oil industry. An odd message for a charity. But it’s done so slickly, you really have to watch twice, and slowly, to know you’ve been greased. The actress Sandra Bullock even lent her voice to one.
The Nature-did-this-to-us campaign has expanded. Women of the Storm boasts a new deal that will put its “public service announcements” on over six thousand movie screens.
The women storm troopers are calling for 80 percent of the fines levied against BP to go to “restoration.”
This was easily a million-dollar campaign. But who could afford to pay for these spots?
The trail of clues led, not to BP London, as I expected, but to this penthouse office atop the Whitney Bank building on Poydras Street in New Orleans.
I could see the web, I could see the spider. What Creole conjury gave R. King Milling eight long legs?
I puzzled this through as Ricardo and I kicked along the riverbank, trying to decipher the vibrations of gris-gris, the amulets of dove’s blood and sap used here by those with a grudge and an enemy. And everyone has a grudge and at least one enemy.
My cell rang and I assumed it was Badpenny, hoping she had found a way to get us in to the Poydras penthouse. But the voice on the line had a chocolaty Ninth Ward drawl.
“Palast, now listen. This is everything you need to know about King Milling. Milling is the Rex.”
CAFÉ DU MONDE, ON THE MISSISSIPPI
I’ve worked investigations in New Orleans for two decades and still can’t break the code. But for the price of a chicory coffee and beignet smothered in powdered sugar, I could always get no-shit guidance from the poet, trial lawyer, and one-time city councilman Brod Bagert. There isn’t anybody from the Quarter to Bayou LaFourche who doesn’t know the Bullfrog of the Café Du Monde.
Here’s some background:
The fall of the Confederacy in 1865 spawned the rise of the Mystical Order of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whose white-sheeted pogroms against the freed Black population effectively undid their emancipation and restored the Old Order. In Louisiana, the target was Catholics, the “French.”
So, the elite of New Orleans, including the Frenchmen, had to create their own orders. By 1872, the secret societies, the Mystick Krewes of Comus and Rex, begun before the Civil War, took on a new mandate: to designate the exclusive rulership of the city and name its King.
For more than a century, membership has remained secret, kept behind masks during Mardi Gras, except for the Rex of the Rex, the King of Carnival, who is announced and, arriving by riverboat, given the key to the city by the Mayor. In 1993, crown and key were given to R. King Milling. His wife’s brother was named the other honored Rex, of Krewe Comus.
Tourists are charmed by the Rex floats, gawk at the Krewe’s exclusive masked ball attended in Louis XIV costumery and at the truly royal robes and jewels of King and his debutante Queen. What outsiders cannot see is that the naming of the Rex is a deadly serious ritual here. It acknowledges an authority that reaches quietly and deeply into Louisiana society.
“So Mrs. Milling is Queen and Queen-in-Law?”
“King’s wife, Anne, is the most important female in New Orleans society, founder of Women of the Storm.”
No businessman, no financier, no priest, and certainly no politician would cross a couple so crowned.
WHITNEY BANK BUILDING, TOP FLOOR
King Milling has a conference table longer than my kitchen and red Honda combined. Imagine a mahogany runway for a small plane in a banqueting room of dark-stained hardwood, with cathedral windows high overhead, sparing Milling the views of the ruins of the drowned city.
I grabbed a rich, deep leather chair, much like the one Les Abrahams set himself into at the Oriental Club. I could barely believe I was asking royalty, King Rex Milling, if he could pour me a coffee. Milling could not believe it either.
Not that many Americans know me, but he knew exactly. He is paid to know. And I enjoyed his terse look toward the nitwit PR flak who was bamboozled into granting me the interview.
(“Good work, Penny!” James gushed. Her poshest English accent “from London” had pulled off this bank job, plus an oily note from Matty Pass, who kept my name out of it.)
The Rex went to work. Unrequested, Milling launched into the much- practiced Terrible Tale of the Disappearing Delta. It dazzled. The King on his float, but instead of Rex’s coveted gold doubloons he tosses on Fat Tuesday, he threw me coins of wisdom, poetry, and fact—he tossed “45 percent of the nation’s saltwater marsh . . . the lineal land on which we live . . . engineering failure . . . Katrina . . .” And Mother Nature, heartless, unrelenting, insatiably devouring the Delta, “continues to subside under its own weight.”
Then to the finale line: “. . . 90 percent of the offshore production to this country. Period.”
I asked, “So how much of the damage is attributable to the oil companies?”
Milling stopped. I felt as if I’d just farted at a debutante ball.
He recovered and called on Science.
“Scientists that I’ve talked to . . . and these are the ones that the state is using and that we’ve brought in from all over the country . . . they believe that root causes of this issue is this, is this river. And but for that river we cannot fix it.”
Aha! It’s Old Man River done it.
But why did he have to bring in scientists for the State of Louisiana when Louisiana State University has the most renowned experts in the field?
“Nobody,” he averred, “can sit down and figure out who did what to whom.”
Oh, but they have.
I did not think it polite to mention the U.S. Geological Survey’s official Process Classification of Coastal Landloss in the Mississippi Delta had, in fact, made that calculation. If you’re curious: oil and gas drilling, 36.06 percent of the loss; with related infrastructure and industry, 70.74 percent. Old Man River’s water-logging and waves responsible for 29.26 percent.
How about the calculations of Dr. van Heerden, Mr. Milling?
A smile. “I know Ivor very well!”
But then a sorrowful look. “I’m not sure what his science position is. . . ” (He’s been fired. It’s in the papers.)
And, Milling helpfully cautioned me, “Quite frankly, you’d have to go check what his credentials are.”
Then, I felt compelled to ask, “Should the oil industry repair the damage they created?”
The King was stunned by the idea, as if he’d never heard such a thought. “I know no reason to make them do it.”
Who then, how then, stop the wounds that are chopping up the Delta and dumping it into the sea?
Here’s where the genius of America’s Wetland, of America’s Energy Coast, of Eddie the Eagle, of King Milling and the several shapes into which he trans-migrifies shone from his throne: We’re all to blame! We have all sinned. Chevron bulldozers, true, but fishing boats create damage when they float through the canals.
“We know that every fishing lugger and every dock and every boat that goes through this causes a degree of deterioration.”
Those damn shrimpers.
Now his Southern drawl crescendoed:
“It’s a HOLISTIC issue. You have to have EVERYBODY AT THE TABLE because EVERYBODY is going to [be] impacted and EVERYBODY’S going to lose everything if we don’t GET THEM ALL AT THE TABLE to try to SOLVE THE PROBLEM. The 501(c)3s [charities, like Women of the Storm], and the ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS like the Environmental Defense Fund, Nature Conservancy . . .”
Oil companies should not pay for damage?
“Talk to the Environmental Defense Fund. Talk to all the ones that we participate with. They’re all with us!”
Togetherness was what it was all about. His heart was in ending conflict and putting our shoulders to the wheel and pulling together and getting beyond the blame and all that. His groups had been formed at the Governor’s request. The oil-state senators were at the table too. “All the environmentalists” in the room with industry and government focused on the Common Goal, saving ourselves, our children, from the loss of our Precious Wetland.
Of course the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy bellied up to Milling’s table, with their spoons out. Those two understand the value of cooperation. They even kept mattresses tied to their backs so their industry “partners” can take their pleasure wherever and whenever needed.
Milling takes no chances. He spent a pile on focus groups around the country to choose the exact phrases that would resonate, that would sell. Swamp and Cajun are out. So is oil. Toxic oil became think-positive “energy!”
And inhibiting words—like regulation or rules or fines or limits—were banned from the vocabulary.
At the core of this apotheosis: the carefully constructed Myth of Milling. The banker who became crusader for the environment! Even that Yankee liberal PBS-er Bill Moyers gave Milling a gushing profile. The new progressive businessman! The Times-Picayune awarded King the city’s “Loving Cup.”
Love is everywhere.
Shell and King’s client Chevron have come into the tent and found green religion. And they tithe.
It’s all about solutions, about saving our Energy Coast. BP painted its stations green, but Milling went further, turning Chevron, with voodoo and gris-gris, into a crusader for the environment! The Sustainable Climate Sponsor.
Everyone was at the table. Milling’s table.
The man is the maestro. He has figured out how to completely control the terms of the debate.
What do “scientists” think? Ask Milling’s scientists. Ask Dr. Cyanide at his Wetland Center.
Government? Ask Milling, Chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Business? Ask Milling of America’s Energy Coast.
Finance and insurance, New Orleans society? All at Milling’s table.
Anyone not on the America’s Wetland/Women of the Storm/Energy Coast/Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority/Federal Reserve Board team is simply out of the picture. Disappeared. All the oxygen has been sucked out of the water; there is no room left in the debate. The debate is over. The forty-six groups affiliated with the Gulf Action Network, from Greenpeace to Sierra Club, well, they get no press, no loving cup, no door to policymakers, no government appointments or professorships—they are fish drowned in water. The residents in the FEMA trailers, the Black men with the pooper scoopers? No table manners. That is, no conference table manners. Not invited.
But BP and Bush and Obama and Jindal and EDF and Shaw the Shovel and rich Stormy Ladies and the Army Corps and LSU are all together, cheek-to-cheek in full costume at Rex’s ball.
And doubloons are tossed everywhere, $360 million for the kitty litter, billions for this project, and billions pouring from the U.S. treasury like crude from a Bayou blowout.
An Energy-Finance cluster-fuck in a sandbox.
OUT ON POYDRAS STREET
Then we were out on the street. My fault.
I had to ask where America’s Wetland got its money.
Hadn’t Leslie taught me anything? Gentlemen don’t ask gentlemen such questions.
King refused, with hauteur, telling me to “look it up” in his tax forms.
Well, as a matter of fact, I happened to have America’s Wetland IRS tax filing with me. But something was missing from the filing: Schedule B, the list of donors. Might he provide it?
His Majesty was not used to such impertinence.
“NO NO GODDAMN IT NO I’M NOT GOING TO DO IT BECAUSE I’VE HAD IT WITH YOU.”
King has something in common with my executive producer.
Could he give me maybe just a peek?
“STOP! GODDAMN IT! STOP! PICK THIS UP”—whereupon, he smashed our microphone on his defenseless conference table—“AND GET OUT OF HERE.”
I took it the interview was over.
FORMER SITE OF THE LAFITTE HOMES
In 2006, a year after the great flood, Patricia Thomas took me to her beautiful home.
I helped her break into it through the metal seals. I met her when I saw her neighbor, her cousin, standing with her two children in front of it, crying. Night was falling and the police told her if she attempted to take her two children back into their house, they would be arrested.
Their homes were scheduled for demolition with their possessions still inside.
“Where’m I going to go, mister?” she asked me. “That’s what I’d like to know; where’m I going to go?”
We broke in, but we had little time before the cops would bust us. In the kitchen, the skin-and-bones, toothless Black woman suddenly started shouting, “Katrina didn’t do this! Man did this! Katrina didn’t take away my home! Man! Man did this!”
True. An insider at the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) told me they’d been trying to get those poor people out of there for decades. This was prime real estate between the French Quarter and finance district.
I was the insider. HANO was my client.
“This wonderful property between the Quarter and business district,” says a brochure from the group that tore down her house, will be rebuilt using hurricane repair funds, low-income tax credits, and financing from JP Morgan and Whitney Bank.
The Lower Ninth Ward remains a ruin, but Obama’s U.S. Secretary of Housing came down to praise this plan for the renaissance of New Orleans, the demolition of LaFitte homes, crafted by the nonprofit group Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, R. King Milling, Chairman.
The Rex’s toadies and stooges, Dr. Cyanide and other industry tools, should have done their homework before they decided to lean on Dr. van Heerden.
Silencing this Louisiana State University professor, with the quiet voice and strange Afrikaans accent, must have seemed easier than crushing a Girl Scout with a bus.
They should have checked how van Heerden arrived at LSU from South Africa: by a boat he built himself, the Ex-Natalia.
They should have asked the courage question: Who’s your daddy? Milling’s daddy was another oil company consiglieri. Van Heerden’s family members were imprisoned for fighting the apartheid dictatorship.
Ivor built his boat and sailed half the world from Natal, South Africa, to escape the deadly secret police of the old regime. After standing up to South African thugs and killers, van Heerden was hardly likely to bend a knee to oil companies and their banker.
I asked the prophet if the city was ready for another Katrina.
“No,” van Heerden said softly. “Definitely not. If anything, it’s worse than when Katrina hit. A section of the flood wall itself has sunk about nine inches.” The homicide that is about to happen.
There is nothing new under the sun.
“Man is corrupted in the Earth,” the Lord said to Noah.
Nothing has changed since Genesis 6. It is greed and arrogance and deception, not water, that drowns us.
And van Heerden? His ark is in his yard. He never dismantled the Ex-Natalia. South Africans have defeated apartheid, so now, he says, he’ll sail away home to the Land of the Freed, escaping from this benighted oil colony, Louisiana U.S.A.
The Palast Investigative Fund is making our half-hour investigative report available as a free download – Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans, produced for Democracy Now.
In the course of the filming, Palast was charged with violation of anti-terror laws on a complaint from Exxon Corporation. Charges were dropped, and our digging continued.