By GAP Executive Director Mark Cohen, and published on October 6, 2010.
BP is everywhere in the media vowing “We will make it right.” Pardon my skepticism, but BP has a long and dishonorable history of greenwashing, even prior to its Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Remember BP’s highly touted rebirth a few years ago as “Beyond Petroleum”? Well, five million recent barrels of crude in the Gulf suggest otherwise. Indeed, the evidence to date is that BP is doing all it can to silence the very courageous employees and contractors who are really trying to make it right.
Kenneth Abbott, a project control supervisor on an even larger Gulf oil rig than Deepwater Horizon, has for years vocally challenged potentially catastrophic safety lapses at BP. Stuart Sneed, a pipeline safety technician employed by a BP contractor, stopped work due to oil pipeline cracks in Alaska perilously close to a nearby welding crew. BP ignored his concerns and a pipe later burst. And BP employee Mike Mason bore witness to his company cheating over 100 times on tests of blowout preventers–the very device that failed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
BP fired all three of these whistleblowers for raising concerns that proved true. Not exactly making it right.
While BP holds the industry’s worst track record, it’s hardly unique: Shell’s oil spill tally is nearly as bad. Last year there were nearly two oil spills a month in the Gulf of Mexico, all with little consequence to the polluters. No wonder the Deepwater Horizon’s management felt empowered to cut corners and ignore safety concerns–not just in drilling, but in the cleanup effort as well. Here again, we owe a debt of gratitude to courageous individuals like Adam Dillon. A BP contractor, Dillon captured disturbing photos of chemical dispersants in the Gulf and brought them to the attention of his superiors. He, along with many independent scientists, also spoke out against BP barring media access to heavily oil-soaked areas. He, too, was fired.
Before blowing the whistle, future Abbotts, Sneeds, Masons, and Dillons should consult whistleblower law experts in order to effectively exercise their rights.
The BP oil disaster was a corporate and regulatory calamity. That those who dared to speak out paid the price with their livelihoods is a moral travesty. And perhaps they would have been spared had they known the law before taking action. There are significant, albeit imperfect, legal protections already on the books for Gulf Coast workers who blow the whistle. A slew of federal environmental, maritime, health and safety, and fraud statutes, as well as state laws, protect employees who blow the whistle on potential harm to the public, the environment, or the workers themselves. But to make effective use of these laws, a whistleblower needs expert advice. (Or better yet, the Senate can make those rights perfectly clear by following the House and passing the landmark Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act.)
Neither BP nor the government has shown itself trustworthy in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. All the more reason we need whistleblowers to come forward, publicly or anonymously, to tell us what’s really going on, so it isn’t repeated. We all pay a huge price when Gulf Coast residents don’t know their free speech rights. That’s why Gulf Coasters and all Americans need a vibrant “Know Your Rights” campaign to really make it right, by protecting and celebrating courageous individuals who speak out about dangers to our food chain, the vitality of the Gulf ecosystem, and a way of life imperiled by corporate greed and a hapless regulatory regime.
Mark Cohen is the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, www.whistleblower.org