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BP attempts to clean up Gulf via Twitter

Heavily oiled pelicans after the Gult oil spill

The following article details how BP is attempting to put a positive spin on the continuing aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, through social media. Should we be at all surprised after the events of last year?

Image CC licensed by IBRRC

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “BP attempts to clean up Gulf via Twitter” was written by Alex Hannaford, for Guardian Weekly on Tuesday 1st February 2011 18.00 UTC

New study finds methane bacteria has eaten all the methane from the oil spill earlier than expected.

This is a tweet from whoever is employed to sit, fingers poised (there’s already been 18 tweets today, as I write, and it’s only 4pm) behind the Twitter app for BP America. But click on the full story they’ve linked to and you’ll see marine ecologist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia in Athens counter:

“Not so fast … Just because you can’t find methane in the spot where you lowered your [instruments] doesn’t mean there’s no methane out there somewhere … the more parsimonious explanation for why the group found no BP methane: They lost track of the freaking plume.”

“BP’s cleanup operations are ‘on track’ with the goal of cleaning Gulf beaches by spring tourist season,” BP Tweets, linking to a Q&A with Mike Utsler, the oil company appointee responsible for overseeing the cleanup, who adds: “The beaches are beautiful.” Er, not according to Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University chemist who analysed the spill for the US government and was quoted in an Associated Press report at the end of December that said it was unlikely they would clean the beaches by the time college students began flocking to the Gulf coast for spring break. “There is so much oil under the sand, mud and oyster shells that tar balls may be washing up for months, if not years.”

BP America’s Twitter missives remind me of Saddam’s old information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf – spouting propaganda that paints an image of a Gulf where everything is just fine and dandy. But all you need do is actually read many of the stories they’re linking to in their entirety – or dig a little deeper – and a different picture emerges.

A Tweet on Monday read: “New Orleans area hotels ended 2010 on high note & M from BP ‘helped a great deal’.”

What BP perhaps forgot to tweet – and what I’ll tell you here, in order to jog their memory – was that in neighbouring Alabama, there have been “huge tourism losses”, according to the state’s Coastal Recovery Commission. Across Mobile Bay, in the Orange Beach and Gulf Shores resorts, “hotel and condominium occupancy was cut in half from 2009” and lodging revenues countywide were “off by m”.

To be fair, BP’s chief tweeter did not think it appropriate to mention Alabama, but instead, posted some pictures of its beaches. “Cloudy, but beautiful in Gulf Shores, Alabama, today,” they wrote. Unfortunately for BP, it can’t do much about the very public tweets in response to theirs. One follower, @cliftonchavis, replied: “Your despicable blood money hasn’t helped anyone. Go eat some toxic shrimp out of the Gulf!”

BP has tweeted links to claims forms, so those affected by the spill can request compensation. What it hasn’t tweeted is that Gulf coast lawmakers complain that the compensation system has been “slow, inconsistent and lacking in transparency”; or that nine months since the spill, 57% of those claims remain unpaid – in Alabama alone.

Remember the bright yellow and orange “booms” that corralled the oil during the spill? “BP teams will test Gulf waters for any remaining boom anchors and use a ‘safe and proven’ method for removal,” BP tweeted. Read the story it links to and you find that there are an estimated 3,500 of those “orphaned anchors” in St Bernard Parish alone. “Thousands more are estimated in Jefferson and Plaquemines.” A member of the local council says the anchors will be removed by any means necessary – even “if we need to initiate litigation against BP”.

What about the seafood? Is it safe?

“Scientists say Gulf seafood is the safest it’s ever been due to extensive testing,” BP tweeted; and in another, that the company’s Mike Utsler is “absolutely confident” of its safety. What they didn’t tweet is that those scientists are far from unanimous. An MSNBC report at the end of December said some scientists remained sceptical that the government testing has been rigorous enough to protect public health and that one New Orleans law firm has challenged those government assurances in court, saying it poses “a significant danger to public health”.

William Sawyer is a Florida-based toxicologist whose research was used by one of the attorneys involved in that lawsuit. I asked him why he was worried about Gulf seafood when the government and BP is saying it’s OK.

“I’ve done a tremendous amount of work on seafood using lab methodologies beyond what the FDA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have used. They’ve relied on the so-called ‘sniff test’ for other hydrocarbons. But I found a big problem with that. I found a high level of petroleum hydrocarbons within fin fish, crabs and oysters, which presents a health hazard. FDA labs, through NOAA, have not tested for these hydrocarbons. They assumed they would show up in the sensory test, so there is a gap in their testing.”

Sawyer told me high levels of these hydrocarbons can cause liver damage.

BP often throws in some curveball tweets for good measure. Here’s one from 30 January: “Preliminary data from a count of manatees [an aquatic mammal also known as a ‘sea cow’] in Florida waters show above-average numbers.” The linked story confirms that.

But isn’t this the same stretch of Florida coast that was almost untouched by the spill? I called Carli Segelson, a researcher at Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Yes,” she said. “The oil spill impacted parts of the panhandle, but there are no manatees there.”

And that’s not all. The only reason there was a healthy number of manatees on the day the survey was conducted was because of “favourable weather” (they like warm water). “I’m not sure how the oil spill cleanup would relate to that,” she told me. “Besides, the goal of the survey is to produce a snapshot of manatee distribution around the state. It’s not a population estimate. But we can say we saw 4,840 on that day.

So, not only is a tweet from BP about manatees in Florida entirely disingenuous – designed to make us think BP’s cleanup operation has contributed to the health of the animal’s population, perhaps, but if we did want to take the number of manatees into account when assessing the effect of the oil spill, it would be bad news for BP, not good: Segelson said last year’s count was even higher. “It’s was 5,076 – the highest we’ve ever seen,” she said. And guess what? That was taken three months before the oil spill.

You can follow BP America’s tweets @BP_America. Just don’t believe the hype.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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