Inside BP’s Media Blockade

Contractor who obstructed WDSU reporter's access to beach cleanup decides to talk

A former BP contractor who blocked a New Orleans TV news reporter from talking to cleanup crews working on a polluted beach in Grande Isle, Louisiana in June contacted the same reporter last Friday in order to criticize BP’s handling of the Gulf oil spill.

Adam Dillon, a former Army Special Forces solider who lives in North Carolina, contacted WDSU’s Scott Walker, with whom he had butted heads on Grand Isle, after BP reportedly fired him on suspect grounds. Media watchdogs have criticized BP for obstructing press access along the Gulf on numerous occasions since the spill began in late April, and a video that captured the encounter between Dillon and Walker in June received widespread attention. On Friday night, WDSU aired an interview between the two men.

“When you met me (in June), and you were straight with me and I saw the way that you were being treated, I told you I wished I could tell you more,” Dillon, who is running for sheriff in North’s Carolina’s Pender County, said after Walker asked why he had got in touch with him. “And after the way BP treated me, I’m telling you now that you deserve an answer, and that’s why you’re getting an answer.”

Dillon says that BP fired him after he took pictures of what he believes were equations related to the use of oil dispersants, potentially toxic chemicals that have been used in unheard of quantities to breakup oil in the Gulf. “I saw something when I was out there,” he told Walker. “I took pictures of something and I brought it to the attention of the command structure and whatever I took pictures of, 12 hours later I was gone.”

While Dillon credited cleanup workers as being “really great, hard-working” people, he said that BP also employs some “cutthroat individuals” who are more concerned about money than mopping up the company’s mess. “I will never have loyalty to this company,” he told Walker. “I will always have loyalty to my country. My country comes first, and what this what this company is doing to this country right now is just wrong.”

The two-and-half minute interview concluded by saying that WDSU would run a follow-up interview with Dillon on Monday night, but that story has been delayed, according to a post at Walker’s personal blog.

Fortunately, Mother Jones, which has been hammering away at BP’s press obstruction for the last two months, caught up with Dillon and got a few more details. The article, by Kate Sheppard, is worth quoting at length:

Based on his behind-the-scenes view of the spill response, [Dillon] describes a cleanup effort in disarray, marred by unclear lines of authority and shoddy communications among the numerous players involved—from BP and its litany of contractors and subcontractors to the Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies. “There’s just so many moving parts and moving pieces,” he says. “The right hand is just not talking to the left.” In BP’s attempts to control the flow of information, Dillon says, it has largely compounded these problems.”

But while Dillon says the company is bungling many aspects of the spill response, he notes that it has done a reasonably good job in one area: blocking the media from seeing the worst of the disaster in Grand Isle, a beach on a barrier island off Louisiana’s coast. “There was all kinds of stuff they didn’t want the media to see,” he says, describing areas thick with oil that were off-limits to journalists. “They kept it very strict what they wanted the media not to see, and what they wanted them to see. Where the media was actually given access to really was kind of mundane.”

While BP has insisted publicly that it has not prevented spill workers from talking to the press, Dillon says company officials made it perfectly clear to contractors that they would lose their jobs if they spoke to reporters. “There are people down on that beach that are begging to talk to reporters, because they’re having pay issues, having problems,” says Dillon of the workers in Grand Isle. “Any of those laborers that are down there are being told behind closed doors that if they talk to the media, they’ll be fired.”

To enforce its media blockade, Dillon says, the company turned to its security force, largely made up of guys like him, ex-military and law enforcement personnel. “They were given orders to herd the media away,” he says, and they followed those instructions just like he did. “They didn’t know the reason behind it—they were just told keep the media away from [the cleanup workers].” He adds, “That’s a First Amendment violation… You can’t keep the media away. It’s a public beach. We weren’t under Martial Law.”

Apparently, after working on Grand Isle, Dillon was transferred to the Unified Command Center in Houma, Louisiana, where he took the pictures that he believes got him fired. “They screwed up royally when they let me go,” Dillon told Mother Jones. “I was down there to do the right thing, to clean up. They just don’t know who they’re messing with.”

Indeed, few people involved with BP have been willing to open up with the media. Dillon’s decision to do so deserves praise (as the does the Coast Guard’s decision on Monday to allow the media to access safety zones around boom deployed on oiled coastlines), but in order to prove that this isn’t just a sour-grapes complaint against the company, we need more details from him. So, it will be interesting to see what else Dillon has to add (especially about those illicit photos) in the second part of his interview with WDSU, and hopefully his candor will encourage others to speak out.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.