by Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
The Obama administration has a double BP problem: the oil giant and the other BP: Black People. “It appears that BP and the Obama administration find it easier to stanch the flow of information than they do the deepwater gusher,” which at some point may cause great stretches of the Gulf to be written off as “sacrifice zones,” like atomic testing sites in the 50s and inner cities in the 70s. The author knows something about the inner workings of the Environmental Protection Agency, having won the largest award ever against the EPA for sexual and racial discrimination.
The Gulf Region as a New “Sacrifice Zone”
by Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“It is possible that the day will come when vast areas of the Gulf and its coastal regions will be declared sacrifice zones.”
By now, if asked to describe the BP problem facing Carol M. Browner, the Special Advisor to the President for Energy and the Environment, there is little doubt that most people could likely site some details about the April 20th explosion that killed eleven people and triggered the worst environmental disaster in US history. With tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil blasting daily into the Gulf of Mexico at pressure equivalent to a power washer—it is possible that the day will come when vast areas of the Gulf and its coastal regions will be declared sacrifice zones. That is, areas that are so contaminated that the cost and feasibility of cleaning and restoring them to there prior state will exceed their total economic worth.
There are already examples of official sacrifice zones in the United States today. The Yucca salt flats in Nevada, for example—the staging area for hundreds of nuclear tests—were declared a sacrifice zone in 1997 by the US Geological Survey. Before discussing the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, however, there is a perfect example of widespread sacrifice zones occurring in cities all across America, so obvious it needs pointing out—gentrification. City neighborhoods were abandoned by white America after World War II with the great northern migration of African Americans filling those abandoned cities. It wouldn’t be until increasing awareness of sustainable environments, increase commuting costs and the need to break oil addiction began to argue for a return by whites to the cities that banking institutions started pouring serious resources back into American inner cities. For decades these same areas had been sacrifice zones where poverty and its poor cousins despair, and hopelessness flourished. In many instances, even the sacrifice zones were sacrificed when toxic waste, brown fields, and landfills were commonly the neighbors of poor and largely communities of color.
“Where once it was the inner cities, it is now outlying areas becoming sacrifice zones.”
The human costs of this are enormous. Families and entire communities are displaced as the cycle of racism goes full circle, with the disenfranchised squeezed out of the cities and having to locate further and further out. Where once it was the inner cities, it is now outlying areas becoming sacrifice zones.
As a precursor to the Deepwater Horizon calamity, the experience of the Exxon Valdez taught or should have taught us much about how enormous petroleum corporations are likely to act when their cash cow does undeniable harm to the environment. Usually the harm is out of sight out of mind, in that the poisons are invisible in the form of greenhouse gases that can be denied because they are dispersed in the air to the point of being abstractions. And while the environmental impact of these hydrocarbons is even more lethal and lasting than heavy slicks of crude, it is impossible to deny plumes, oil-suffocated birds, fish, whales, and marshes. But Valdez had other students: the oil companies, and politicians. The thousand miles of Alaska's shore that were fouled by the Exxon Valdez disaster were never officially declared a sacrifice zone, but they may as well have been. Perhaps the remoteness from most Americans made that disaster easier for the oil industry to whitewash, raising a triumphant environmental green flag over the skull-white, steam-cleaned coastal rocks that still obscure black tarry sludge beneath the surface today. It would have been much more difficult to deceive the public had the Exxon Valdez run aground outside of Los Angeles, Chicago, or Boston, where millions of people would have easy access to the scene. With adequate public exposure, it is likely that coastal Alaska too would have been formally declared a sacrifice zone. Perhaps this explains the cessation of the 1st Amendment with National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen’s announcement of prohibitions against journalists reporting from the scene that will be backed by felony charges and $40 thousand fines per incident. It appears that BP and the Obama administration find it easier to stanch the flow of information than they do the deepwater gusher.
“I was more than a little surprised when the nation's first African American president, Barack Obama—who is a civil rights attorney himself—selected Ms. Browner for such a high profile position in his administration.”
Prior to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, it is doubtful many people had even heard of Carol Browner. As one who is more than familiar with her record, I would describe the dark, impossible-to-remove stain on her professional career as symbolic of President Obama's other BP problem—Black People. That is, people of color and others who suffered under the thrall of discrimination, retaliation, and the excesses of a hostile work environment that flourished under Carol Browner during her tenure as EPA Administrator in the Clinton administration. This allegation was confirmed by the verdict in the 2000 Title VII case Coleman-Adebayo v. Carol Browner that I brought against the EPA. A federal jury found EPA guilty of race, sex, and color discrimination, and that Browner’s agency tolerated a sexually hostile work environment. As with any such complaint the administrator of the agency was named as the defendant, but in this case, I had worked closely with Ms. Browner on a high profile assignment for the agency. Once I had filed my complaint, I also worked strenuously (if fruitlessly) to have the administrator address the problems my case raised in attempts to resolve the issues before the case went to trial. My experience was of an administrator in Ms. Browner who was aloof, arrogant, and aligned herself more with business interests than with the people and environment those businesses affected. The administrator was more interested in protecting the image of the EPA than she was in addressing the very serious charges I had raised. Browner's response on more than a few occasions was to cite statistics as evidence of improvements to the hostile work environment within EPA, and to rely on public relations to gloss over criminal behavior within the agency. So I was more than a little surprised when the nation's first African American president, Barack Obama—who is a civil rights attorney himself—selected Ms. Browner for such a high profile position in his administration.
“Browner began a campaign of damage control by hiring two high-powered and pricey law firms, at taxpayer expense, to evaluate the BP (black people) mess.”
Less surprising was that Mr. Obama chose to appoint her “Energy Czar,” to skirt Congress' oversight of cabinet level nominees—such as the African American women he sent to Congress for approval to run EPA and its Office of International Activities, Lisa Jackson, and Michelle De Pass respectively. While I applaud the appointment of women of color to senior level positions, it is difficult to imagine that Ms. Browner did not have a hand in the selection of these two women of color, to these particular offices. In the fine Washington art of rewriting history, the status quo has a long memory. The verdict in my case stung not only Ms. Browner, but the abusive culture within the agency. Immediately after the jury's finding in my favor, during the closing months of her EPA tenure Browner began a campaign of damage control by hiring two high-powered and pricey law firms, at taxpayer expense, to evaluate the BP (black people) mess that convinced the jury of discrimination and retaliation within EPA. This, it should be pointed out, was not to address the problem the jury had certified, but rather to clean up the stain on Browner's and the agency's reputations by providing more statistical data that could be used to refute the jury's findings. In full crisis mode, the two law firms deployed the equivalent of booms and applied dispersants to corral and diffuse the sticky situation that threatened Browner's standing among Washington's elite and the cozy relationships with business within the EPA's upper management. While it took nearly a decade, the cleanup operation saw its fait accompli with the appointment of Jackson and De Pass to lead the two offices most implicated by the jury verdict: the offices of the administrator (named in the complaint) and the OIA, where I had suffered the discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment for which the jury awarded me the largest ever judgment against EPA. But to the casual observer, we now have a black president, black woman EPA administrator, black woman OIA assistant administrator: Could post-racial America, possibly be better?
For starters, the president could have nominated Browner in a process that would have provided public vetting of her record. This would surely have guaranteed that those familiar with her shortcomings—especially with BP (black people)—would have organized by the droves. One need only recall the public demonstration that took place outside the window of Ms. Browner's EPA office after the verdict to see that those affected by the onerous conditions within EPA had come in large numbers and great distances from around the country. Or one could ask Senator Joe Lieberman if he recalls the cold morning in March two years later when busloads of Freedom Riders arrived at his office after he held up the first civil rights and whistleblower protective legislation of the 21st century, as Chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. It didn't take Joe long to realize he didn't need a BP problem. He moved the NO FEAR bill (Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation) forward through his committee and brought it to the floor where it passed unanimously in the Senate just as it did the lower Chamber a year earlier. The bill, citing my experiences as a young social scientist, was signed into law in 2002.
“There is no question that Ms. Browner was privy to Mr. Obama's decision to expand deep water drilling just two weeks prior to the BP disaster.”
Despite all of this, President Obama, in a very early tipping of his hand as to how his de facto management style would run at odds with his considerable oratory skills, without Congressional oversight—and without public scrutiny to derail her nomination—appointed Ms. Browner saying:
"This time it has to be different. This time we cannot fail, nor can we be lulled into complacency... That's why I'm naming Carol Browner to a new position in the White House to coordinate energy and climate policy. ...She brings the unmatched experiences of being a successful and longest-serving administrator of the EPA. She will be indispensable in implementing an ambitious energy policy... We can't accept complacency nor accept broken promises..."
There is no question that Ms. Browner was privy to Mr. Obama's decision to expand deep water drilling just two weeks prior to the BP disaster. Since the explosion, Browner has been highly visible making public statements for the administration, appearing with the president during his Memorial Day weekend visit to Louisiana, and addressing the media to enunciate the administration's response. Everything that is earthly possible is being done and will be done to stem this disaster, Ms. Browner has asserted again and again.
Alongside EPA's culture of fear and intimidation inside the EPA, then-administrator Browner also sided with business over human and environmental interests, with little regard for the consequences to people. This was no more apparent than in her disregard for the fate of mineworkers employed by an American multinational corporation in Brits, South Africa. The miners reported sickness and even hundreds of deaths from vanadium poisoning to me while I served in the EPA's Office of International Activities in 1995. I forwarded this information to then-administrator Browner on several occasions and by various means. In 1996 several NGOs, including TransAfrica, contacted Browner's office about the vanadium poisoning tragedy and met with the then-Assistant Administrator who ran the OIA. Beyond lip service, the agency did little to address the plight of the mineworkers, their families, and communities and then reneged on the feeble commitment it made to investigate the mining conditions.
In light of that suppressed history, Browner's recent statements inspire little hope for justice. While she and the president berate the cozy relationship between the oil industry and its federal regulators, still Nalco, the company providing the dispersant Corexit to BP—against the instructions of EPA—has a board of directors that includes former executives from BP, ExxonMobil, and another crude oil-related company. With the consequences of BP's oil-spewing volcano taking on historic proportions, the government accepted forty days of BP's disinformation, letting BP control and destroy what very well may be a crime scene, let BP control the crisis operation, and let BP control the story line. It was only after the president's poll numbers started showing serious hits that Attorney General Eric Holder began civil and criminal investigations. For besieged Gulf coast residents and businesses, this was another example of too little too late in presidential deed, and a not terribly reassuring promise to make everyone in the Gulf whole by George W. Bush's successor.
“The government accepted forty days of BP's disinformation, letting BP control and destroy what very well may be a crime scene.”
The prospect has begun to emerge of yet another president, at yet another podium, with carefully orchestrated optics and assertions as vapid as the attempts to stop the hemorrhaging from BP's stab wound in the heart of Mother Earth, of the federal government in full collusion with BP. The successive failed attempts seem to be intended more for show than in earnest, and the application of dispersants seems intended more to keep the crude out of sight than anything else. And then there is the legal matter of attempting to report the facts being subject to a felony offense.
Given Lisa Jackson's statement about a month into the disaster “that EPA reserves the right to halt the usage of sub-surface dispersant if we conclude that at any time, the impact to the environment outweighs the benefit of dispersing oil,” it is likely that when the time comes for heads to roll to provide political cover for a besieged president, Administrator Jackson will find herself in the same sacrifice zone I encountered at EPA for her failure to take decisive action against BP (whether this was under the direction of her supervisors or not).
Yet an even more frightening scenario has been playing out for decades that involves the grotesque dance between business and politicians, ruling elites and regulators, that opens with the high notes of the theme from of the Twilight Zone and builds into the discordant blast of horns and drums and strings as a narrator steps out from the reeds in knee-deep crude to declare the entire Gulf of Mexico a sacrifice zone. But don't you worry about a thing. The very companies and corporations that greened their logos while widening the space between their pumps to facilitate our Hummers have everything under control. And the federal government is watching them.
Similarly, if all one does is read the two whitewash reports on discrimination and retaliation inside her EPA, or look at the appointments of Lisa Jackson and Michelle De Pass to assess how EPA has progressed since the days when Carol Browner looked the other way, the odious reality might pass the sniff test. But if one goes beyond white washings, beyond cynically inspired appointments and smiling African American faces there will be a significant stinging in the eyes and nose, a noxious odor, and a stain that will not come out of one's clothes no matter how many times the white paper is reread, or how many times I Have a Dream is replayed, or the post-racial flag is raised above the gulag inside the federal bureaucracy.
Racism and corporatism are interrelated. It would be a huge mistake to see the current environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico—tragic as it is—as unrelated to the other BP (black people) disaster that Mr. Obama has so far successfully ignored by virtue of his rhetorical acumen and the free pass he is accorded by virtue of the color of his skin.
Dr. Coleman-Adebayo is the founder and president of the NO FEAR Institute in Washington, D.C. She served as the Executive Secretary of the Environment Working Group of the EPA’s delegation to the Gore/Mbeki Binational Commission during the Clinton administration. Her victory in the Title VII complaint of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in Coleman-Adebayo v Carol Browner inspired the passage of the NO FEAR Act of 2002. (Notification of Federal Employees Antidiscrimination and Retaliation). Her accounting of her experience in the federal government is documented in her first book, No FEAR that will be released later this year.