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A chance encounter on the Gulf Coast with a BP engineer

I’d pulled over to the side of Highway 1 in Grand Isle, La., to film one of the many angry signs local residents have put up across this island. “Cannot fish or swim” this one read. “How the hell are we supposed to feed our kids now?”

Photo: William Brangham

A vehicle pulled in behind mine and a man stepped out to snap a picture of the same sign.

I gestured at it and said something about how if I lived here, I’d likely feel the same.

“Yeah, me too.” he said. “But I’m on the other side of this one.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m a drilling engineer for BP.”

BP has barred its employees from talking to people like me without authorization. I explained who I was, but asked if he’d be willing to talk on background about life inside the company in the middle of this crisis. He was reticent at first, but soon seemed eager to vent.

He described dozens of rank-and-file BP workers like him who were “just sick to death” about what was happening.  He said they were desperate to get the leak under control and were working round-the-clock shifts to get it fixed.

“I’m not complaining,” he said. “it’s our job to fix our own mess.” His real anger seemed directed at the managers who he said had single-handedly ruined a company, and a place, he clearly cared a great deal about. He seemed distressed about the damage that was being wrought along the Gulf Coast: “Many of us come here for vacation. Some of the guys live here themselves … It’s just horrible.” He just shook his head when I asked about the way the company had handled the aftermath of the spill. He gestured at the big yellow sign on the side of the road. “We deserve that.”

I asked about recent allegations that BP routinely skirted safety rules, and while he said he’d heard the accusations, he said he’d not witnessed those things himself.

He also said that BP’s move in recent years into alternative fuels (part of its official makeover from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum”) wasn’t all corporate spin.  Sure, he said, the research was probably based more on money than on environmental concerns, but “a lot of folks in the company took that mandate really seriously. We wanted to be out ahead of the competition. We wanted to be the ones to find new energy sources.”Clapping his hand on the hood of his gas-guzzler, he said: “These can’t be the future.”

By the end of our conversation he seemed dejected. “This [the oil spill] is all anyone’s gonna remember us for.”

As he was leaving, I asked if I could get his number in case I had questions down the road. “I can’t.” he said.  “My name in your notebook is not a good thing for me.”

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