When the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) invited me down to the Gulf last June to witness the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I didn't know what to expect. Would I see oiled wildlife, oil on the beaches, oil in the wetlands—would the deadly effects be readily visible? The answer is yes to all of the above, and more: Even the air along the Gulf Coast was saturated with oil, so much so that we brought respirators. At the marina in Grand Isle, Louisiana, I wondered aloud why the cleanup workers weren't wearing them, and some local fishermen voiced their opinion: It looks bad in pictures, so the masks weren't provided.

It looks bad in pictures. While it was hard to see a pelican struggling to lift off on oil-covered wings, or a bottlenose dolphin arcing through the murky water with its crude-soaked baby beside it, I found it even harder to stomach BP's heavy-handed attempts to control media access. And they've gotten a big assist from the U.S. government: Three weeks after my visit it became illegal for journalists to come within 65 feet of any cleanup operations. Anyone violating this new regulation can be slapped with a $40,000 fine, a felony charge, and prison time.

On my second day in the Gulf, I flew out to the rig itself. The pilot, whom I don't name because he was risking his livelihood by ferrying a journalist, had to clear his flight plan with the Coast Guard, the FAA—and a BP representative. Requests to enter that airspace are routinely denied for "safety reasons." I guess you could say I was lucky to be able to see our nation's worst environmental disaster with my own burning eyes.

Next: "You will see black oil, you will see brown oil, you will see red oil, you will see sheets of it"
Photo: Courtesy of Susan Casey


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