Principal defends inviting BP and NOAA to educate her students about oil spill

By Brad Jacobson
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 8:49 EDT
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Eyebrows were raised recently over reports that BP and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have begun on-site outreach to local Louisiana schools in order to “dispel myths” about dispersants, subsurface oil and seafood safety in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Originally printed in the Houma Courier and the Tri-Parish Times, the articles justifiably raised cause for concern. Strewn throughout were quotes and descriptions of science demonstrations that seemed to downplay the complexities and consequences of the worst offshore oil spill in history, as well as a statement and an activity that appeared like shameless PR to burnish BP’s sullied image.

Last week, Raw Story interviewed both the principal of Oaklawn Junior High School, where the first – and so far only — demonstrations took place, and the BP representative who coordinated the event. NOAA did not return calls for comment.

The extensive interviews and further examination by Raw Story revealed that the demonstrations — while scientifically simplistic and at times betraying the stated educational intent with ham-handed BP branding — appear less a corporate and federal attempt to brainwash the children of Oaklawn than a collaborative community support effort to reach students and quell their worst fears about the disaster that has wreaked both environmental and economic havoc on their lives.

Raw Story found that some of the information NOAA science support coordinator Gary Ott relayed to the students during his science demonstrations would not suffice for adult consumption, such as assurances that the seafood was absolutely safe to eat and that dispersed oil is broken down within weeks by oil-eating microbes. These are claims that NOAA and FDA officials have routinely made and that independent scientists have refuted, as Raw Story has reported in a series of articles on Gulf seafood safety.

Read these articles at the following links:

>> Gulf seafood poses long-term health risks, experts say

>> Heavy metals go untested in Gulf seafood

>> Gulf oil dispersant contained extremely toxic carcinogen

>> Government withholding key data on Gulf seafood testing, scientists say

But in the context of presenting a visual aid that eighth-graders at the school could easily grasp, while simultaneously assuaging some of their anxiety over the disaster, the experiment and discussion appear more justifiable.

Articles omitted key facts about school presentation

Conspicuously absent from both local articles was the fact that the science experiment used in the demonstrations had been devised prior to the Gulf oil spill. That experiment utilized a 10-gallon aquarium filled with water, a vegetable oil and cocoa powder mix to simulate the properties of oil, dishwashing detergent as dispersant, and an eyedropper and absorbent pads to reflect clean-up methods.

The experiment had long been used in NOAA’s Science Camp in Seattle, WA, as a generic post-oil spill demonstration, Raw Story learned. The Science Camp was established in 2003.

So neither BP nor NOAA cooked up this demonstration to intentionally downplay the severity and repercussions of the Gulf oil spill. It’s a general experiment intended for children as a clear visual aid to help them grasp oil spills and their cleanup.

Yet its inherent simplicity does lack the specificity to convey the unprecedented nature of what has and is occurring in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster, Raw Story found.

Missing, too, from the articles’ reporting was the participation of local environmentalists from the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program, who helped to answer students’ questions and provide comments during the demonstration, according to Oaklawn principal Dawn Lafont.

“We knew what we wanted to do mostly was to dispel fear,” Lafont told Raw Story. “And to create a conscious awareness, because you have to be aware of what’s going on in your environment.”

Moreover, she said, the demonstrations were only performed for eighth grade students because earth science is part of the eighth-grade curriculum in Louisiana.

Principal says no ‘political agenda’ in outreach

While Lafont acknowledged that people may perceive a conflict of interest in having BP representatives come into the school, she noted repeatedly that it was a group effort and certainly not “BP’s show.”

She also pointed out that neither she nor her fellow teachers observed any “political agenda” and said her main concern was to reach her students, many of whom were not even discussing the oil spill anymore, even though its aftermath will be something that may affect the rest of their lives.

“So you’re in a Catch-22 — do you educate them or not?” Lafont said.

“They needed to know how it happened and what it looked like, what are the consequences of this event,” she explained. “And they had an opportunity to sit with a scientist, sit with environmentalists from our community and talk about that. To my mind, was that a bad thing to do? No.”

Resources are scarce at Oaklawn and surrounding parish schools and this unfortunate reality, said Lafont, “absolutely” played a part in her invitation as well.

Bringing in outside independent scientists who may impart finer points and counter-arguments to the NOAA-led classroom science experiment is simply not in her budget.

“Well, to be honest, where would I go?” she asked. “I can’t fly anybody anywhere. I don’t have staff development money for it. This education system [is] scrapping for money.”

Lafont continued, “If you have somebody that’s willing to fly and do presentations, I hope they can get on some kind of education roundtable or something so we could find out about them, because we would love to have them.”

“We do the best we can with what we can get,” she added.

Raw Story learned that Lafont had neither notified nor requested permission from parents prior to the event and questioned her decision. But she defended her action based on the curriculum and pointed out that she didn’t receive any phone calls.

“It was about the earth’s crust,” she asserted. “I wouldn’t ask parents to teach them what’s in the curriculum already. Because it was about the earth’s crust and it was in our content and it had to be in our content.”

“If it would’ve been a presentation about BP, absolutely I would have to have permission,” she clarified. “[But] it wasn’t that kind of presentation.”

BP representative denies any intention of propaganda

Nevertheless, benefits to BP’s tattered image and NOAA’s efficiency to ensure seafood safety still made their way into the classroom, Raw Story found. Many instances, however, stemmed from the inherent simplicity of the oil-spill demonstration and related discussions.

Raw Story pointed out one of the most ostensibly questionable quotes reported in the Tri-Parish Times article: A student asks NOAA science support coordinator Gary Ott why everybody is blaming BP. Ott responds:

“When you have a spill and it’s going on day after day and you think it’s going to affect your life and your ability to fish and have a job, you feel helpless and you get angry. That’s what people do when they feel helpless, and who are they going to blame? They’re going to blame someone. So, one company that stood up was BP because they had interest in that well, and they took the heat.”

Lafont, who had attended one of the four demonstrations, wasn’t present when Ott had said this.

She replied, “I could understand why you would think that this was that kind of event,” but she found it “strange” that she received no phone calls “based on that being in the article.”

“If it would have been a very biased presentation,” Lafont added, “I would’ve gotten feedback. The teachers would’ve been roaring.”

Charles Gaiennie, a BP representative who works for the joint oil response effort in the area and who coordinated the event at Oaklawn, was in attendance to hear Ott’s full explanation and told Raw Story that this quote was taken out of context.

“I completely can appreciate reading about this versus being there,” said Gaiennie.

But he pointed out that rather than making BP sound gallant by accepting responsibility, Ott, who has spent years responding to oil spills, was explaining the general socio-political response of what happens after significant spills – both a community’s reaction and how the company that spilled the oil must ultimately take the blame.

“And so in this particular context,” Gaiennie said, “if it was Prudhoe Bay it was Exxon, if it was the one in Mexico it was Pemax…or whatever it was, that was the context in which he was responding. And so in this particular case, BP was the responsible party.”

BP corporate office was not involved

Another broad misconception gleaned from the local articles was that the BP corporate office directed the event.

Rather, the people involved, including BP and NOAA representatives and local environmentalists, were part of the joint oil spill response effort and the Joint Information Center, which had worked to get out information and supplies in that community in Houma where they had been stationed for over 120 days during the cleanup.

Gaiennie, for example, was a contractor hired by BP to work in this capacity.

The joint effort in bringing together the event, Raw Story also learned, directly involved both former and current teachers at Oaklawn – two who formerly worked at the school and were part of the oil spill clean-up response and one, Anne Gaiennie, the eighth-grade science teacher and wife of Charles Gaiennie.

“The one thing about the teaming concept with the environmental agencies in our community – it was totally a nonpolitical agenda,” said Lafont. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, look at BP, they’re doing this wonderful thing.’”

While a separate conflict of interest appeared to present itself when Raw Story discovered that Charles Gaiennie’s wife was working at Oaklawn, further examination of the situation made clear that his primary concern was to help out the school where his wife teaches.

In fact, said Gaiennie, “The BP corporate PR office would have never identified their school.”

Sure enough, when Raw Story contacted BP’s corporate PR office in the US, we were told they didn’t have any knowledge of this school outreach to Oaklawn.

“It’s not BP corporate America making some sort of a well-crafted messaging program,” noted Gaiennie. “[This was] like buying boom to hold the oil back or beach cleaners or whatever was required in the response.”

BP rep acknowledges “absent-minded” mistakes

But Gaiennie did admit that missteps, such as other BP community support representatives handing out BP hats and pens as a prize when students correctly answered a question, understandably cast a shadow on the integrity of the event for those who weren’t in attendance.

“The one thing that we probably should not have done is have invited the community relations folks to be quite so prominent in their role in that day,” he lamented. “They were there physically to help us get the fish tanks out of the truck and into the classroom. They were the ones that took the fish tanks down and filled them up for the next round.”

“And I gave probably a little more prominence to the community outreach personnel,” Gaiennie continued. “They just brought stuff to give to the kids, which they appreciated and yes it did have a BP logo on it. But it was not intended or crafted in any way. It was an absent-minded mistake rather than some purposeful design.”

“And it’s so minor compared to the good that was done,” he added. “It’s just been overblown.”

Another red flag to many reading about the event was the second part of a quote from a press release by another BP contractor working in community outreach, Janella Newsome:

"[The purpose of the demonstration was] also to dispel myths about dispersants, subsurface oil and seafood safety.”

Gaiennie said this was “probably an inappropriate communiqué” because “there was no intent to dispel any kind of a myth, so to speak.”

But Raw Story confirmed that Ott, the NOAA representative leading the classroom experiment, used the same terminology, as reported in the Houma Courier article.

This terminology was used, at least as presented in the report, to coincide with Ott asking the students, “Should you be afraid to eat shrimp?”

The article then states: “But Ott assured them it was safe, and set out to explain why.”

“Did we oversimplify?” said Lafont near the end of the interview. “Maybe we did.”

Raw Story found that the simplicity of the experiment and discussion, the overarching desire to put the students at ease, and the inherent conflict of interest in having BP and NOAA representatives in the classroom — even those who were stationed in their communities as part of the oil spill response – unavoidably clouded the best intentions of those involved and any benefit to the students.

“Maybe we oversimplified it,” Lafont continued. “But the fact remains that these are real issues that they’re going to have to deal with and [the outreach] happened because it’s now part of our environment. We’re 25 miles from the Gulf.”

Gaiennie confirmed that, while an initial plan included performing similar outreach to neighboring parish schools, so far none have been scheduled.

Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story.

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