By MARSHA MERCER
She was on Metro after work, heading home, when a complete stranger got in her face and blurted, “Why aren’t you in the gulf? Why aren’t you guys doing anything?”
The target of the verbal attack was a young woman whose mistake in this summer of the oil spill was wearing her federal I.D. card. It identified her as working for the Environmental Protection Agency.
No matter that she’s a gentle scientist whose area of responsibility is far from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
With up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day still spewing and no relief from the environmental crisis in sight, some people are so frustrated they’re venting their frustrations on random bureaucrats they see in Washington’s subway system.
“They take it out on the low-level people who have nothing to do with the oil spill or the clean-up,” the woman told me.
Confrontations are rare, thankfully, but without doubt the worsening oil disaster has shaken people’s confidence in government. There’s an eerie, anxious similarity to the Iran hostage crisis, when another president was tested. Jimmy Carter’s powerlessness to bring the hostages home proved to be his undoing.
Starting in November 1979, the news media began counting the days Americans were held hostage in Iran. The crisis dominated the news for 444 days and helped make Carter a one-term president. Today, media outlets count off each day of the oil disaster. President Barack Obama vows to kick someone’s ass, and oil still poisons the water and coats defenseless waterfowl. Tar balls soil beaches.
More than half of Americans disapprove of Obama’s response to the oil spill, and more than eight in 10 think BP is doing a poor job responding, an Associated Press-GfK poll found last month.
The AP also reported that some BP employees have stopped wearing the company’s green-and-yellow logo. A BP security official sent a memo warning workers to keep a low profile, watch when walking to their cars at night and avoid conversations that could turn nasty.
Taking frustration out on workers – whether for BP or the government – is senseless, of course, and won’t plug the leak. But what can we do? Jesse Jackson and others proposed a boycott of BP gas stations, but the idea turned out to be counterproductive. A boycott would hurt individual franchisees and their employees, not BP.
People expect, at the least, that the White House will fight for a cleaner environment. A report by House Republicans charged that the administration cared more for favorable public opinion than about cleanup.
A report by Republican staffers of the House oversight committee said the White House’s oil spill PR campaign had hurt the cleanup. After interviewing local officials and reviewing documents, the staffers said “the situation in the Gulf is actually more dysfunctional and dire than what has been portrayed through official reports and press accounts…This blurring of reality is exacerbating problems with the clean-up effort.”
The report said “local officials describe White House outreach efforts as more focused on stopping bad press than on addressing the disaster at hand.”
It’s an election year, and the White House dismissed the GOP report. Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, insisted that the oil spill information he has given in numerous press briefings was accurate.
For its part, the government honed its PR efforts. Allen launched a new Web site Wednesday. RestoreTheGulf.gov describes itself as the official federal portal for spill response and recovery. It provides information about state-specific cleanup efforts and a place to file claims and submit suggestions.
Already up are spill-oriented Web, Facebook and Twitter pages run by EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. The new site will replace DeepwaterHorizonResponse.com, jointly run by BP, Transocean and 14federal agencies and departments.
A new, “streamlined” Web site may look good, but it will do little to restore public confidence. Americans won’t begin to relax until oil stops gushing, but even then, we’ll face years of cleanup.
For now, people count the days of the disaster, and one EPA employee takes off her ID card and shoves it in her purse before she gets on Metro. She doesn’t want strangers to know where she works.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.