Written by Dahr Jamail for Al Jazeera
|Security guards patrolled beaches in Louisiana, while residents braced themselves the arrival of BP’s oil [EPA]|
A simple swim in the Gulf of Mexico has complicated Steven Aguinaga’s life in ways he could have never imagined.
In July 2010, Aguinaga, now 33-years-old, had gone on a vacation with his wife and some friends to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. After he and his close friend Merrick Vallian went swimming in the Gulf, they both became extremely sick from what Aguinaga believes were chemicals in BP’s oil and dispersants from the largest marine oil spill in US history that began in April 2010.
The 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf continues to affect people living near the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Compounding the problem, BP has admitted to using at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic dispersants, which are banned by some countries, including the UK. According to many scientists, these dispersants create an even more toxic substance when mixed with crude oil.
Aguinaga’s blood has tested positive for high levels of chemicals present in BP’s oil, and he described his ailments to Al Jazeera.
“I have terrible chest pain, at times I can’t seem to get enough oxygen, and I’m constantly tired with pains all over my body. At times I’m pissing blood, vomiting dark brown stuff, and every pore of my body is dispensing water.”
His symptoms mirror those which scores of other Gulf Coast residents have told to Al Jazeera, all of them also having had their blood tests reveal chemicals in BP’s oil.
Yet Aguinaga’s hardships have not ended with his health problems.
“After we got back from our vacation in Florida, Merrick went to work for a company contracted by BP to clean up oil in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Two weeks after that he dropped dead.”
This Spring Aguinaga filed a lawsuit against BP in hopes of obtaining compensation for his deteriorating health.
Aguinaga’s attorney encouraged him with the prospect of setting a precedent for other health-related lawsuits against BP. But instead of bringing Aguinaga relief, the process has turned his life upside down.
Within 30 days of filing the lawsuit, Aguinaga had his home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi broken into.
“I found the Norton Security alert on my laptop warning me that someone had tried to access my information, and the door to my house was left open,” he explained. “I think somebody wanted me to know they could get in easily.”
Aguinaga’s employer, Star Services, who had placed him on workers’ compensation for a work-related injury, cut off his cheques after he filed the lawsuit against BP.
According to Aguinaga, both he and his wife are being followed, while in early September a truck tried to run him off the road near a bridge.
|Follow Al Jazeera’s ongoing coverage of the BP disaster|
Three of his four security dogs were recently killed, and the fourth was stabbed.
While Aguinaga’s story is the fodder of conspiracy theorists, it has precedent.
Washington DC attorney Billie Garde has seen this kind of thing before.
“I’ve had cases where similar tactics [by the defendant] were used,” Garde, whose firm Clifford and Garde often represents whistleblowers, told Al Jazeera, “I represented people in years past in a case against Wackenhut when oil companies [in Alaska] hired a bunch of people to spy on these folks.”
In December 1993, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement of an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit by whistleblower Chuck Hamel and his associates, that resulted from a spying campaign that Alyeska had mounted against him. Hamel had tipped off regulators and Congress about alleged environmental wrongdoing along the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
At the time, Alyeska, which runs the pipeline for the oil companies, was owned by BP and Exxon/Mobile, among other oil companies, as it is today. Wackenhut’s operation was shut down after it had run for seven months by Alyeska’s owner oil companies.
Alyeska did not contest that during its campaign against Hamel, its operatives from Wackenhut security it had hired to spy on him had secretly taped his phone calls, searched his mail, garbage, phone and credit card records (and those of his associates), and even employed attractive female operatives to try to entice Hamel into admissions or actions that might have discredited him.
“Alyeska hired Wackhenhut to basically find the people who were leaking information to Congress and newspapers about the safety issues along the pipeline,” Garde said. “Wackenhut at the time had a special investigations department that undertook this task with vigour, and carried out this campaign against Alyeska’s critics.”
The case eventually became the subject of Congressional hearings and lawsuits, and has all become public record.
While some of the tactics might sound sensational – the stuff of Hollywood movies – Garde cautions those who may write it off.
“When people say you’re just paranoid, and that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, I say yes it does.”
‘It’s happening now in the Gulf’
Aguinaga is not the only victim of harassment in the aftermath of the BP disaster.
Cherri Foytlin, co-founder of Gulf Change, a community organisation based in Grand Isle, Louisiana, has been an outspoken critic of BP’s actions. Chemicals from BP’s oil have also been found in her bloodstream, and she wants justice.
“In March we held a press conference calling for more accountability from BP, and immediately afterwards all my emails disappeared off my account,” she told Al Jazeera.
|Cherri Foytlin, an outspoken opponent of BP’s handling of their oil disaster, believes she and her husband have been harassed as a result of her activism [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]|
Karen Savage, an activist with the media project Bridge the Gulf, said she has had “oddly coincidental” email hacks, and other incidents that bring her concern.
“I don’t have any proof that any of this is related to my work in the Gulf, but over the course of the past few months, my email has been emptied, as have my addresses,” Savage told Al Jazeera. “It seems to increase when there’s something important being communicated.”
She recently conducted an interview with a whistleblower, and the day after the interview her computer was stolen.
After attending a recent protest in Washington, DC against the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Foytlin discovered upon returning home that several bricks had been thrown through the back window of her car.
“No other cars on my block were touched,” she said. “Two weeks later, I was at a store and someone asked me what my husband [Forest, who works on offshore oil rigs] thinks about what I do. He went on to say that accidents happen all the time on rigs, and sometimes people fall off.”
Shortly after the threat, her husband was transferred onto a different rig, with no explanation given as to why.
“Forest [Foytlin's husband] told me that, for no reason whatsoever, he was told by his boss that BP told his company that having him on the rig was no longer an option,” Foylin said, “He’s never been kicked off a rig before. The same company man who pulled Forest onto that rig to work, pulled him off it. I have no doubt it’s from the work I’ve been doing. That’s the last straw for me, because I feel like if I don’t say something, they will keep doing this.”
“I don’t understand this, because I had worked with that company for a year with a good record and was told I was doing a great job,” Forest Foytlin told Al Jazeera, “Throughout this whole drilling moratorium and spill, I’ve never spoken out against BP. Instead, I spoke out about how the moratorium was affecting people’s lives in a negative way. I want somebody to tell me why this happened.”
As with Aguinaga, Foytlin and her husband have returned home to find the front door to their house left open on several occasions. They have both filed police reports about several of the incidents.
“People are being followed, their homes are being broken into, homes are being staked out, cell phones are being taken, and people’s lives are being messed with,” said Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist, Exxon Valdez survivor, and one of Garde’s plaintiffs in the suit with Alyeska. “This happened in Alaska after the [Exxon] Valdez disaster, and it’s happening now in the Gulf,” Ott told Al Jazeera.
Foytlin concluded: “They’ve damaged my property, they’ve messed with my husband’s life, [but] I’m not going to stop [my activism]… [T]he only way I can protect myself is to continue being vocal.”
In addition, on August 29, Aguinaga was pulled over by a Mississippi State Trooper and a Pike County deputy while he was returning home from a doctor’s visit. He was handcuffed and taken to jail, where he was charged with Driving Under the Influence despite never having been administered a sobriety test of any kind.
|Steven Aguinaga, holding up two tickets from police for a DUI he was never tested for, told Al Jazeera he believes he is being intimidated for filing a lawsuit against BP [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]|
After he had paid $150 to bail himself out of jail and another $150 to bail his car out of impound, the police took Aguinaga to the gas station where they had left his vehicle and released him. While nothing was missing from his car, his iPhone, rather than being the phone he had before jail, complete with scratches, was now brand new.
His DUI case is in the process of being dismissed.
“They broke my Miranda rights and civil rights, then released me to drive away after charging me with a DUI,” Aguinaga told Al Jazeera during an interview at his home. “The prosecutor’s assistant told me she had no idea why they did this, because I’d win the case hands down. What is the purpose of this aside from separating me from my car and my phone for two hours?”
“It can’t be coincidence when all this happens to you after you file a lawsuit against BP,” Aguinaga exclaimed. “They’ve affected every area of my life, from where I get my money, to making me spend money unnecessarily… It’s crazy. I guess they just do what they want in my life. It’s like I’m being stalked by a multi-billion dollar corporation, and I have no other recourse other than a lawsuit.”
Al Jazeera has information of several other people who have filed lawsuits against BP seeking compensation for health issues or loss of livelihood due to the oil disaster, but have been instructed by their attorneys not to speak to the media.
In comments after the Alyeska settlement was entered into federal court, the federal judge of the case, Stanley Sporkin, said: “No one should be subjected to the kind of treatment the Hamels were.” During the proceedings, Sporkin described the details of Alyeska’s actions against Hamel as “horrendous” and “reminiscent of Nazi Germany”.
Sporkin now works for BP by leading their ombudsman programme.
Allegations: ‘Unfounded and irresponsible’
If history is repeating itself, then Garde’s experience in Alaska provides a window into the machinations of this kind of harassment.
“After the [Gulf of Mexico] spill BP hired all these lawyers and spread money all around the Gulf to hire different entities to represent them in different lawsuits,” she explained. “It’s not uncommon for law firms to have investigators on their staff, and if you don’t have a tight reign on the firms you hire, I could see where people bringing lawsuits are being subjected to aggressive law firms, who may or may not know what is going on in all these cases. My guess is that is most plausibly what is happening.”
She added, “It doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t excuse anybody for responsibility for their actions, but most of the time when I’ve been involved in cases like this, that’s what’s happened.”
Thus far, there is no tangible link tying any of the ongoing harassment to either BP or Wackenhut. BP’s press officer in the US, Daren Beaudo, had this to say in response to allegations made against them:
“BP has employed security firms at various times during the Deepwater Horizon response,” Beaudo told Al Jazeera, “One of those firms, Wackenhut, currently maintains a small presence at five locations along the Gulf Coast as part of our restoration efforts. Their role is to provide fixed security where we house equipment used for cleanup activities. They have not and do not conduct surveillance activities as part of their security role. Any allegations that BP is involved with harassment of citizens are unfounded and irresponsible.”
Forest Foytlin told Al Jazeera that the West Sirius oilrig he was kicked off of was owned by BP. Al Jazeera asked BP if they owned the rig, and asked the company to respond to Foytlin’s allegations.
BP did not say if it owned the rig or not, but told Al Jazeera, “Questions about personnel employed on the West Sirius should be directed to Seadrill.”
In the case in Alaska, these actions were actually sanctioned by the president of Alyeska, who operated the pipeline.
Congressman John Dingell, then chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened one of his hearings related to the Alyeska trial in this way: “Gentlemen, this hearing is dejavu all over again.”
Dingell felt the experience was a repeat because his committee had held a prior hearing on the pipeline quality control system and had learned of a total collapse of Alyeska’s inspection system.
Dingell pointed out that the only improvement he had seen was that in the mid-1970′s pipeline inspectors received death threats and bullet holes in their truck windshields, whereas now, the inspectors were only being threatened with broken harms.
“Small progress, indeed,” commented Dingell.
Ott added that methods used by Wackenhut operatives in the Alyeska case included “isolating the whistleblowers when they were on the job, harassing them at work, their children were harassed at school to the point of dropping out, being followed by cars, white vans outside of people’s houses spying on them, stolen mail, phone records taken, and one of the pipeline whistleblowers was run off the road.”
Gus Castillo, a former Wackenhut employee who was also a former FBI special agent turned Wackenhut whistle blower, recognised these tactics at the time. During the Alyeska trial, he said these were the tactics Wackenhut had instructed him to use when he worked for the company.
Documentation of the widespread spying is outlined in the US House of Representative’s Report on Alyeska Covert Operation.
More recently, as Beaudo mentioned, Wackenhut was hired by BP to provide security in various ways for their operations related to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Wackenhut also provided security for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command during the oil disaster. Unified Command was run jointly by BP and several US government agencies.
Wackenut is a private security company that operates both in the US and globally, and more recently became part of the giant British security contractor company G4S.
Being a large, private company with a board populated largely by former CIA, FBI and Pentagon officials, Wackenhut has been in charge of protecting nuclear-weapons facilities, nuclear reactors, the Alaskan oil pipeline, Cape Canaveral, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and the Nevada nuclear-bomb test site.
The company has had upwards of 30,000 armed employees, and in 1966 Wackenhut admitted it had secret files on at least four million Americans listed as ‘suspected dissidents’.
G4S currently operates in more than 125 countries and have more than 625,000 employees worldwide.
Of the company’s previous US government contracts, a security-firm executive told Spy magazine in 1992, “All those contracts are just another way to pay Wackenhut for their clandestine help.”
When he was asked what the nature of said “help” was, retired FBI special agent William Hinshaw said, “It is known throughout the industry, that if you want a dirty job done, call Wackenhut.”
At the time of publishing, G4S had not responded to requests for comment.
For their work with the oil and gas industry, G4S’s website says: “The security of key energy resources is fundamental to our welfare and prosperity … We understand the industry and we are able to draw on our expertise, our proven capabilities in risk assessment and intelligence, logistics, end-to-end project management and integrated technology solutions to deliver effective, comprehensive security solutions.”
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail