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Harper Robinson/Courtesy photo
A thick coat of crude oil covers most of a feather, hinting at the scope of ecological damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. An 80-square-mile kill zone, which affected marine and shore animal life, could be seen from space. BP’s oil spill and its aftermath are chronicled in the documentary Beyond Pollution, which will be screened during the upcoming Thin Line Film Fest.

Film probes corporate, political, regulatory tactics leading up to BP oil spill

Thin Line Film Fest:
Beyond Pollution

Not rated, 94 minutes. 5 p.m. Feb. 9 and
3 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Campus Theatre.
Filmmakers will attend the screening.

 

Lead producer Harper Robinson said it was disgust with a broken system that drove the Dallas resident and three colleagues to make their first documentary.

Since its release earlier this month, Beyond Pollution, narrated by Dean Cain, has been in 11 film festivals around the world. It’s been nominated for the Cinema for Peace Foundation’s International Green Film Award and, Robinson said, it has defined his career path.

The next stop for the environmental documentary is Denton’s Thin Line Film Fest, the only documentary film festival in Texas.

Beyond Pollution examines what filmmakers see as the corporate, political and regulatory collusion that set the stage for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the biggest man-made environmental catastrophe the United States has seen.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people and caused a leak in a pipeline one mile underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. Government estimates the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was more than 4.9 million barrels. The next largest spill on American soil was the Exxon Valdez in 1989, which spilled about 750,000 barrels along the Alaskan coast.

Robinson said the documentary grew out of the shock he shared with Barker White, Beyond Pollution’s filmmaker and editor, and Alisha Mims, the writer and co-producer.

“We were sitting around watching the news about the spill, and we were all just disgusted by BP and by the catastrophe,” Robinson said. “Barker and Alisha are both from Florida, so it was important to them.”

Three weeks after the explosion, Robin­son, White, Mims and Chris­topher Shaw — Robinson’s friend and co-writer and producer — were working on the documentary.

The Deepwater Horizon spill would gush, unabated, for three months. The spill devastated the ecology of the Gulf, with the ecological fallout upending the marine and fishing industry.

Robinson said that while Mims and White hit the road to interview BP workers, mayors of coastal towns and a spate of legal and marine life experts, he dove into research.

“Before the BP spill, the worst spill in the country was the Exxon Valdez,” he said. “It wasn’t nearly as catastrophic, but as I was doing research, I found that we could use the Exxon spill to predict everything that would happen with this one.”

The research would become a project much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together — but a puzzle whose image would appear only as the pieces were fit together.

“The story focused on the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but then it turned into the story of how it got that way — how the corporate, political and regulatory realities pretty much led to the spill itself happening,” Robinson said.

First came the lifting of the veil over BP. Robinson said he discovered that the company — known as British Petroleum in the United Kingdom and Beyond Petroleum in the States, though few American motorists knew of the name change — set practically no standards as it bought aging or decrepit American refineries.

“So many of the refineries they bought were really old, and they didn’t update them at all,” Robinson said. “BP had the worst record for accidents and deaths in England, and a lot of the practices they use here are banned in England. But they could use them here.”

Robinson said he also discovered that BP was able to use a product — a “corrective” dispersing spray banned in the U.K. — that would push the oil to the Gulf floor. BP also happened to own the company contracted to do the cleanup.

“That way, they were able to use this inventory of product they weren’t allowed to use in England,” Robinson said.

The documentary examines the political shift that accompanied the BP conglomeration of refineries and the industry related to refining oil. President Jimmy Carter issued an oil embargo against Iran after Americans were taken hostage by Iranian terrorists in the 1970s.

“[President Ronald] Reagan wanted to stimulate energy production in America, and so he did a lot of deregulating to do that,” Robinson said. “George [H.W.] Bush was an oil guy, and so was George W. Bush. Condoleezza Rice was involved in the oil business, too. The regulators were involved with the oil business. The deregulation led to natural gas drilling and everything.”

Rice, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, sat on the board of Chevron at one time, and with the Bush ad­ministration, regulatory measures for drilling eased markedly.

“I’m for energy efficiency 100 percent,” Robinson said. “I’m not stupid. I know we need oil and natural gas, and I’m not even against drilling, really. But [the industry] should have to follow the Clean Air Act, as a minimum.”

Robinson said the documentary crew tried to get comments from the industry, but as in filmmaker Josh Fox’s natural gas expose Gasland, the industry didn’t respond.

“The oil disappeared to the bottom of the Gulf, and President Obama went swimming in the Gulf for a few minutes so everyone would think it was safe and the economy would come back and [people] would think everything was all right,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he sent White and Mims to the BP campus in Houston to get footage of the company’s buildings.

“The police came — not security, but the police — and told them they had to leave,” Robinson said.

It turned out that getting to talk to workers affected by the disaster wasn’t much easier.

“Barker and Alisha were on the coast three weeks after the spill. They were down there talking to people without a camera, and workers were angry and they were ready to talk,” Robinson said. “They set up interviews with the workers, and when they showed up for the interviews, some of the subjects tried to squeeze [White and Mims] for money to talk, or they’d decided they didn’t want to talk.”

Robinson said that in the short amount of time between meetings and interviews, the industry had required workers to be silent or risk losing their jobs and any settlement money that might come their way.

“There were some workers who didn’t care. They talked anyway,” Robinson said.

An important subject in the documentary was attorney and radio talk show host Mike Papantonio. “He’s the linchpin of our film,” Robinson said.

Papantonio is a prominent trial attorney who has won multimillion-dollar judgments in wrongful death and product liability civil cases. In Beyond Pol­lution, he lends his point of view on the legal challenges and vulnerabilities for the industry and for the workers who were killed in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon.

Marine toxicologist Riki Ott appears in the documentary and lent some jarring information. Robinson said Gulf fishing operations use a simple “smell test,” literally sniffing seafood as it is hoisted from nets. If it doesn’t smell like oil or chemicals, he said, the haul is harvested for sale and consumption.

“That’s no way to test something to see if it’s safe to eat,” Robinson said. “I wouldn’t eat a shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico for the next 20 or 30 years, because that’s how long it’s taken for the Alaskan ecology to come back — if you can call it that. Some of the fish that died out after the Exxon Valdez are never coming back.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com.

THIN LINE FILM FEST

What: Texas Filmmakers’ documentary film festival

When: Feb. 8-18

Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.; UNT on the Square, 109 N. Elm St.; Fine Arts Theatre, 114 N. Elm St.; and Cool Beans, 1210 W. Hickory St.

Details: Individual tickets cost $8 for adults, $6 for students, seniors and military personnel with ID. For information about festival passes, schedules and more, visit www.thinlinefilmfest.com. Buy tickets online at http://bit.ly/14khzw3. Tickets will also be available prior to screenings at the Campus Theatre box office.


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