Monday, June 28, 2010

TARBALL DISCOUNT: One man’s environmental disaster is another’s economic opportunity

Somewhere under a Gulf Shores pavilion, Alabama Governor Bob Riley is sweating tarballs. Not just because it’s 100 degrees and the ocean’s an unsympathetic, oily mess. But because beach tourism is down 50% and fixing to plummet further. So when he’s not sweating, he’s pitching. Pleading into a row of boom mikes and news cameras. Praying that mainstream masses turn a blind eye to all the oily pelicans on their TV screens and come sit on the white sugar spoonfuls of his otherwise soiled coastline. Unfortunately, “you’ll get used to the diesel smell” isn’t much of a sales pitch. Neither is “tarball bocci.” So he paints a fantasy of waterparks without lines. Dining rooms without waits. Hotels with massive pools and miniscule prices. Or as his PR partner-in-crime Senator Dick Shelby puts it: “Alabama is a heck of a bargain right now!”

You can’t blame the fellas. Coastal businesses are hurting. But there’s something sketchy about “protectors of the people” encouraging their greater constituency to visit an area where oil sheens come and go without warning — along with dispersants known to cause organ damage and potential reproductive harm — then saying “use your best judgment” when it comes time to swim. And the approach is straight-up shameless. A pitiful mix of patriotic guilt-trip and street-corner begging.

“Don’t’ be scared to spend your dollars! Y’all come down to Alabama!”

That’s actually the first lady — baby in arms to complete the image of the heartbroken grandma. But it’s the tourist bureau that busts out with the big guns, reading a letter from a lifetime visitor who says he enjoys the people and restaurants even more than the beach. And he’ll be back this summer because “that’s the American thing to do.”

He’s right. That is the American thing to do: to try and make a buck no matter how oil-stained, green washed, or just plain evil. Somewhere in Tennessee, Myrtle Beach is running ads to lure Louisiana’s usual tourists — whetting the appetites of still more other East Coast towns eager to cannibalize each other’s markets. In Florida, Spirit Airlines is mixing oil-slicked bikinis and bad puns to keep folks flying down. And the closer you get to ground zero, the more hard-sell things get.

In a single Saturday, I met . . .

A tour leader moaning that his annual baseball camps of 3000 kids are now down to 60. (That’s 2940 pre-teens who may not to be tempted to play catch in mix of petroleum and the neurotoxin pesticide meant to keep it under the surface.)

A hot chick armed with 500 ‘Cool Pouches’ — basically pre-folded towels, bunched at the ends and packed with ice — that she’s selfishly handing out to cleanup crews and members of the press (in hopes that we’re feeling just as generous).

And let’s not forget the folks at Crown LLC. Who, in their mission to “reclaim the Earth’s natural resources . . ..harmed in our quest for energy independence” wasted no time in developing a special machine that sifts oil from sand right on the beach. “Take all the pictures you want!” invites the president. (He says he laments the tragedy, but seems more troubled that NBC still won’t come see their demo.)

And that’s just one beach park. Drive east to Pensacola, you’ll find more signs saying “tarball discount” than “biohazard.” In Walton County, they’re spending a cool $1.25 million of BP’s payola on fresh spots — TV spots, not oil spots. And be sure to visit Seaside Florida, the town where reports of an unforeseen oil slick put authorities on red alert — not to warn citizens, but to threaten activists and reporters with arrest for spreading the news.

So, hate BP all you want, but they ain’t the only money-grubbing, black soul on the block. And that’s the scariest lesson of this whole damn debacle. From ‘tophat’ to ‘top kill’ it’s not the environmental toll making calls – it’s economics. Otherwise, a judge wouldn’t reverse the six-month deep-will moratorium, putting irreplaceable natural resources at risk to save the very industries that threaten it. Otherwise, Obama himself would stop the insanity once and for all with a new, federal moratorium. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here either. Racing around looking for ‘compelling images.’

Sure, my end goal may be pure, but the means to that end requires selling mags and driving web traffic. And I’m far from alone. When a movie cameraman sneaks up to poach our carefully crafted photo, a media catfight ensues. (Apparently the makers of “The Cove” smell fresh blood.) He skulks off, then turns.

“We’re all the same here, bro!” he shouts over his shoulder: “All we’re trying to do is our jobs!”

How true.