Gyppo

     I was part of one of the great environmental disasters of all time, the cutting down of the magnificent old forests of the Northwest.
     I worked during college summers for Weyerhauser Corp. in Washington, setting chokers – cables with a knob and sliding bell – around freshly cut logs high in the forest. The chokers were hooked onto an overhead cable so the logs could be hauled by a sooty, black yarder – kind of like a locomotive – down to a landing and put on trucks.
     I can remember vividly one of the spots that had been clear-cut, meaning every tree was razed. The logs were like giant toothpicks jumbled on top of each other around a big, clear pond that had a beaver house in the middle of it. The beavers had lived in a beautiful forest and now they sat there in their hut in the middle of an environmental disaster.
     At lunch breach, I would walk over with my sandwiches to a neighboring glen, along the same small stream that fed the pond. Giant Douglas Firs, massive old growth, populated the glen, giving it a cool, deep shade on the hot summer days. The ground was covered with dry needles and clover.
     As a literature major at Reed College, I imagined it as the setting for a romantic French poet, say Baudelaire, penning an ode to lost love.
     I didn’t know why that stand of giant trees had been spared or whether their reprieve was temporary. But it was the most serene and beautiful place I think I have ever been.
     The guys I worked with – often a bit crazy – were members of a union, as I was, that went back to the radical and violent Wobblies. But once in a while, the bus taking us into the mountains would go by what the guys called a “gyppo” operation. The word has to be tied to the word gypsy, but it is an old Wobbly expression for an operation where wokers are paid by the piece rather than the hour.
     The gyppos would cut and haul as many trees as they could as fast as they could, and move on. They were non-union outfits, often family run, and known for bad practices and dangerous conditions.
     When I read the early articles about the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf and the conditions before it blew up, caught on fire, and sank, I had a sudden sense of recognition. I said to myself, “It was a gyppo.”
     BP was subcontracting different aspects of the operation and telling the subcontractors to get the oil and get it fast, no matter what. It’s a cheap and fast way to get a project done, and dangerous.
     What has struck me in the news coverage – and I admit I am getting oil spill fatigue – is how little emphasis has been placed on BP’s safety record and the quite predictable nature of a spill given the company’s record. A company that constantly violates the rules, cuts corners and pushes for the fastest and cheapest way to get production, is going to screw things up at some point.
     The first place I heard about the company’s long rap sheet of environmental and safety violations was the Daily Show, a satire of news reporting that at the same time conveys quite a bit of news. I kept looking in the weeks that followed for confirming coverage on what sounded like an unbelievable record.
     There were stories about the efforts to cap the gushing leak, about the economic effects of the fishing ban, about the Republican Senator Joe Barton apologizing to BP and then apologizing for his apology.
     But very, very little about BP’s record of violating safety and environmental regulations, that includes a really amazing 760 federal work safety violations in the last three years. A column by Joe Nocera in the New York Times last week titled “BP Ignored Omens of Disaster,” said in the body of the column, “Taking short cuts was ingrained in the company’s culture, and everyone in the oil business knew it.”
     BP may, should and probably will ending up answering to the law. But if you can get a record like that in front of a jury, get a sympathetic set of plaintiffs – let’s say local fishermen – and a judge that OK’s a request for punitive damages, the oil giant could well pay a very hefty and deserved price for running a gyppo operation that, predictably, caused an environmental disaster.

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