Arkansas' Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has contracted out the "independent analysis of the cleanup" of the ExxonMobil Pegasus tar sands pipeline spill to Witt O'Brien's, a firm with a history of oil spill cover-ups, a DeSmogBlog investigation reveals.
April 13, 2013

This article is cross-posted at DeSmogBlog.

Arkansas' Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has contracted out the "independent analysis of the cleanup" of the ExxonMobil Pegasus tar sands pipeline spill to Witt O'Brien's, a firm with a history of oil spill cover-ups, a DeSmogBlog investigation reveals.

At his April 10 press conference about the Mayflower spill response, AG McDaniel confirmed that Exxon had turned over 12,500 pages of documents to his office resulting from a subpoena related to Exxon's response to the March 29 Pegasus disaster. A 22-foot gash in the 65-year-old pipeline spewed over 500,000 gallons of tar sands dilbit through the streets of Mayflower, AR.

McDaniel also provided the media with a presser explaining that his office had "retained the assistance of Witt O’Brien’s, a firm whose experts will immediately begin an independent analysis of the cleanup process."

Witt O'Brien's describes itself as a "global leader in preparedness, crisis management and disaster response and recovery with the depth of experience and capability to provide services across the crisis and disaster life cycle."

But the firm's actual performance record isn't quite so glowing. O'Brien's has had its hands in the botched clean-up efforts of almost every high-profile oil spill disaster in recent U.S. history, including the Exxon Valdez spill, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, the Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River, and Hurricane Sandy.

Most troubling of all, Witt O'Brien's won a "$300k+ contract to develop a Canadian-US compliant Oil Spill Emergency Response Plan for TransCanada’s Keystone Oil Pipeline Project" in Aug. 2008.

Thus, if the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline inevitably suffered a major spill, Witt O'Brien's would presumably handle the cleanup. That should worry everyone along the proposed KXL route.

From OOPS, Inc. to Witt O'Brien's

In Dec. 2012, Witt Associates merged with O’Brien’s Response Management to form Witt O’Brien’s. The merger at-large is owned by Seacor Holdings.

O'Brien's was formed in the early 1980s by Jim O'Brien - a former U.S. Coast Guard officer - as O'Brien Oil Pollution Service, otherwise known by OOPS, Inc. That's not a joke, it was their actual name.

OOPs, Inc. was acquired by Seacor Holdings Inc. under the auspices of Seacor Environmental Services division in 1997, later renamed The O'Brien's Group (TOG). TOG was later re-named O’Brien’s Response Management Inc. in Oct. 2008.

Importantly, in Dec. 2009, O'Brien's acquired a powerful public relations spin machine wing, as its former website explains:

In December of 2009, O’Brien’s completed the successful acquisition of PIER (Public Information Emergency Response) Systems Inc., a crisis communications company that has developed the PIER software application, an all-in-one, web-based solution for communications management, public relations, media monitoring, employee notification, and business continuity.

Witt Associates, meanwhile, was founded by James Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Bill Clinton who also served Gov. Clinton in Arkansas as head of the state's Office of Emergency Services. He started Witt Associates upon leaving his Clinton Administration post.

Oil and Gas Industry Ties Run Deep at Witt O'Brien's

Many of Witt O'Brien's clients are oil and gas industry giants and many of its employees formerly worked for the industry.

Tim O'Leary, its Vice President of Communications, formerly worked for Shell Oil's Media Relations and Crisis Management team. Don Costanzo, Senior Vice President Business Applications at Witt O'Brien's, formerly had a client list that included BP, ExxonMobil and Shell during his time spent as head of Renfroe & Company, according to his LinkedIn page.

Steve Candito, President and CEO of National Response Corporation (NRC), is a former ExxonMobil employee, serving as a marine engineer aboard its domestic tanker fleet from 1980-1985. He is a "member of the Boards of Directors of various SEACOR Environmental Services entities (which owns Witt O'Brien's)," according to his biographical sketch on the NRC webpage.

A March 2011 version of the O'Brien's Response Management website shows a client list including ExxonMobil, BP and Transocean (of Deepwater Horizon infamy), ConocoPhillips and pipeline industry giant Kinder Morgan.

One of Witt Associates' former clients is ICF International, where Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz sits on ICF's Board of Directors. ICF was one of the three oil and gas industry-tied consulting firms contracted out by the U.S. State Department on behalf of TransCanada to conduct the Keystone XL Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Enbridge Kalamazoo River Tar Sands Pipeline Spill: A Literal Cover-Up

In July 2010, one of Enbridge's tar sands pipelines spilled over 1 million gallons of tar sands dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in an incident now known by close observers as the "dilbit disaster," the worst inland pipeline spill in U.S. history. 

O'Brien's was hired for cleanup duties. A whistleblower later revealed that O'Brien's engaged in a literal cover-up on behalf of Enbridge. 

An excerpt from the three-part investigation by NRDC's OnEarth magazine explains it in a nutshell:

On...September 6, [2010], Jason Buford, a representative from O’Brien’s Response Management...called a meeting...[and] said that, if they were going to meet deadline now, they needed to stop wasting time with small oil-clogged areas. He directed [a] crew to go through the woods, thin out oily debris, and mix mud into the remaining oil so that the EPA would clear the site. 

The whistleblower was fired when he spoke out against O'Brien's demands to cover up oil and threatened to go to the press and government authorities.

“I want you to spread out the oil,” the whistleblower's attorney said to OnEarth in explaining O'Brien's demands in April 2012. “Rake it into the soil. Cover it with grass. Cover it with leaves. I want you to hide it -- to dupe the EPA and the (Michigan Department of Natural Resources).”

BP Deepwater Horizon Dispersant Cover-Up and Exxon Valdez

Witt O'Brien's was also involved in the cleanup effort for the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, as well as for the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the second worst in U.S. history.

Seacor Environmental Services, which owns Witt O'Brien's, was one of the parties responsible for spraying the toxic chemical oil dispersant Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, according to an Aug. 2010 story in The Wall Street Journal

Anne Landman, writing for PR Watch, explained that Corexit does not actually clean up oceanic spills.

BP's Web site gives the impression that dispersants "clean and control" ocean oil spills by putting the oil in a state where "it becomes a feast for the naturally-occurring microbes that inhabit the ocean." But dispersants do not clean the water, nor do they remove oil at all, but rather re-arrange where it exists, and change where it goes. 

BP applied roughly 1.1. million gallons of surface dispersant in the Gulf and over 720,000 gallons of subsea dispersant. It is a "science experiment" - as Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network put it - whose impacts are still unknown on water, on water-based animals, and on water-based animals when converted into consumable food. 

Corexit was also applied during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a disaster response O'Brien's helped oversee, according to its website. 

O'Brien's also helped with the damage control in the form of PR spin for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

Brad Johnson, then writing for Think Progress, explained that Witt O'Brien's PIER Systems was "being used by Unified Command for media and public information management” during the Deepwater Horizon spill in an article titled, "BP’s Secret Army Of Oil Disaster Contractors." BP was listed as one of PIER's clients in a 2008 version of its website. 

Former Bush Administration FEMA head of External Affairs, John "Pat" Philbin, got a gig as Senior VP of PIER upon leaving FEMA.  

Jeb Bush in the Fray

In Sept. 2011, Jeb Bush - brother of former President George W. Bush and former Republican Governor of Florida - joined the O'Brien's team.

"Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, through his firm Old Rhodes Holdings LLC, and O’Brien’s Response Management (O’Brien’s), a wholly owned subsidiary of SEACOR Holdings Inc. (NYSE: CKH), today announced a strategic partnership to facilitate O’Brien’s growth into new markets," explained an O'Brien's press release

George W. Bush's first FEMA Director, Joe Allbaugh, called for privatization of FEMA's functions. 

"Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level," he once said. "We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters."

2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also called for the full-privatization of FEMA during one of the presidential debates.  

Crisis Communications and Keystone XL: Spill Cleanup or Image Cleanup?

Witt O'Brien's has been tasked by TransCanada to oversee spill response for its prospective Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that will bring the dilbit from Alberta to Port Arthur, TX, after which it will be placed on the global export market.

Yet its track record in Valdez, the Gulf of Mexico, Kalamazoo and now in Arkansas indicates that O'Brien's is more interested in PR damage control than spill cleanup. Crisis management is a key aspect of Witt O'Brien's client offerings, and its spin machine is currenly likely working just as hard as its actual spill clean-up team.

With Lake Conway and its accompanying cove now contaminated with tar sands dilbit, 22 households evacuated in Mayflower, it's no wonder ExxonMobil is running the show both by land and by air there. Yet, Attorney General McDaniel is taking spill cleanup advice from a firm known for cover-up and not clean-up, all under the guise of a robust independent investigation of Exxon.

This can't end well, and begs the unpleasant question as to whether the same situation can be expected for the Keystone XL. 

About this writer: Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog. He joined the DeSmogBlog team in September 2011.

Steve previously was a reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, interned in Washington, DC with former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), and interned at the Rotary International world headquarters in Evanston, Illinois. In his free time, Steve is a competitive runner, with a personal best time of 2:43:04 in the 2009 Boston Marathon.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in political science and legal studies, his writing has appeared on The Guardian, AlterNet, PR Watch, The Nation, Truth-Out, FireDogLake, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Mondoweiss, Wisconsin Watch,, Nation of Change, EcoWatch, PolicyMic,, Z Magazine, Climate Connections, Business Insider, The Real News Network, Uganda's Daily Monitor, Modern Ghana, the London Evening Post, CleanTechnica.

You can follow him on Twitter @Steve-Horn1022

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