For 15 years, Dan Peterson worked as a cook on oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. During much of that time Peterson lived on Grand Isle, the barrier island community that has experienced some of the worst damage from the BP spill. Although Peterson retired three years ago, he maintains close ties with his offshore compadres, and has keenly monitored the events of the past 100-plus days.
Peterson did not participate in drilling per se. On a rig, food service personnel are considered a lower caste by those who actually work in oil production. But 18 hours of daily duty in the galley, where all crew members would gather at one time or another, created a dual reality in which Peterson was virtually omnipresent yet also figuratively invisible.
“I saw and heard a lot,” he said. “As a cook I was regarded as a retarded derelict and accorded a degree of anonymity, which left me privy to many acts of bribery and extortion not open to public scrutiny. I was on more than one job where I was enlisted to go ashore and pick up a few bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and a fat envelope for someone with MMS.”
MMS (the Mineral Management Service) is the federal watchdog agency that grants drilling permits and supervises oil-industry safety. Despite this serious mandate, MMS employees have been widely accused of abdicating such responsibilities and engaging in questionable interactions with oil company employees, including alleged drug use and sexual liaisons. (In response to criticism of MMS performance following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the agency split in two to avoid conflicts of interest in regulating the same companies it conducts business with.)
Peterson said that MMS is routinely “fed graft to ignore safety violations,” with serious results. “I was on a rig where a bunch of stacked pipe came crashing through the deck and into the crew’s quarters. It missed crushing me by six inches. Without going into all the technical details of a shoddy and rushed welding job on a spud barge,” Peterson went on, “this was caused by a problem that MMS had objected to at first. But that objection disappeared when they were paid off.”