Greg Palast is a corporate fraud investigator turned investigative journalist. In his new book, Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, he and his team crisscross the globe in a quest to report on disasters caused by oil giant British Petroleum.
Palast, a California native headquartered in New York, does most of his reporting for British media, including BBC, The Guardian, and the Channel Four network. He gained notoriety for uncovering the move to purge thousands of African-Americans from Florida voter rolls in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, documented in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
I had a chance to speak with Palast in early November about some ongoing investigations, the state of American media, and a few chapters of his book particularly pertinent to a San Diego audience.
“San Onofre? You betcha, I know all about it!” exclaims Palast when I bring up the nuclear plant on San Diego County’s northern coast. I’ve steered the conversation to a disturbing chapter in Vultures’ Picnic regarding a plant in Shoreham, Long Island, where inspectors faked test results concerning the ability of the facility to withstand an earthquake. In the past, Palast worked with the California Public Utilities Commission as a nuclear plant investigator.
“Okay, here’s the thing, I don’t want to scare anyone, but...” he begins before launching into a lecture on the lax earthquake-proofing standards and faked test results at nuclear facilities across the country. Particularly disturbing are his comments regarding the diesel backup generators that are supposed to come online in order to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the case of an outage.
Diesel engines take time to warm up before they reach full power-generating capacity. But these massive engines, with base horsepower ratings well into the thousands (and subsequently doubled by strapping on a turbocharger), need to be online and running at full capacity in 10–12 seconds after a failure occurs in order to avert disaster. Frequently harvested from retired cruise ships, the engines simply aren’t capable of firing up as required. In the Shoreham test, two of the three backup generators failed almost immediately after being put under load — the third blew up as soon as it was turned on.
Palast believes the backup systems suggest to the public that safety precautions are being taken, but they’re about as effective for any purpose beyond appeasing the public as wrapping them in garland and a giant Christmas bow.
“Fraud is as much a part of a nuclear plant as the steel and cement,” says Palast, implying the plant operators are well aware of their safety devices’ shortcomings. “Nuclear power for profit is simply impossible if safety comes first.”
We switch topics to “smart pigs,” or pipeline inspection gauges, robotic devices that scan the inside of oil and gas pipelines to identify weak spots caused by corrosion or faulty connections. Palast conducted an interview with an industry insider he refers to only as “Pig Man,” who discovered a programming error that causes the devices to underreport the level of decay pipelines may be suffering, in direct violation of federal accuracy standards. His engineering team offered management a fix for the glitch, and he was promptly fired.
It turns out that making repairs to pipe whenever federal law says repairs should be made is a costly endeavor — to the tune of $31.25 million per mile for a project like Alyeska’s Trans Alaska Pipeline, which burst in 2006, spilling over 6300 barrels of oil and requiring a $500 million project to replace 16 miles of corroded pipe. Alyeska is a conglomerate of British Petroleum, ExxonMobil, and other big players in the oil industry. The pig manufacturers feared that correcting the errors in the program would alert client companies to the need for even more pipe replacement, thus leading to further costs, which the clients wished to avoid.
“It’s just better to pay off if it blows. It may blow, it may not blow, you know? But if it blows, well, gee — okay, then it’s an accident,” Palast says, describing another pipeline blowout in Chicago that cost a gas company there about $40 million in settlements and legal fees after 18 people died. “It’s just too expensive to do it right.”
On October 12, the Reader’s Dorian Hargrove reported on a Navy pipeline transporting diesel and jet fuel from San Diego Bay to MCAS Miramar. The line was installed in 1954. Jim Gilhooly, a Point Loma resident with 40 years’ experience in pipeline maintenance (including work on Trans Alaska), then stated, “Average life of pipelines without life-extension programs is 20 to 30 years.”
The Navy says it sends a smart pig through the line every five years to ensure safety, with the last test being performed in 2008.
“I bet they do,” Palast replied. “It’s kabuki — pretend. They pretend that it’s safe.”
We also touched on the state of investigative journalism in America.
“What I’m doing is very expensive news. And there’s cheaper ways to make news.” Palast goes on to point out that major news organizations in the United States tend to rely on others to conduct research, jumping in to report a story only after it’s nearly complete. When does news media spring into action stateside? “Once in a while the New York Times, the Washington Post, when they want to do their annual Pulitzer story....”
Greg Palast visits The Center in Hillcrest (3039 Centre Street) on Thursday, November 17, at 7 p.m. Visit activistsandiego.com for more information on his appearance. Admission is free. ■