I Survived the Rig Explosion That Caused the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. This Is What I Saw.
It’s been 12 years since the oil spill caused by British Petroleum devastated the Gulf. A people’s history of this disaster has yet to be told.
It’s been 12 years since the catastrophic explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and causing the largest marine oil spill in human history. A lot of forgetting can happen in that time. A lot of cultural amnesia and historical distortion has set in over the past 12 years, whether that came in the form of a years-long PR campaign from British Petroleum (BP), the high-budget Hollywood-ification of the disaster in the 2016 movie starring Mark Wahlberg, or just the general lack of workers’ voices and stories in the media.
In this episode, we talk with Leo Lindner, who worked for 10 years at the mud company M-I, the last five of which were spent working on the Deepwater Horizon. Leo was on the rig on April 20, 2010, the day of the explosion. We talk to Leo about his life, about moving to and growing up in Louisiana as a kid, working on tugboats and in oil fields, and about the experience of being a worker in the midst of one of the most devastating industrial and environmental disasters of the modern era.
Prefer to read? A full transcript of this episode is available below.
- Leo’s Twitter page
- Richard Pallardy, Encyclopedia Britannica, “Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010)“
- Lisa Friedman, The New York Times, “Ten Years After Deepwater Horizon, US Is Still Vulnerable to Catastrophic Spills“
- James B. Meigs, Slate, “Blame BP for Deepwater Horizon. But Direct Your Outrage to the Actual Mistake“
- Alison Rose Levy, TruthDig, “The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Was a Cover-Up, Not a Cleanup“
- Associated Press, “Short Portraits of 11 Who Died on the Deepwater Horizon“
- Megan Milliken Biven, Current Affairs, “Dredging Up the Past“
- Oliver Milman, The Guardian, “‘I Pray to God It Never Happens Again’: US Gulf Coast Bears Scars of Historic Oil Spill 10 Years On“
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org):
Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network, so if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please, please, please, support the work that we are doing right here at Working People so that we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations every week. You can do that by leaving us a positive review on Apple Podcasts and you can share these episodes on your social media and share them with your coworkers, your friends, and family members.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and we’re going to get right to business because we’ve got a really important episode for y’all today. This is a vintage Working People episode, where I got to have a deep and sprawling and incredible conversation with Leo Lindner, an amazing human being whom I’m honored to now know. I got to talk to Leo about moving to and growing up in Louisiana as a kid. We talk about working on tugboats. And we talk about Leo’s 10 years working for MI, which he describes as a “mud company”. And we also talk about the last five of those years, which Leo spent working on the infamous Deepwater Horizon floating drilling rig. Yes, you heard that right. It’s been 12 years since the catastrophic explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon, that killed 11 workers, and that caused the largest marine oil spill in human history.
And a lot of forgetting can happen in that time. A lot of cultural amnesia and historical distortion has been able to set in over these past 12 years, whether that came in the form of a gross years-long PR campaign from British Petroleum, the high budget Hollywoodification of the disaster in the 2016 movie starring Mark Wahlberg, or just the general lack of vital voices like Leo’s in the media.
I don’t want to presume that everyone who listens to this has a certain degree of background knowledge on the Deepwater Horizon, and I want to let Leo’s story really speak for itself. So just to make sure that you all have enough context going into this week’s episode, I’m actually going to do something that I’ve never done on this show, and I’m going to read a few passages from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“The Deepwater Horizon rig, owned and operated by offshore oil drilling company Transocean and leased by oil company BP, was situated in the Macondo Oil Prospect in the Mississippi Canyon, a valley in the continental shelf. The oil well over which it was positioned was located on the sea bed 4,993 feet below the surface, and extended approximately 18,000 feet into the rock.
“On the night of April 20th, 2010, a surge of natural gas blasted through a concrete core recently installed by contractor Halliburton in order to seal the well for later use. It later emerged through documents released by WikiLeaks that a similar incident had occurred on a BP-owned rig in the Caspian Sea in September 2008. Both cores were likely too weak to withstand the pressure because they were composed of a concrete mixture that used nitrogen gas to accelerate curing.
“Once released by the fracture of the core, the natural gas traveled up the Deepwater rig’s riser to the platform where it ignited, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The rig capsized and sank on the morning of April 22, rupturing the riser, through which drilling mud had been injected in order to counteract the upward pressure of oil and natural gas. Without any opposing force, oil began to discharge into the Gulf. The volume of oil escaping the damaged well, originally estimated by BP to be about 1,000 barrels per day, was thought by US government officials to have peaked at more than 60,000 barrels per day.
“Although BP attempted to activate the rig’s blowout preventer, a fail-safe mechanism designed to close the channel through which oil was drawn, the device malfunctioned. The petroleum that had leaked from the well before it was sealed formed a slick extending over more than 57,500 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, formed by President Obama in May 2010, faulted the Obama administration’s response to the spill in a report issued in October of that year. The commission’s final report, issued in January 2011, attributed the spill to the lack of regulatory oversight by the government, and negligence and time saving measures on the part of BP and its partners.”
Now, the economic impacts alone to the Gulf Coast and to working people in the region from the BP oil spill have, frankly, been incalculable. And I could go on for an entire hour about the environmental consequences of the oil spill. But even that wouldn’t do it justice. Honestly, it kind of brings me to the point of tears, and I find it very hard to read the words, but if you need a reminder of what horrors were wrought 12 years ago and what horrors continue every goddamn day at the hands of the insatiable planet-destroying oil and gas industries, then I am begging you, just fucking Google it. This stuff is all out there for all of us to see. It is not hidden. We know what these companies and our governments are doing to the planet.
I think we tend to push that stuff down so that we can get through our days, because the reality is just too monstrous to confront, but we have to confront it. We have to. We are really and truly running out of time here. Yes, nature can heal from one-off industrial disasters, but when perpetual disaster becomes the mere price of doing business, and when that business takes priority over everything else, not even mother nature can recover from that. And the proof of that is all around us.
As always, we’ve included links in the show notes to this episode for listeners who want to read more on the topics that are discussed in the episode. And I want to encourage folks to do that, because I also don’t want to give the impression that one two-hour conversation between me and Leo can possibly cover everything that needs to be covered here, and I didn’t want to put that impossible burden on Leo, either. I also knew and understood going into this recording that talking about the day of the explosion, the chaos on the rig, the deaths of his brothers and fellow workers, and the traumatic aftermath, all of that is extremely difficult for Leo. I wanted to give Leo the space to tell the story through his eyes the way he wanted it to be told, and I didn’t want to push him for more than he was willing to give.
So if you’re looking for gory details and a drawn out play-by-play of the explosion, I’m going to let you know right now that you’re not going to find those in this conversation. But I hope and pray that people listen regardless, because everything Leo says is so important and I am so grateful to him for talking with me, for honoring his fallen coworkers, and for speaking the truth. This is his story.
Leo Lindner: My name is Leo Lindner, I live in South Louisiana. And after a brief stint working at a university, it inspired me to try to make more money, and I went to work for a mud company called MI. And I spent 10 years with the company, and spent my last five years on the Deepwater Horizon, and I was on the rig the night of. And my career ended after the explosion. I went out to the DD III to help drill the relief well to try to actually stop Macondo from leaking. And that’s where I decided I had had enough, I couldn’t go back, because I saw a lot of the same faces, same kinds of people on the DD III that were on the Horizon, good guys, and struggling with the same things those guys struggled with, and I just couldn’t be a part of it anymore.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well Leo, it’s such an honor to get a chance to chat with you, man. I really, really appreciate you taking time to hop on a call with me. As listeners can hear, we’ve got a lot to discuss here. We all remember where we were and what we were feeling when we watched the catastrophe at Deepwater Horizon. And I genuinely can’t even imagine what it was like for you and the other folks who were on the rig that day.
But in a lot of ways, this is still part and parcel of what we try to do on this show, is to remind people that it was flesh and blood human beings making that rig work, it was flesh and blood human beings with lives and backstories and families who experienced that horrific tragedy, like yourself. And so even though we’re going to be talking about some extremely heavy and catastrophic stuff today, I do want to follow our usual Working People format where we get to know more about you, and we can talk to you about how you got into doing this work, what it was like doing that work before, as you said, you couldn’t do it anymore. And so again, I just really want to thank you for coming on and being willing to chat with us and speaking out about this. I genuinely appreciate it.
Leo Lindner: I’ve got to tell you Mr. Alvarez, I really appreciate you talking to me today.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you brother, and that means a lot. And yeah, you’re a fascinating guy, so I want to get to know more about you. You said that you [inaudible] –
Leo Lindner: Well, now you set it up, now it’s just going to be disappointing. [Max laughs] No, just kidding.
Maximillian Alvarez: And did you grow up in Louisiana?
Leo Lindner: My parents were from North Louisiana. My dad’s actually from Victoria, Texas, they moved there. My grandfather worked in the oil field, and we moved down South. My father got a job at a paper mill. So I grew up in Lafourche Parish, went to Cut Off Elementary, that was the name of the town. And so yeah, I spent my life in South Louisiana.
Maximillian Alvarez: Now keep in mind you’re talking to a Southern California boy, so apologies if my questions are really stupid.
Leo Lindner: [inaudible].
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, when you describe this, are we talking one of those parishes that you need to get on a boat through the Bayou to get to? How South Louisiana are we talking here?
Leo Lindner: Sure, yeah, we walked on the alligators to go to school. No –
Maximillian Alvarez: [both laugh] I knew it.
Leo Lindner: No, no. Lafourche Parish, it’s a very long parish, actually, Port Fourchon is at the very tip of it at the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s very influenced by both shrimping and the oil field. Those were the two main ways to make a living. But no, no alligators, no swamp going to school, nothing like that, nothing that exciting.
Maximillian Alvarez: And what was it like… So how old were you, and what was it like moving from Texas to Louisiana at that point?
Leo Lindner: Well it was different because I didn’t have the accent. The Cajun kids made fun of me because I said dee instead of dah. But that’s okay. I mean, it was good to grow up down here. It’s just, I always felt like a little bit of an outsider, but I think everyone feels that way at some point.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that’s the great joke of adolescence and childhood is everyone feels like an outsider when no one’s on the inside, really.
Well, what did you… I guess paint me a picture here. Did y’all have a big family? And what was it being a kid in that environment? Did you have friends whose parents were shrimpers, and what did you guys do for fun?
Leo Lindner: Oh, yeah. Well we lived in a very rural place, but it ran like a straight line. But if we walked a few acres west, we hit the 40 Acre Canal, and it was full of woods. We did hunting and fishing, that kind of thing. And I grew up with a set of neighborhood kids that were really cool. I was always friends with the older kids, really.
But no, growing up in South Louisiana, it was a positive experience, I suppose. But it was always under this kind of shadow of… Because people were very poor, even though a few people had it really good working in the oil field or whatever. If your dad owned Rouses, which is a big supermarket, you were okay. If your dad owned a boat company, yeah, you were really hot. We had a guy like that, he drove to school in a Ferrari, if you can imagine, in the ’80s, a kid driving school Ferrari. But his dad owned a boat company.
But for the working class people it was really tough, it was really tough. The prospects were tough. So the culture here, it sees itself as very working class, but it’s also got a kind of mean spiritedness to it, because people are desperate, because people want to… If you don’t have money, you don’t feel like you’re a person or whatever. So there’s a kind of conflict there. The working people don’t feel like they’re comrades, they don’t feel like they have stuff in common, they feel like they’re in competition with each other.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I mean that is all too familiar. I was smiling when you were talking about it, because that’s something that I always try to impress upon people when I talk about growing up in Orange County, California. Everyone knows the TV shows like The OC and Laguna Beach and stuff. And so when they come there they’re like, oh, you’re all rich and live in mansions on the beach? Well not exactly, right? I mean –
Leo Lindner: [laughs] No, those are the ones who get the TV show, right?
Maximillian Alvarez: Those are the ones who get the TV shows. And yes they do exist, Laguna Beach is an incredibly beautiful place that I will never be able to afford to live in. But you could see that even in our high school, because our high school, I was from North Orange County – So Brea, California for folks playing along – and it’s a massive school. It’s one of those ones that you see in those ’90s rom coms that all take place in Southern California, it looks like a small college. But in the parking lot every day, the juniors and seniors who parked there, you had a mix of the working class folks, the Latinos, and a mishmash of people driving shitty $500 cars parked right next to some little shit head who had rich parents and was driving an Escalade to school.
Leo Lindner: Of course.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, we hated those guys, too. Yeah, like you said, that competition and that pain and resentment that, even if people don’t say it out loud you can tell they’re sitting on it. I definitely saw that and felt it much more in our family after the Great Recession when everything went to shit. But I am curious to ask a little more about that, how that looked in the community that you grew up in when, like you said, it didn’t feel like there were many opportunities for advancement and building that comfortable middle class life. So can we talk about that in the context of your own life? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do? Or what possibilities for your future felt open when you were growing up in this part of the country?
Leo Lindner: I’ll tell you a quick story about how it plays out down here. It seems like people with money are able to ape the working class aesthetic and they set the tenor for what the working class works for. This is not going to endear me to your listing audience, but I spent some time as a reserve deputy in my parish. And I did it, really, out of a kind of curiosity, went through the academy and all of that. And there was a full-time deputy there, and his name, well, I shouldn’t say his name, but it was an incredibly Russian name.
Maximillian Alvarez: [laughs] We’ll call him Vladimir for the story’s sake.
Leo Lindner: Vladimir is a good name, yes. Because he was Russian, he had a sickle and hammer ring. He was Russian military, he came here to be a mercenary, he wanted to work for Triple Canopy. And somehow that job fell through and he became a sheriff’s deputy. And he had, Vladimir, had spent some time in Chicago. And he said in Chicago, if somebody has a dollar more than you, you’re shit. But here in South Louisiana, you could be talking to a millionaire and he’s just a regular guy. And for a guy with a sickle and hammer ring on to say that with no real class consciousness, the sickle and hammer ring was aesthetic, it was a part of his culture. But he didn’t seem to understand that that millionaire he was talking to and he felt buddies with was actually creating the poverty that he was policing.
We talk about how bad crime is in our state, but we never talk about, well, why are people so poor? And the line is we have a really poor state, it’s not true. Our GDP is really like Oregon’s GDP, we just have a lot of poor people because of the way wealth is divided. And a lot of people think along the same lines. If you are nice and you’re not stuck up and you’re incredibly rich, then you must be one of me. You and I, we’re connected because we have the same values, we have the same family values, the same view on the culture war. And that’s always been a great division here, that people want to see themselves as part of the “good class”. And anything, anything that divides them from the bad class, they’ll grapple onto. We’re the state that had [inaudible] law, so at one point we had at least the right idea about class, but that has been weaned off of us. We don’t think that way anymore. And I’d like to see that come back.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a really important point, because this is like… I did a lot of reporting last year in Wisconsin, and I was there talking at teachers 10 years after Act 10 with Scott Walker, basically going to war with the unions and winning in a lot of ways and the devastation that that left in the state, and how easy it was for these politicians to essentially turn the population of the state against public sector workers. But what came out of all that reporting and all those conversations I had with folks was just like, yeah, we had a really radical history in this state. The rural parts were not always as deeply conservative as they are. Things change, and they have reasons for changing. But I think it’s important, like you said, to recognize that that history’s still there. It is still part of our states and our communities, but it’s been lost as these other sides have achieved a dominance, in a way, a cultural dominance.
And I think what you were saying about that complex is so important because I noticed that same thing on the national stage when Donald Trump ran for president. My dad voted for Trump in 2016. And for so many people, that line where, I forget who said it, but they called Trump a “blue collar billionaire”, it made sense to people. And I remember sitting there, I was like, what does that even mean? And just trying to untangle that knot and understand it. I think what you just said is the key to it.
It was a cultural thing. It was like, he swears like us. He’s not polished, like us. It was a lot of that being able to act a certain way. It didn’t matter how much money you had in the bank. And I guess I just wanted to – We don’t have to talk about Trump, of course – But I wanted to ask a little more about how, for people who haven’t grown up in Louisiana, how you think they should be understanding that complex of losing that class consciousness that you mentioned? And how and why that turns into the politics that it does?
Leo Lindner: Well I’ll tell you, my father worked in a paper mill. And we struggled, but he was part of a union. So everything we had was at least part and parcel because he was in a union. And of course during the Reagan administration [inaudible] that’s free market reign. And the paper mill started to have to compete with places like Vietnam or third world countries. And my father, when he was young, was very pro-union, happy to have it. But as he got older, retired, and as he started listening to all the… Really the propaganda about how unions ruin the country, he became anti-union, he said unions were the problem with the country. And that’s really always the case that whatever ills we have is always pushed down upon the working class and poor people, “individual responsibility”. That somehow we were destroyed because working-class people had too much power, which is ridiculous.
But that’s been terribly successful, especially in this state, which is people, they see unions as being job killers. That’s another big phrase that the local politicians and the national politicians always throw out, they’re job killers. But, unless working people have a voice in how they work, which is what, 80% of their waking hours? Why do we call this democracy? And I’ve noticed that when I talk to people individually that they respond to that. But it’s really in the public sphere. And when people start using fear and talking about how they are working, people don’t want to work anymore. It’s just so easily shoved down upon the lower classes as opposed to looking up and saying, look, these are the people who actually control what happens here. These are the people that determine your life. But that ire never moves upward. It’s always easier to shove it down.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that. We’re not going to be able to go into all that there, but part of it has just got to be like, they’re the people around you. We don’t often see these CEOs and corporate executives. They’re often, they’re jets, they’re often their gated communities.
Leo Lindner: They’re over in Davos having a conference.
Maximillian Alvarez: Exactly, yeah. They’re having a conference in Davos. And so when you are just an average person trying to make sense of the brokenness of the world around you, you seize on the examples that are ready at hand. So, if you know a guy at work who is lazy, you’re going to turn him into this archetype of a massive population that must be out there. And I know that I felt that. I grew up very conservative, and I would take the people around me as these sort of archetypes and project them outwards onto a population that I didn’t know. So it was like yeah like oh…
Leo Lindner: That’s a really easy shorthand way of [understanding the] world, and we like simple answers. In the local paper you see about crime, it’s always the poor people who make the paper and some horrendous thing. And so you start drawing these large conclusions about, well, they must be bad people. We don’t have a bad system, we have a lot of bad people. Our country must have a lot, since we have 2.3 million prisoners. We talk about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Well, what is it that caused [inaudible] to have so many bad people? And it’s ridiculous because it’s never about poverty, it’s never about… Because these people live in desperate positions, desperate conditions. But it’s easier to think of it that way. Because if you start seeing it as a structural problem, systemic problem, well, then the fight is huge. And you have to see yourself in league with those you look down on to change things. And that’s just hard to do. It’s hard for these folks here to do [inaudible] anyway.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no I think that’s just beautifully put. It is hard. And for anyone listening, take that for what it’s worth. Understand that as we try to get more people into that fight and build that solidarity with our fellow workers, understand that we’re still working with people, for whom it can be very difficult to reckon with the gargantuan nature of the systemic problems that we have. Again I…
Leo Lindner: When the whole thing was George W. is somebody you wanted to have a beer with. Well I didn’t. But yes, that was the appeal that he was a regular fella just like me. It’s tough to beat that appeal to culture as opposed to appeal to your material condition.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I think that’s, again, well put. And it’s always funny to watch the elites, I guess we’re calling them now, these people who genuinely live in a different world from us. Watching them try to be normal is one of my favorite pastimes. Whether that’s Mark Zuckerberg trying to act like a human being or Hillary Clinton pulling hot sauce out of her purse. All of it. From people on the right, the left. Rich people trying to act like normal people is like, there needs to be a whole television show about that, because I would watch the hell out of it.
Leo Lindner: And then J.D. Vance has made a whole bit out of it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Exactly. Yeah there’s a whole cottage industry of cosplaying the working man while being a lackey for the 1%. Actually that’s going to come up when we start talking about the Deepwater Horizon. Because it kept making me think about that dude Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy who loves going on rigs like this and talking about how dirty the jobs are and how hardworking the guys on the rig are. And he’s also talking about how you can’t… No one actually puts safety first. Safety first is a wrong way to understand it, you got to get the job done. Thinking about what you went through, when I hear that shit head talking about that on TV just makes my blood boil.
But before we get there, you’ve already dropped a couple of tidbits, and I want us to walk our way from you growing up in this parish to your stint in law enforcement and academia to a mud company. Walk us down that path. How’d you get from point A to point Z?
Leo Lindner: Oh, well it’s not a far walk. I moved to Thibodaux in the ’80s after I graduated. And first I worked in a couple of tugboats, laying pipe, pulling anchors for lay barges. The barges were laying the pipe in the Gulf of Mexico, and we were pulling the anchors. I didn’t realize how dangerous the job was until we pulled the first anchor. The seas were terrible, like seven, eight foot seas, trying to pull these anchors. And we got these huge buoys that you have to get this one cable, you get the gig, you hook it up to the winch. And as soon as we did that, the hand I was working with says, come on, let’s get back here. What, why? Of course we were pitching around, had no idea. And we went around to the bow to get away from it, I didn’t understand why. But we were looking back, and as he was pulling the anchor up, it snapped. And all that cable came flying back like an octopus onto the back deck, which would’ve killed me if I’d have stayed there.
But I really didn’t understand how dangerous that job was. But that was a learning experience. And I learned a few things about the nature of racism, really. We had a Black guy that was the mechanic, and the engineer was just on him all the time. He was a Black fella. And the Black guy was from Jamaica, and the fella that was the engineer was from Alabama. And he and Captain Blackwell, who was from Mississippi, oh man they would go on about him all the time. And he was just being, they were just crapping on him because, well, what I knew was the… What I felt was the problem.
And there was a Honduran on the boat that had been on there for like 10 months. Now, he was sending all his money home. Of course, probably, absolutely need to. But he was nearly crazy because he’d been on there so long. So yeah, working in the oil field, working on the tug boats, I started to see this divide and how people are held down by their condition. So, I mean after I worked in tugboats, I worked at Popeyes for a while. That was a great experience. I got one of the ladies who worked there taught me about baby making weather. It was raining really hard one day at Popeyes and nobody would come in, and Ms. Wanda said ooh it’s baby making weather [both laugh], which always stuck with me.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh yeah, I’m taking that now.
Leo Lindner: That’s what she said. And I also learned the phrase “out of the box” working at Popeyes. Afterwards I went to school at Nichols and did terribly. I got a job at a restaurant. And that was also a great instruction on human nature, because Thibodaux was a small town, certain families are aristocratic and just horrible. Anyone to look down upon that makes them feel better. But working in the restaurant I started really seeing, the guys I worked for had sons. And they owned a big company. And the sons didn’t have to worry about anything. Their [inaudible] was set because… But I knew I was different. I knew I had to… So after a long stent and drinking and staying up too late, but still paying my way through college, I finally got the degree. And I really wanted to just teach English, because I had this instructor and he and I became great friends, great friends today.
We still talk every day. And I thought that was the perfect thing. I just wanted to get there and went on and got the master’s degree at USL when it was USL. And I got to Nichols, and I realized it was almost like every other place I had worked at. The same spectrum of people and the same kind of… How should I put it? There were contradictions in every place I’ve ever worked that made the work seem absurd, and at Nichols it was no different. [inaudible] and the pay was just terrible. So, after working there for a while – Which, I loved working there, I loved the people, I loved the kids. But my wife and I had three daughters, well two at the time. And so I decided I had to make a move somewhere. And it’s the phrase, it’s not what you do but who you know. I had a master’s degree, but that didn’t cut me mustard with this one guy I interviewed with for a mud company.
But this other guy had a master’s degree in industrial technology education, something like that. So he gave me a shot and I took the math test. But the only reason I got the chance to even take that interview was because someone I worked with had an uncle that owned a mud company. He gave me a recommendation without even knowing. So it’s odd how that works, but it’s only because I was moving in that sphere that I had a chance to even hop to the mud company. Who else gets that chance? Matter of fact, when I worked at the restaurant, there were no Black people in the front. Of course, they all worked in the kitchen. And I was there, though, when we got our first, his name’s Allen, he was a great guy, he was great to hangout with. And he had his first night, he was a little nervous.
And his first table – And this is a very odd story – But his first table was a Black table. A Black [couple] of people. And Allen went up to the table and the guy told him, look at you trying to be white. It’s bizarre, kind of a bizarre moment. Poor Allen, he didn’t know how to take that. But Allen did fine. Allen also worked his way through Nichols [inaudible] because he had that job. The reason I was able to get through college is because I had that job. And the only reason why… And I had been to that restaurant seven, eight years before we had the first Black fella in the front. And for those seven, eight years, that was cut off, too, a certain segment of the population. Allen got there and he made the most of it. And I saw him a few years ago, he’s doing just great. And I don’t know how that plays in, but it certainly showed me how complicated things are.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I mean just to say from my side hearing this, I think that it’s very relevant. Because you said, even at the different jobs that you’ve been to, you’ve seen those same contradictions and divisions that you saw even at school. That resonated with me. And Allen’s story resonates with me as someone who grew up mixed race. And who was always too white to be Mexican, too Mexican to be white. And honestly, I think I’ve mentioned it on this show. Doing a podcast has been weirdly therapeutic for a problem that I’ve had my entire life where I hated my voice for my whole life because I had friends who would accuse me of sounding white. And it never, when I would hear the voice in my head it didn’t look like who the person I saw in the mirror, who I thought he should sound like. And again it’s like, what does that even mean?
What should I sound like? So it took me, it was kind of shock therapy, okay do a podcast and be forced to listen to the sound of your own voice to get over that. But it’s there. It’s something that I carried with me at different jobs. It’s something that I saw in different jobs, like the restaurants I worked at. Like you said, I remember working at a pizza place in Anaheim. Or a Persian restaurant in Chicago. The Latinos were the ones in the kitchen, by and large. There was one guy at the pizza place from Georgia who was a pizza cook, but everyone else was basically Latino. And the people in the front of house were not. And that becomes so just a regular part of the landscape that you just accepted as real. But I think the way that you put it was really striking, going to different types of jobs and seeing the same ways that those hierarchies manifest. And I think it’s really important.
Leo Lindner: Yeah. And [inaudible] with university, there was always the phrase, there’s something called faculty convocation where all the faculty members come and the administration tells you how things are going to be for that semester. And the phrase, you’re going to have to do more with less. The three years I was there, it’s like okay, we are going to make it more difficult for you to educate these people then, so you’re going to have to work harder, that’s what we’re saying. And that always struck me as being so, God, just so disingenuous. It’s just up to you to take care of education, because we’re pulling back, and we’re not going to do it either.
And at one point, this is apocryphal – Not apocryphal, but it’s something I heard secondhand. One of the administrators was in a meeting, and the head of English was there. And for this one semester we all had taken overload, we had to take an extra class. [You] teach five classes instead of four to be full time. And the head of the department said, because, great, English, you have to spend at least half an hour on each essay, you’ve got 35 kids in a class, you’re spending a lot of time after.
And the head of the department spoke up, he said look, this is outrageous. You’re not really going to pay them much more, and then they’re going to have to work so many more hours in addition to what you’re asking. And this one guy who was in charge of the budget said, well you just don’t love kids. So, it became like oh yeah, so it’s our fault for not wanting to work an extra 20 hours a week grading these papers. Then that’s the way of shoving responsibility down. And that kind of contradiction exists just about every place I’ve ever worked.
Maximillian Alvarez: Honestly man, it’s probably the most common thing that people talk about when I talk to them on this show. Just that phrase, do more with less. That is essentially the headline of the American economy. Whether its teachers… I mean like educators, this has been what we’ve done to public education for decades. Do more with less. Bigger class sizes, less funding. Teachers paying out of their pocket for chalk. Same like you said in higher education, do more with less. If now we’re going to have adjunct professors making $2,000 a semester per course, we’re going to load those courses up with people and just expect that love of the students is going to carry it forward.
But also, down where you are, I just interviewed a Dollar General worker who has been asked to do more with less. She’s like, we usually have two people in a store, one on the register, one running around when we should have five. The railroads right now are close to a national rail strike because the class one freight rail carriers, for decades, have been reducing the crew sizes, and they want to get it down to one person on those trains. Healthcare workers have been getting more patients piled on to nurses and other healthcare staff. The do more with less. This is the thing, is we talk about these big brain billionaires and CEOs that we entrust with the economy, it’s like, well, their one big idea is to just squeeze more work out of fewer workers and pocket the cash. That’s basically it.
Leo Lindner: I have a friend, and he works in a water works in one of the parishes connected to this one, and I got to go and see him make water. The plant is in terrible condition. But he’s doing a fantastic job with what he’s got. But the same thing that happened in Jackson. I mean Jackson’s probably, well, purposely underfunded. It makes good politics in Republican states to make Black cities look bad. But even in the city he’s in, he’s running on backup systems. And his parish has two water systems. And he said they’re running on backup systems. So they’re just a step away from [inaudible] Jackson’s as be the whole parish. He’s an interesting fellow. He might talk go on [inaudible] too.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh hell yeah. We’ll connect with him after this.
Leo Lindner: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Awesome. Well like, again, if this is the novel that we’re writing, we’re foreshadowing what you went through in Deep Water Horizon.
Leo Lindner: Same dynamic. Right, the same dynamic.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yes. Okay so we’d gotten to the point where, because of folks that you knew, you were able to apply for and get this job at the mud company. So for listeners, I just wanted to say they have probably never heard the words “mud company” before. So could you just say a little bit about what that means? [laughs]
Leo Lindner: I know I used the colloquial phrase there, I should have been more clear. Drilling fluid is referred to as mud on a rig. Though it’s not, there are water based muds. It’s basically clay, water, and some sodium hydroxides, different chemicals in it. But most of the [inaudible] use synthetic mud. And synthetic mud is derived from oil. But it’s still all referred to as mud. Drilling fluid is called mud. That’s why, in the rigs, we are called mud engineers on the rigs. Of course we’re not engineers, but you can’t even call yourself an engineer professionally because we didn’t go to… I don’t have an engineering degree. But yeah, that’s just what they’ve been called historically in the oil field.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you for that. That’s super helpful. Because yes I admit, initially when I heard that, the little cartoons inside my brain were thinking about mud fights. So what was it like, what was that job like? And what kind of work did you do?
Leo Lindner: Well basically what we do is, every shift there’ll be one mud engineer on tower, on shift, they call it a tower. And you run tests on the drilling fluid to make sure there’s nothing contaminating it, it’s not going to get clumpy. To make sure that the properties are what’s in the drilling guide. They’re given a map of what the fluid is supposed to look like at every depth. And you’re trying to keep the rheology, all the properties matching what the production company wants. And you add clay, you add polymer thinners to get the mud, to get the drilling fluid where you want it. And that’s basically my job. I go out, do the tests, give the derrickman a prescription. You add this much at this time until you get so many sacks in. And then the drilling fluid should have the properties that you’re looking for by the end of that day, that tower, that shift.
And that was basically my job. We did calculations for displacements, that kind of thing. We ordered more fluid when we needed it. So, the mud weight’s very important. Mud weight is the primary thing that keeps the pressures down in the well. So mud weight’s also important. You have something, because you have a water intrusion into your mud, it’s cutting the mud weight, you got to make sure that the mud weight’s right, because you’ll get a kick. The pressures will try to come back up the well. So those are the kind of things you do during the day. You do a lot of tests, you talk to a lot of people, you go up to the rig floor and see where they’re going to go on. You have to pay attention to what the casing point is because that’s where they’re going to stop on case. So, that’s basically the job.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and not to put you on the spot, but again just thinking for listeners who are maybe visualizing these rigs in their head and trying to think about all the different pieces and different workers who make this operation go. Could you just say a little more about what role that drilling fluid plays in extracting oil on an offshore rig?
Leo Lindner: Well, the first thing is, we call it an oil rig, but if you have oil on the rig, something’s gone terribly, terribly wrong. The last thing you want to see is oil on an oil rig. What the drilling fluid does is, they have this huge bit at the end of this long pipe and they’re down there grinding up the shale. And the drilling fluid, you pump it down the pipe, it comes back around the hole that the bit is creating, and it cleans out all those bits, because without it you’re not going to go very far. The two primary functions of drilling fluid is weight, to keep the pressure down, and the rheology to lift all those cuttings out of the hole as it’s pumped around, back up the anular, back up to the rig, over the shakers, back to the mud pit, that kind of thing. It makes this kind of circle the whole time. Without the drilling fluid, you couldn’t drill a well, right? There’s no way to clean that hole. There’s no way to keep pressure down as you’re drilling.
Maximillian Alvarez: Got it. Again, for someone whose knowledge of this area goes about as far as the movie Armageddon got me [both laugh], this is very helpful.
Leo Lindner: Well, the thing is, people talk about… When you ever see an oil rig, somehow there’s always oil… And there are production platforms. Production platforms are actually owned by production companies, and they are producing a huge prospect. Like the Thunder Horse out there in the Gulf of Mexico is a BP property, and they have this huge well of oil down there, and they will have a small drilling package on the platform. What they’re doing with that drilling package is they’re drilling more holes into that prospect, into that sand, to produce more oil. You never want to see oil out of the well center while you’re drilling a well, because that’s bad. Or you don’t want to see oil in the mud either. That means it’s forcing its way into the mud, and your mud’s now contaminated with oil, then you got a problem.
On production platforms, they’re the ones opening up the spigots to wells that they have completed and they are pumping oil to the bank. So oil rigs never should never have oil on them, unfortunately in the Horizon, that didn’t take… That’s exactly what happened. We displaced a live well when we thought it was dead, when we thought it was discrete from the sand.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s talk about that. Before we get to the day of the catastrophe, let’s talk about the Deepwater Horizon itself and what it was like for you working on it. I mean, again, people listening to this, present company very much included, got no fucking clue what it’s like to work – Pardon my French – Got no clue what it’s like to work on one of these rigs.
Leo Lindner: No, and believe me, when I went from teaching English 101 in school, I had no fucking idea. What am I learning here? A learning curve. My learning curve is more like a gradual incline. It took me a while to understand what is the actual function of what happens on a drilling rig. But I can understand how you’d be curious.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well yeah, so I guess paint us a picture of, through your eyes, what was it stepping onto this rig? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? What is it like for folks living on that rig, basically? Because you’re far enough out that you can’t see the land, so you’re just sitting in the middle of the ocean on this thing.
Leo Lindner: Yeah. Sometimes people can take crew boats out to their rigs, especially if you’re on the shelf, you’re in shallow water. Occasionally, if you have to. But we flew out and man, I just remember waking up at 3:00 in the morning and that sinking feeling, knowing you’re going to be gone for two weeks. Doesn’t seem like a long time until you’re out there. And trying not to wake up the wife and trying to get out without waking up the kids. The drive there was always… There was this kind of, you had to negate yourself. What you wanted, what you felt. You had to put all those things aside, and you had to think just about what you’re going to go do out there. It was terribly stressful, man. It took me years of smoking to quit and then, actually, the Macondo well, I started smoking again.
It’s hard to describe really, because the last thing you want to do is mess up. You don’t want to be the guy that actually brings a well to a point where it has to stop. Drilling fluid, you mess up the drilling fluid, that’s going to happen. There’s a great deal of pressure constantly to make sure you’re doing your part. There’s a great push to do your job. And there is a kind of camaraderie with the guys you’re working with. Even though I worked for MI, none of those other guys work for MI. They work for Transocean, the contractor, or Pride, or Diamond.
You’re dealing with someone with another company. And traditionally, quite often you have to let the derrick man know you’re not going to rat him out if he messes something up. Because this is the guy that you’re going to be working with the most closely. And it’s very important to have his trust and for you to trust him. From going from rig to rig was always very difficult because you had to create a whole new relationship. That’s always tough, accommodating yourself to the culture of the rig. It was like different rigs had different cultures. We were on this one called the Row and Midland. I was on this one called the Row and Midland, and man, it was just a terrible rig. I got a staph infection. They smoked in the galley. It was kind of that throwback to the ’60s. They still had the metal hard hats.
It wasn’t that difficult to get to know the guys, get a feel for the crew, but it was always stressful not knowing who to trust and who not to trust. That’s like [inaudible] rigs always a problem. On the Row and Midland, it was a small company, I’ve got the name of it, Spectrum or something like that. One of those fly-by-night companies. And we drilled out of cement, they ran casing, they cemented the casing. There was a cement plug at the bottom.
And they drilled out of it, and they have to do what’s called a FIT test, or a formation integrity test where they pressure up. Because when you drill out of casing into the formation, that is going to be the weakest part of your hole. And Spectrum, they didn’t get the FIT test they wanted. You tried squeezing some… We made this [inaudible] and they squeezed that around the cement as well, but they never got the pressure they wanted, so they lied about it.
They said, we’re going to say it’s 6.2 or 14.2 when we really got a 13.9. Hoping they [inaudible] enough casing point. Man, it was stressful, because they started drilling, and they got into a salt water flow, and they couldn’t go up. They ran out of mud weight, they couldn’t go up on the mud weight anymore, and we were getting all this water in this synthetic fluid. And so basically it was taking a kick, but it wasn’t an oil kick, it was salt water. They had it in the well because they couldn’t drill anymore, they actually just stopped the well because – And for one thing they lied about the fit test. They wanted MMS to catch them. The guys were great in that sense that good old boys are great, if you know what I’m saying.
Maximillian Alvarez: Mm-hmm.
Leo Lindner: The powers that control the well are not so concerned with safety, in this particular one for sure. That drive to keep moving even though conditions aren’t optimal, is universal, a small company or a large one.
I was on this one well for Shell and they’d done a BOP test where they closed the anular around the pipe and they tested the BOP to make sure it’s able to withstand pressure. Do that every two weeks. Now, it’s every 21 days because they changed the damn rules. But they couldn’t open up the BOP. They think some black ice was holding up. We pumped a caustic pill down there, which is sodium hydroxide, really hot, just trying to melt what they thought was black ice.
It got so bad they were stuck there for a day, and you could tell the company men were livid, but one in a company meeting said, we got to do something even though it’s wrong. It’s a strange phrase to use, but it’s because that drive to keep moving forward, what they call the critical path, is why you’re on the rig. I mean, that’s what it’s like. That wasn’t in all the wells I was on, but there is a constant, no matter what rig you’re on out there, because production companies want you to get to TDs as quickly as possible.
Those are some of the experiences that I’ve had that show how, while you have one class of guy who’s out there busting his ass, there are people who are taking advantage of that. There’s this tendency to try to romanticize it and turn it into this Herculean task that only men could do or whatever. That kind of romanticism is perverse for me, because when they see romanticism, I see class struggle, I see class war. You are risking these men’s lives to do this. Now, even if you are terribly safe – And there are companies that are really great to work for much more so – You’re still risking people’s lives to drill a well. There’s no way around getting that.
Maximillian Alvarez: This comes up all the damn time. I think that is bipartisan in a lot of ways, but again, as someone who grew up conservative, it feels very close to that part of me. I see it all the time on social media where it’s like people will post these videos of guys on oil rigs doing dangerous work, looking like, in fact, there are quite a lot of OSHA violations happening in this or that video, but the people posting will be like, see this is what real men do. This is what real work looks like. They’re trying to make some sort of, I don’t know, culture point like, oh, this is why women can’t do that work or this is why… Whatever.
The thing that always gets me is whenever the subject of safety and pay and retirement and healthcare benefits or union representation, whenever any of that comes up, the same people who love holding up these images of workers to make their point, suddenly they’re ghosts.
You don’t hear shit from them when it comes to actually taking care of these workers. And that again, that I mentioned the Mike Rowe guy at the beginning just because I see his face as we’re talking here, because he’s made a living off of the Dirty Jobs romanticization, like you’re saying, but he’s also a Coke-funded puppet who’s constantly saying, oh, safety first is a myth, safety is third at best because that’s just how it works out here on these rigs or in these woods where log cutters are cutting down trees and stuff like that. Again, it feels like you’re turning working people into pawns and not actually listening to them or thinking about their working conditions and their material circumstances.
Again, I really want to hone in on that, like you said ‚the unspoken reality that safety is, in fact, third in a lot of these places because productivity and profit come first. Just real quick before we get there, because then we’re going to really be right at the heart of this catastrophe, just two quick questions for folks listening. One, could you say a little bit about what a kick is, and two, just give a quick sense of place on this massive rig, the Deepwater Horizon, just what did it look like in there?
Leo Lindner: Okay, so yeah, I used a phrase that… The kick is when the pressures in the geology, in the formation, are greater than the pressure that column of mud is making, so it’s actually forcing – And in this case on the Rowan rig, it was salt water forcing its way into the annular, into the well, because the mud weight couldn’t keep it down. That’s a kick. And the same thing can happen with oil as well. And you can get a kick. I can get so many barrels of oil intrusion and then you have to close in the pipe.
Where I was on the Deepwater Horizon, it was a big rig. It was a nice rig and really had the best guys. I was very comfortable with the men and women that I worked with. They were fantastic. It had a big TV room, had a big galley, we all had our living quarters, and that was all encased in the living quarters. Once you walked out onto the deck is where they held the riser, which all be down. And the risers are these huge concrete and styrofoam, oddly, columns that they run down to what they call the mud line. Mud line is the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. And they attach it to the BOP.
You had this kind of fake well, this concrete well up to the rig. And then from the mud line on down, you’re actually in shale, you’re in clay. I spent most of my time in what they call the mud pits, and the shaker room, and mud lab and office. We had a little office, it would seat two people. And I run around, I test the mud, I take all the volumes. That’s a big part of the job is making sure of all the volumes, you have to take account of all the volumes because that’s what you charge BP when you lose mud, and all the chemicals [and other things] you put into the… I’m really walking all over the rig, and when nothing’s going on with drilling, I’ll go up to the drill shack. You actually have to walk up into what they call well center, where the pipe is actually running into the hole.
They have what’s called the doghouse, which is the drill shack, it’s another name for it, and that’s where the driller is drilling, and you have the assistant driller there. And they’re putting pipe, as they drill further down, they’re adding more pipe to it. Yeah, it’s a huge operation. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the engine room, I went down there for what they call RCS, and that’s kind of like the auxiliary control of what’s going on with the rig. Yeah, actually huge. We had like 120 people on the rig at one time.
And it’s not actually… The Deepwater Horizon was a ship because it could actually move on its own. The Deepwater Horizon had a sister called the Nautilus. The Nautilus was a moored vessel. It had to have these anchors to keep it in place, but the Deepwater Horizon was dynamically positioned. They had these huge turbines that kept it on position, on location using GPS, a really remarkable thing.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I can imagine. Setting aside all prior knowledge of what happened, all concerns about the environment, these are really incredible machines, and incredible feats of engineering and labor, and they’re so complex to do what, in fact, they do. I can only, again, imagine what it was like to be in there, be part of that, contributing such an essential component to that whole operation.
Again, that’s what people don’t see, and people have gotten a little glimpse into this. Granted it’s come through a movie with Mark Wahlberg in it or these CNN documentaries. I don’t want to put you on the spot and say, tell us everything that happened. I mean, we’re going to link to stuff for folks to read up on. I just wanted to ask again, from your vantage point, could you talk us through the lead up to and your experience of April 20, 2010?
Leo Lindner: Well, I’ll tell you the way I understand it, and… You’re going to have to give me just a second. My cat has invaded and she is complaining to me, I got to get her out. Come here, darling. She’s terrible. She’s horrible. Yes, yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, baby.
Leo Lindner: She’s the landlady and I have to… Yeah, I have to make sure I pay the rent.
Maximillian Alvarez: I have four cats at home, so don’t even worry about it.
Leo Lindner: Come on, yeah. Sorry about her.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, no worries.
Leo Lindner: She was complaining, I couldn’t concentrate. But it’s commonly given out that the Macondo was the well from hell. That’s the line, and it was. It was a terribly difficult well. For one reason the geologist got all the pressures wrong. Earlier I was talking about the Row and Midland, and they set casing at a point where they couldn’t get the right FIT test. They couldn’t get the well to hold enough pressure to get to the next casing point. To a lesser degree, the geologist got [inaudible], so we were in the same circumstance in that we would set casing, but because to drill further down, we would have to have a lighter mud weight, but at the same time we had poor pressure at other points that were pushing in. We would run out of mud, we have like 0.1 pound per barrel to play with to weight up or not.
We would get into these sands where the mud would just disappear. We lost like 10,000 barrels of mud on this well. In the media, it’s played like the well was always trouble, but once you get to casing point, you run casing, all that weak formation, all those problems are behind you, and the problems further down are the ones you’re facing. Actually, the Marianas was slated to drill the well, and its [inaudible] honest was a great rig, but it wasn’t capable of doing it. I mean, we got on it, and of course we lost a hell of a lot of mud. At the same time we had some kicks where, and the geology was just… We’d set casing at the wrong points.
I mean, it has perception that the well was still in danger from all the other problems we had as we went down. I have to say that we had gotten to casing points to total depth, what they call TD, and that the rig felt we’d gotten there. When they ran that last string of casing down into the sand with the oil in it, they came down a lot of pressure, much more than they anticipated, much more than was recommended. What happened was they crumpled the end of that casing. When they went to cement it – And this is the bizarre thing to me – They what’s called bumped the plug, that it took as many strokes as they calculated to get that cement around the casing that they thought they had a great job, because it has this little rubber plug that it goes into the cement head.
I don’t know if you explain all that. I don’t even know that much about the cement head, but there’s this rubber plug that they bump into it. They thought they had a great cement job. As we were trying to move mud off the rig to make room for what we were going to take back when we displaced, because we were going to displace all that mud out from 300 feet below the mud line and all the riser, which is like 2,000 barrels. We had to move mud off the rig, and we got the Damon Bankston and Roy Kemp and I were doing that. As Roy was pumping the mud to the boat, they did what’s called a positive pressure test. I forgot how many PSI it was, 200 or 300, but what they did was they closed the anular at the BOP and they pressured up from the pipe, which created pressure below the well where the cement job’s supposed to be.
The pressure held. They pressured up 200, 300 PSI, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it didn’t start losing mud. If you had a bad cement job and you opened that sand, it should have been going into that sand, but it didn’t. Truly bizarre to me. I still don’t know how that could happen.
Because when we did the negative test, it was given water back. We displaced all the lines with sea water. By doing the negative test, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to imitate what a column of sea water will do to the bottom of that well. Is it going to give you oil? Is it going to start intruding? They gave back like 20 barrels of fricking sea water, and they dumped it and they were deciding what to do, what that meant.
To top it off, what they did was you can do a cement bond log, they got Schlumberger out there, the company that actually owns our company now or MI, I don’t work for MI anymore. What they could do is they could run a wire line down there and they could see through the pipe if there is cement behind that pipe. But BP was so confident that the cement job was good, they didn’t run it, and this is what I –
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to interrupt real quick there, because I know this is a detail that maybe people have heard, that BP gave the order that the cement sealing job was fine when people on the rig were saying that it wasn’t. Could you just say a little more about that for folks who maybe don’t understand that?
Leo Lindner: Oh, well, because, I mean, the well reacted as they anticipated, considering where the pipe was, where it was supposed to be. The cement job went so perfectly that they said, well, there’s no need for a cement bond log because we got all this good data here telling us it’s good. And to run a wire line, it’s going to take a day, and a day is a day. So that’s one way they cut costs there without… That data may have changed everything. And I’ll tell you, this is not something that’s popularly known, and something I told the FBI and EPA when we had our interviews. When you temporarily abandon a well, you have the cement job on bottom, and you’re supposed to put a mechanical plug in the middle, like an RTTS or fast drill. The idea is that you’re not going to just trust that bottom plug. You’re going to have a mechanical plug there to make sure whatever’s on bottom’s not going to come get you.
And BP asked MMS when it was still called MMS, before they started changing the names, for what they called a dispensation, a waiver to say, look, we don’t want to put the RTTS in. We want to temporarily abandon this well by just putting a cement plug on bottom and a cement plug on top once we displace the water. And I’ll tell you. Can I call you Max? All right, Max, if that RTTS was there, you and I would not be having this conversation. I’d probably be winding up my days at MI. There would’ve never been a story.
But because BP did not want to spend the time – And this is my opinion – To tripping the hole and get that mechanical plug, or tripping the hole and drill it out. There are two different kinds. You can drill out. You can… They didn’t want to spend the time making that trip. They wanted to come back and produce that well as quickly as possible. This happened. So for me, that decision on BP’s part is central, but it never came out in the government’s prosecution or during the civil trial because MMS let them do it.
And that is indicative, to me, of the enormous power that oil companies have to really call regulators into what they want, and the government’s seen as the big problem. But because the government gave them permission to do it, that never came out. That was never an issue. But I see that as a central issue. Because once oil is at the center of our economy and it is privately held, and that private power is so massive it could send our countries to war, send our country to war when it wants to or when it feels it has an advantage. It could tell regulators what the rules really are. And working people and people who volunteer for the military have to pay for that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that you’re exactly right. This is where the truth of the safety third motto kind of comes out. It’s like productivity, profits, and getting the most out of this investment as quickly as possible is going to inevitably take precedence. And yeah, like you were saying, from the permits that were granted to the checks that were supposed to be overseen by partnering companies and so on and so forth, you see how this all cumulatively led to a disaster. But as you pointed out, that ultimately manifested in the decision to not use this mechanical plug and to only use these cement temporary plugs. So then what happened?
Leo Lindner: So we’re at that point, and they got 20 barrels back on the negative test, which is bad. You don’t want that. And I’m thinking, God, we’re going to have to reverse all this mud out. But what they decided to do instead was do an alternate test on what they called kill line. It’s one of the other lines that go into the BOP. And it did nothing. All right, it was stable. So instead of trusting the negative test they did on the drilling pipe, they trusted the negative test they did on the kill line. And to this day, Max, I struggle with the guilt of, well, being one guy that lived when Gordon Jones didn’t, when Roy Kemp didn’t, all those guys.
But I made the mistake of trusting the system. Look, Don Vidrine’s going to call Mark Hafle, the engineer on the bank. He’s going to explain all this to him. They’re going to come to the right decision. How every other well I’d been on in five years, it has worked, but it didn’t work this time. So that’s what led to the blowout. Once they decided that the well was dead when it was really alive, they continued with the displacement.
And I was on the rig floor. Gordon Jones was such a great guy. He’d come on early. We meet at like 4:30 in the morning to eat, then we meet at 4:30 for dinner. We’d tell each other what went on during the day. And we had met that morning and exchanged what he did, what I did. And I had worked from 4:30 to about 7:30 thinking, I’m going to stay up. I got to see this displacement through [inaudible] all on Gordon Jones’s lap. And he came on at like 3:00, came in a few hours early just to help me out. And I didn’t want to leave him on his – Oh he had Blair Manuel there as a third mud engineer. He was coming to help us get ready for… They were going to clean a well, the next well. And he was expert at cleaning up a rig, and we’d never completed a well.
Yeah, and Blair was there, and Gordon was there. And it’s got to be at 7:30 after the second negative test that he puts his hands on my shoulder, said, what the fuck are you still doing up, man? I got this. He saved my life. So I knock off. I go to bed. An hour and a half later there are alarms. The walls of my room get ripped off because of the explosion that happened.
And I was so convinced that there’s no way it’s the blowout, that maybe the nitrogen tanks exploded, which is impossible. But I just woke up. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. And basically we got out. Every Sunday, we all train to do what we’re supposed to do. I’m the third party. All third party people are supposed to go to the lifeboats. We all gathered and got on the lifeboat back, and I started looking around in the lifeboat. Once we got on the way, I realized there’s nobody in A crew here. And it’s like in hope of hope they’re all on the other lifeboat, no doubt. It can’t be that somebody died. But when we got to the Damon Bankston we found out that our 11 brothers had died, or they were missing. And I mean even though the Deepwater Horizon was like a pillar of fire, it really was the darkest night of my life.
So then BP held us out there for a day, like a day and a half, really. And they were trying to get their story straight. They were trying to understand… They were trying to get a handle on the story, really. And once we got to the bank… My poor wife woke up that morning and saw my rig on fire. But my company was very good. They let her know immediately that I was on the Damon Bankston. They brought me home immediately afterward. They had guys there to bring me home, and we debriefed the next day or the day after. I forgot when. But what they did to the Transocean guys is they all herded them over to… Was it University Hospital in New Orleans? And they debriefed them immediately. They didn’t let them go home, because Transocean wanted to know the limit of their liability, and liability is key.
And we were talking earlier about safety is third, and there are two competing notions that contradict each other. And one is, of course, safety first. And safety first is an interesting concept because it gives you the idea that you’re in some kind of bubble. As long as you follow the system, you’re okay. But safety can’t be first when the second thing you do is horrible danger, like drill a well. And I actually brought that up in a meeting once. We had a new manager for the rig.
And I brought that up because that’s always grated on me. What’s this idea of safety first, if you’re going to go out there and do this horrible danger? And I made that point, and the big guy from Transocean, safety guy, he’s leaning on the wall, and he hopped up. He said, what do you mean you don’t believe in safety first? It’s almost like I committed a heresy there against the rig religion. And I said, hey, hey, I’m just asking questions.
And the logistics guy, who, we are diametrically opposed when it comes to politics – Big libertarian. But he leans over and says, you know, you’re kind of right about that. Which I thought I got… Yeah. That redeems me. So you have this notion of safety first. And as long as you follow the rules, and you have all this paperwork you do. JSAs, you do stop-cards, everybody has to do a stop-card every day. It’s all obligatory. But you have this competing notion. You hear about safety first in the pre-tower. They have that preached to you. But when I was part of the morning meeting with the big dogs on the bank, they were all telling us, and there it’s all about the critical path. Critical path is when you start a well and when you finish it, all the way down is a critical path.
And anything that gets in the way of the critical path, well, that is anathema if you are the one that disrupts the critical path. And quite often I was asked after the blowout, was the pressure really bad on this well? And I would tell them, no more than usual. And that’s true. It was no more than usual, which really does mean, though, that it was incredible, that the push was incredible in every well. So you have these competing notions, safety first and the critical path. And everything is really geared toward the critical path. But the safety first, the safety, all these reports that really paper over the intention of the critical path.
And it’s been my experience that what Transocean, BP want to limit the most on the rig is liability. So if there’s an accident, if some roustabout gets hit with a headache ball, headache balls on end of a crane, or if there’s an accident, the problem is never that, well, he’s working on a deck that in August is like 120, 130 degrees, and he’s worn out. It’s that he wasn’t aware of his surroundings, and the way they shoved that liability on the Transocean hand. And that’s really the function, that is a function, probably the economic function of the safety system, why it’s so important. Because you show up in court and you point out the individual’s problem, and then of course that wins. And it’s not that he had to work in these conditions. It’s never a systemic problem. We really do suffer from thinking of things as the results of systems as opposed the way… Well, the liberal notion of individual responsibility.
And earlier we were talking about Democrats and Republicans. They really do adhere to that notion, when you have Barack Obama talking about the American Dream. If you work hard, you are going to be able to make it. So really what we have are two liberal parties that run the country if you think about it. One is, of course, reactionary, but still privileging the individual, especially when it comes to private property. I don’t mean your car or your house, which can be invaded by the police at any time and be confiscated or… What is it called, a civil seizure. But when it comes to massive power derived from owning, well, the one product that is as central to your economy. Or huge firms that own Google or whatever, those will be protected. That is sacred in both parties, I think.
And there’s never any indication that perhaps the profits that these private industries derive really should be used for the public good. And as far as unions go, my dad was a union guy, and the oil field is no one’s unionized, at least contractors and service hands like me. Maybe it’s like the pipe fitters or something. But if there was formal structure there on the rig that might protect your job, you wouldn’t feel the pressure that you always felt drilling a well. And I’m not saying it would’ve stopped this particular event, but it really might have. People might’ve had the courage to say, look, what are we doing here? We only have a secondary plug down there. So I do believe the unions are absolutely necessary for people to have a say in their working life. And not just me, but at Dollar General, not just rigs.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s absolutely right.
Leo Lindner: You call it a democracy, but you spend your waking hours at work, and there you have no power, from what I see, the way people have to work.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And this is something that, sadly, I hear from so many different workers around the country. I immediately think to Laborers’ Local 79 in New York City. I had the honor of getting to talk with a lot of those folks. And when I was in New York in the spring, and one of the things that really struck me was how much the union members at local 79 are fighting for the non-union, predominantly undocumented workers who are exploited by the notoriously anti-union corner-cutting contractors like Alba Demolition, I think, is the one that they’ve been talking about the most. And I heard from some of these Spanish speaking workers who were working for this contractor, and they were telling me stories of being told to remove asbestos without proper protective equipment and to throw it in the trash can. There’s video of them throwing it in a regular skiff or skip.
Leo Lindner: Oh my God.
Maximillian Alvarez: And it was the union that used that footage to file a complaint against this company because they’re like, this is dangerous. But the point being, I think you really said it perfectly, that of course safety for workers is so important, but in so many ways what these industries and these companies are doing is using the language of safety to pave over the fact that you are doing a fundamentally unsafe thing. And it really does boil down to pushing the liability if something goes wrong onto individuals while enabling profit-seeking entities to retain all of the spoils of that. And the reason that I bring up that demolition example, because I could think of so many others. I could think about the coal miners in Alabama at Warrior Met Coal who have been on strike for a year and a half.
One of the longest strikes in this country’s history. They were talking about, again, that relentless push to recoup any losses and make the mine more productive and profitable, which led to people getting hurt. And I even listened to an interview with a poor guy who was paralyzed from the waist down because of the unsafe practices going on in that mine which the union was screaming about. And I think you’re right that if we don’t have unions there really enforcing those safety standards, the bosses and corporations are not going to really do it. Or what they do, they’re going to do it to, again, protect themselves, not you. And this is happening all around us. There are so many catastrophes that happen on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis that never get the Hollywood treatment that Deepwater Horizon did, for all the ways that even that doesn’t accurately portray what you yourself experienced.
So I wanted to say, because I know I got to let you go, if you had some final thoughts in that regard, that as horrifying as Deepwater Horizon was, as much as those images are going to be emblazoned on our memories for the rest of our lives, as much as that environmental damage is going to be with us for the rest of our lifetimes, as much as the loss of those 11 people can never… That their families and their coworkers and friends can never get over that, this is not a one-off catastrophe. And I wanted to ask if you had takeaway thoughts that you wanted to impress upon listeners about Deepwater Horizon and the ways that we imagine what happened through movies with Mark Wahlberg, and what it says about the larger situation that working people are going through in this country.
Leo Lindner: Well, just like your example earlier about… Who was it? Rowe? The guy that making it like –
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, Mike Rowe? Yeah.
Leo Lindner: Mike Rowe, yeah. [inaudible] mythology. There’s a tendency to want to see the working man as heroic, just not want to see him as a well-paid individual or the guy who’s got some kind of security in his life. And they want to turn what is actually class war into a culture war issue. Look at these brave men. I tell you, who could do this? Who has the power to… And again, it makes the individual heroic. We throw that term around a lot. When they shove the working class back into COVID and say, you are essential workers. You are heroes. It’s just a name they give you so that you can die with some dignity, I guess. But right before the Horizon, there was the Upper Big Branch Mine of Massey Company, and those boys were drilling… Were mining the coal with bad cutters, creating sparks. The dampeners weren’t working to keep the coal dust down, and they hit a gas pot. And it killed 28 guys.
And they are already forgotten. Who talks about the Massey mine? You’re not going to hear The New York Times bring it up, or Fox, for God’s sake, there’s no way. Because working people are expendable. And that seems to be, in the liberal mind, a natural law, ordained because of the class you’re in. I’ve always been struck by the name of the well, Macondo. Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was the mythic city that he created, and I think he’s trying to talk about the cycle of history in it. And the city Macondo goes through natural catastrophes. It goes through the cycle of destruction and rebirth.
And at one point, near the end of the well, I call it a well, near the end of the novel, Macondo has become a huge plantain, or is it bananas? I forgot which. But there’s a huge plantation, and the workers rebel. And they’re all killed. And the next day, nobody remembers. History works a lot like that too, because historians, for some reason or another, they want to be cheerleaders for the state. They want stories that build up the state. Now there are historians that don’t do that. But in a way, the way we think about history, and religion is another thing, it is a kind of propaganda that holds the state up as being good when there are regular problems. And that’s not going to change. Our notions of history, our notions of what working people deserve, aren’t going to change until we can band together.
Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.