Bad Apples in the Barrel

Published on: 17:08PM Jun 01, 2010

So it’s been about six weeks now since the BP Deepwater Horizon well blew its top and began the still ceaseless process of spewing out crude oil.  The big question now, apart from when British Petroleum will finally get the well plugged or otherwise under control, is this:  Will the political fallout from this event last longer than the environmental fallout?  And who really will be stuck cleaning up the mess, environmentally, politically and otherwise?

None of those questions is answerable now.  While the similarities with Hurricane Katrina are rather facile and forced, there are some valid comparisons in the Gulf of Mexico:  damage that will take years to amend (even as some things may never be “normal” again); the similar vulnerability of a rig drilling a well in 5,000 ft. of water, with a city that lies under sea level, both incredibly vulnerable to the forces of nature; and the fact that federal authorities have appeared inept in preparing for, and now responding to, the dimensions of the crisis.

There is another similarity at work right now with the BP disaster, and that is with the Conklin dairy farm in Ohio.  Last week, an animal rights group released disturbing film of a worker sadistically abusing cattle at the farm.  The authorities have thrown the book at him, sending him off to jail with a $100,000 bond and a trial likely in the future. 

What that incarcerated individual, Billy Joe Gregg, and the individual well in the Gulf of Mexico have in common is that they serve as cautionary tales for what can happen if you don’t make good choices about the practices you use.  While drilling deep ocean wells and working on a farm are quite different, both are ultimately systematic activities where workers follow a prescribed series of behaviors to achieve an optimal outcome.  Clearly, the person in the Ohio video was out of control and apparently was committing crimes, while the jury is still out on the whether the BP rig was operated according to law and regulation. 

But in both cases, the outcome of an isolated incident smears the entire industry in which they operate.  And both raise an important question that every business owner, small or large, needs to ask more frequently:  Who’s in charge? (The Wall St. Journal wrote an extensive story last week indicating that during the explosion and collapse of the Horizon, no one appeared to be.)  Hindsight is 20/20, but in both cases, something went terribly wrong because the system failed.

Bad apples, be they farms or derricks, are painful learning experiences.  People will forgive the appearance of one in the barrel, but not the same mistakes being repeated time and again.  And meanwhile, the fallout spews out.