What can we do to prevent or minimize the devastating effects of what may well be the world’s largest oil contamination in history? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.
I do know that we should stop calling it an oil ‘spill’. Over 200,000 gallons of oil are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico each day. The size of the surface oil slick has tripled in the past few days; it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Broken pipes are spewing 8,300 gallons of oil in to the Gulf each hour – 138 gallons per minute. This is hardly a spill.
Our mediation seems to be limited to two strategies. The first is using booms and adsorbent pads to isolate and soak up the oil on the surface so that it can be safely disposed of. The second method is to use dispersants to make the oil ‘go away’.
The problem with dispersants is that oil and water don’t mix. Dispersants are used to break up the molecules of oil so they no longer float on the top of the water. Instead, the smaller oil globules are free to be distributed throughout the water column, poisoning creatures that live up in the water and eventually settlling on to the bottom of the sea where they destroy marine life on the bottom. Instead of eliminating the toxicity, they spread it out.
We have quit using dispersants in marinas for true oil spills – where a little gasoline or oil ‘spills’ out of a tank when it is being filled – because we find that by allowing the petroleum products to eventually settle to the bottom we create a much worse, toxic dead zone. The dispersant ‘clean-up’ strategy consistently causes more harm than good over time.
It seems logical to me that if we can’t use dispersants in marinas because we know it magnifies the environmental damage caused by small accidental spills, we should not use them on much larger oil slicks.
It is not clear why we are pouring hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico when a series of pipes is gushing 8,000 gallons of oil an hour 5000 feet below the surface. The only logical reason I can find is that we are comfortable killing the millions of plants and animals that support our life on these Gulf shores as long as we don’t have to look at or think about the oil anymore.
We are content with taking it out on the little guys at the bottom of the food chain – the microscopic organisms that support all the other living things in the Gulf of Mexico – and our planet. We can’t see them, so it doesn’t matter if we poison them, as long as it means less oil on our beaches.
Imagine that you spilled a strong radioactive dust in your home. Using dispersants is like sweeping it under the rug instead of vacuuming it up. The dust is out of sight, out of mind. You can’t see the radioactive dust, so you go on about your activities, not too terribly bothered by the whole little unpleasant incident. Never mind that the harmful effects of the dust under that rug are just as powerful as ever, emanating deathly radioactivity. What we can’t see won’t hurt us – right?
If we can make the sight of the oil go away, beneath the calming surface of the sea, everything will be all right. There will be less oily birds to look at and clean up after. We can get back to our normal lives. If we are the stewards of this planet, and our main concern is the shoreline, who are the stewards of the ocean? Is it right to protect only what we can see?
Deep in my existence, it is clear that this cataclysmic environmental assault by an international corporation on our public ocean resources should not be chalked up as just another case of profit over public interest. An unavoidable and unforeseeable ‘accident’ to advance our society. We should not let it be so.
This should be a loud, ringing and final clarion call. It is past time we sat by and let our leaders allow us to continue down the fossil fuel lane to environmental hell. It is time for us to break the fossil fuel addiction.
Maybe you choose to not believe that the atmosphere is changing because we burn fossil fuels. Maybe you choose to pretend that atmospheric change is not rapidly warming the planet. Maybe you don’t know that increased carbon dioxide is changing the acidity of the oceans. Will you choose to pretend that what we have done to the Gulf of Mexico has no real significance? If so, I wonder whether you will still be able to pretend that in two months?
If John F. Kennedy could launch a ten-year campaign to put a man on the moon with little more technology than a slide rule, we can do the equivalent for the environment.
It is time for the leader of our country to tell us we must use alternative energy. It is time for the leaders of our Sanctuary Island of Sanibel to tell us that we must use alternative energy. It is time for us to be unhappy and uneasy and use our regrets to launch our community and nation forward to a sustainable future.
I don’t know how to clean up the mess, but I will work as hard as I can to help.
I mostly want to make sure we avoid it in the future.
Leaders, it’s time to lead; we are ready to follow.