(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term effects of the Gulf Oil Spill. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 16 others. People were so focused on the human casualties that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone at first that oil was hemorrhaging from the ocean floor, but on April 22, a large oil slick began to spread where the rig had gone down. By July 15 when the well was finally capped, 4.9 million barrels of oil—that’s 205 million gallons—had gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, along with well over a million gallons of a chemical dispersant called Corexit, manufactured by Nalco, a corporation with close ties to BP. Military aircraft were employed to spray Corexit over the surface, and the EPA granted BP permission to inject it at the site of the leak, despite reports seriously questioning both its toxicity and effectiveness. Ultimately, nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant were released.
When I went to the Gulf in late July, reports on national news were saying that the oil had virtually all been cleaned up, and were touting how oil-eating microbes and chemical dispersants had done their job. The magical thinking necessary to believe that so much oil could simply vanish was beyond my own cognitive abilities, and with my own eyes I was seeing plenty of oil in Bataria Bay off Grand Isle, Louisiana, and Gulf Port, Mississippi, as well as badly oiled birds. In Louisiana, I took a tour of Barataria Bay by both boat and airplane. What I saw of the cleanup effort was pathetic and limited to public beaches. In the refuges closed to the general public, there was plenty of oil in and on the sand. In many places where boom was set out to protect fragile islands, no effort had been made to secure it, miles of boom had washed ashore, the fragile vegetation and boom all soaked in oil. Yet night after night I’d watch TV reports about how the oil was gone or rapidly disappearing. At the end of May, 2011, reports and videos taken by scientist Dana Wetzel of Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory show that the marshes of Barataria Bay still remain heavily choked in oil. Thousands of birds died in nesting colonies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service denied access to anyone, including wildlife rehab experts in oil spill response, to collect either carcasses or birds clinging to life that could have been rescued. Their numbers are not included in any of the official numbers of wildlife impacted by the spill. It’s impossible for democracy to even exist when people have no access to accurate information.
This year many birds seem to be missing in action, especially those species that migrate over the Gulf or winter in its waters, but the weather during migration was so volatile that we’ll never know whether the missing birds died due to the toxins in the Gulf or were killed by tornados, were simply blown to other destinations, or are just delayed because of our late spring. We do know that hundreds of baby dolphins were found dead this spring. And scientists who have been studying the Gulf met last week at a Florida Institute of Oceanography conference at the University of Central Florida. They found that the dispersant mixed with oil tends to be more toxic than oil alone to phytoplankton, conch, oysters, and shrimp—the exact opposite of what the oil companies have claimed. A study in January by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts indicated that Corexit applied at the well-head — some 800,000 gallons — did nothing to break up the oil and simply drifted into the ecosystem.
When I show people the photos and videos I took in the Gulf and talk about recent findings, they all seem dismayed, yet people no longer get angry enough to want to do anything about it. When it comes to cleaning our air and water, we seem crippled by a sense of hopelessness. And that hopelessness is, to me, more frightening and sad than the damaged Gulf and dead wildlife. Without hope, we’re not going to be able to prevent similar and worse disasters in the future.