Why the oil spill is even worse than it looks - Macleans.ca

Why the oil spill is even worse than it looks

SPECIAL REPORT: “We are about to die down here”


Gerald Herbert/AP/ Win McNamee/Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES

Louisiana boasts a healthy hawk population. The birds hang on air currents everywhere, scoping out rodents or roadkill, taking in views we can only imagine. What their understanding of the oil spill from above might amount to, it’s hard to say. Maybe a hawk thinks Earth is bleeding.

But for those of us living in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico coast, the shape the BP oil disaster takes is one that looks horrifically like a torturously slow-moving hurricane, one that will put all others before it to shame. From a centre plume of crude come bands after bands of destruction. Only the outer bands have arrived on shore so far, a mere hint of the storm’s eye.

On a recent mission to discover first-hand what true havoc is unfolding, we drive from New Orleans down to the southernmost point in Louisiana, a tiny fishing community called Venice. Surrounded by water, Venice is where the Mississippi River finally flows into the Gulf, not in what one might expect, a giant deluge of water, but rather in a series of complicated mazes that only the locals know how to navigate.

Unexpectedly, to navigate the current politics of this place is just as confusing, even a little frightening. A military presence lurks, as does the sensation of a police state. Still, a general disorganization permeates the air, and shuttles for workers who appear to do nothing but arrive and depart fill the dusty shell and dirt roads. Louisiana state cruisers perch at many corners of town, and when we stop to ask the mostly beefy officers sitting bored in their vehicles where we might find the BP Media Center, or any facility for media orientation, they just shrug and send us on our way.

A couple of hours and numerous laps through town later, we come across a nondescript tan building with a large parking lot nearby and a number of security guards sweating and lounging under canopies. None of them seem to know anything about BP beyond it being responsible for this latest nightmare as well as their temp jobs. Finally a Coast Guard petty officer approaches and immediately takes control. He promises that if we show up at an ungodly early hour the next day, he’ll arrange to take us out on a boat ride to some of the affected areas.

Leaving New Orleans before seven the following morning, we pass swampland and refineries, drive on roads always wet for no other reason than the fact that they actually sit lower than the surrounding wetlands.

Of course, marshes and swampland comprise much of lower Louisiana. Roads, towns, and sometimes entire cities are built from what Mark Twain aptly described as “made ground” here. Maybe it’s not the wisest place to settle. Maybe it’s not meant to finally endure. One might argue that it’s the very nature of coasts to erode, change, and take new shapes every millennia or so.

Others, though, would argue that humans can and should settle where they sense they belong. Home for millions is California’s west coast, earthquake central. The residents know what they’re in for. Vancouver Island is due for a tsunami. There’s the New Orleans parallel example of the Netherlands, a below-sea-level region corralled by levees.

And Tornado Alley in the American Midwest loses residents every summer to twisters. If people want to live in a wetland and net shrimp, harvest oysters, and watch the airboats cut paths through the grassy waterways, who’s to say they shouldn’t be allowed to do so?

Admittedly there are always at least two sides to any controversial issue, environmental, economic, or otherwise, but for those of us here in Louisiana, the BP disaster hasn’t divided us into the two most obvious camps: us vs. them.

Because, of course, some of us are some of them. Some of us work for BP. Some of us need the local oil industry to survive, to feed our families and to put clothes on our backs. Others of us need the second (or third) degree of separation to contribute to our livelihoods: waiters serve up oysters on the half shell in New Orleans’ fine dining restaurants to patrons spawned directly from the oil industry who ultimately pay our rents.

Still others shrimp for a living, or we captain recreational fishing boats and take out loads of visitors to catch Gulf redfish and speckled trout and flounder. We own mom-and-pop seafood shacks and rental units on Grand Isle, waiting for tourists. We bartend and gas cars and sell groceries. And we volunteer for the Coast Guard.

That next morning, our guide for the day, Chief Petty Officer Lonnie Evans, a reservist of the U.S. Coast Guard and marine science technician who’s one of the first to be flown into Venice, begins to shed light on how intricately aligned and divided the local community is.

To his credit, Evans is helping to maintain his small quadrant of coast incredibly well. He placates and attempts to reassure, saying, “We’re doing everything we can to prevent impacts from the oil in this area. This environment down here, the wildlife in the marshes and in the Gulf of Mexico, they’re very resilient. They deal with influxes of salt water and fresh water based on drought periods or floods, they deal with hurricanes, seasonal changes, not to mention the natural predators that are in the area, and we’re hoping they spring back after the spill.”

In Evans’s section of the Gulf Coast, it would seem that the gushing oil has been managed well and that the regional flora and fauna will take the presence of slick crude and its globular brother in stride. His extreme optimism is almost contagious, and until we meet others with a different story, he nearly succeeds in instilling a controlled and manageable view of the coast.

But one needs only to visit the International Bird Rescue Research Center and functioning shelter in Buras to know that Evans’s take on the erupting volcano of oil affects far more of the natural world, with far more dire consequences. On Wednesday, June 9, the IBRRC shelter allows a conglomeration of international journalists and photographers into the hub of its rescue operations. The sun has daggers, and the centre kindly offers water to the hordes. The captured, oil-soaked birds don’t live air-conditioned lives; in turn the facility is cooled only by fans.

We’re informed by Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the IBRRC, that the shelter’s pelican numbers have grown exponentially in the last week.

Pelicans feed solely on fish, and the buildings containing the rescue efforts reek of fishy offal. The crated birds, both oiled and newly cleaned, object with grunts closer to moose than to what one might expect from birds, their cries guttural and low-registered. It’s the chorus effect that proves so haunting. As of June 9, the centre has already treated 415 birds, the majority of which arrived in the previous five days. For all intents and purposes, the number reflects only the tip of an iceberg.

The pelicans, brown and white, covered in oil, are each held down by three volunteer workers in metal buckets and scrubbed with dish soap. It is a searing sight, one not easily forgotten, miserably sad and heart-wrenching, and in the din of bird noise and camera clicks, it’s impossible to believe the worst has passed. A wave of death for Gulf birds and fish builds in certainty and impact.

In the meantime, the IBRRC, a non-government agency, depends on its corps of volunteers to clean the birds and, under media pressure, among other factors, set the scrubbed specimens free within a week. If some measure of the oil spume has been contained by BP’s temporary cap, the pressure placed upon environmental and emergency agencies has only gained in magnitude. In the Buras facility, words like “giant scope” and “catastrophe” fill the fetid, hot air like so much fishy stink. We are delivered the classic hospital emergency ward analogy when we ask how the workers deal with the sights, the sounds, the wounded and dying: “If you cry every time somebody or something comes in injured, you have no place being here. Save the ones you can. Move on.”

No doubt BP would like to move on. Its evasive tactics and constantly adjusted numbers would indicate it would willingly, happily, deceive the public for weeks, months, or even years. What can no longer be denied, however, is that since the April 20 explosion, the well has vomited tens of millions of gallons of oil into the blue-green waters of the Gulf. We can all see it.

At the time of writing, the oil that has risen to the water’s surface covers over 6,400 square kilometres of water. Square kilometres. To look at it another way, a noxious, murderous mass bigger than all of Prince Edward Island floats in the Gulf.

Few man-made entities can be seen from space without magnification. The Great Wall of China is a notable exception. Now, too, we can include BP’s oil disaster. It is viewable, easily, from space. Its mass has grown to such proportions that satellites pick up its floating presence inside the ovoid parameters of the Gulf of Mexico as easily as, oh, the land mass of the state of Delaware were it to be relocated to the subtropical climate.

Canadian families, snowbirds, and young people on March break have long packed up and headed south to the beautiful white sands of Alabama and Florida. Coastal Mississippi towns fill their casinos with tourists, and Louisiana’s fishing waters abound with visiting sports enthusiasts. Here’s hoping everyone’s gotten their fill before this summer. While the casinos might not close, it’s a certainty that the beaches and fishing waters will. They’re already slamming shut with the repetitive clank of a row of bank vaults. A Sunday lounge on the Orange Beach, Ala., waterfront turns into a mass evacuation; the utterly pristine shores are now desecrated by giant oil globs and dark swaths of greasy crude. Pensacola Beach seems to be the oil’s next target. Those of us living in Louisiana watch with horror as the black bands of the man-made hurricane destroy not only our home but our neighbours’ as well.

On Thursday, June 10, cleanup crews work near the mouth of the Mississippi River in both the South and Pasalutra/North Passes. They clean in marshland reeds behind a row of booms that hasn’t succeeded in keeping the oil at bay, and on a large strip of blackened sandbar. The fact that the marshland’s Roseau cane serves as a nursery to uncountable aquatic species isn’t lost on anyone here. No bugs buzz in the blackened stalks. No birds perch among them.

More interesting than the strangely random and incredibly plodding feel of the workers’ efforts, however, is the difficulty in finding many of them. Whether our guide, Chief Petty Officer Evans, wants us to only see a small example of the oil making landfall, or that so few restoration efforts have yet to begin in the area, remains unknown. Possibly he hopes only to spare our feelings. Whatever the reason, none of the scenarios seem positive: the true cleanup is horrendous and shouldn’t be seen in its massive size lest the viewer become overwhelmed; or the workers are so ineffective as to render their efforts senseless or even useless; or maybe there just aren’t enough workers to go around; or BP isn’t paying enough to cover all the boom breaches or to actually place booms in the first place; or the oil is still, hauntingly, making its slow way to shore.

No matter what the reason for the smattering of cleanup crews, the workers themselves are being held to strictly enforced rules: 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off. The Louisiana heat slices through even the most hardy of locals, and as they sweat and sweat in their gear, the oil seeps and seeps into the sand and fingers its way deeper into the grasses.
Sadly, not all of the damage reports come from the shoreline. Recent news of deep plumes of crude below the surface has infiltrated the media and Internet.

Dr. Joe MacInnis, a Canadian physician-scientist, author, and famous deep-sea explorer who, along with his friend, the director James Cameron, has led numerous Titanic expeditions among many other accomplishments, writes of the oil plumes’ damage in his harangue “Oil Kill.” “The cell-swarm of killing continues . . . to the phytoplankton—the lungs of the planet,” he writes. “Trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dead diatoms and dinoflagellates rain down through the filthy procession of upward moving oil. In deep water they merge with uncounted corpses of copepods and in deeper water still, the lifeless remnants of big fish, small fish, turtles and invertebrates. The deluge of mega-death continues until the remains come to rest on the gaunt floor of the Gulf.”

Of course, a human way of life clings to this intricate ecosystem, one that’s been so momentously thrown off its course, too. The Louisiana shrimpers and fishermen, along with those who tend the oyster beds, supply 30 per cent of all the nation’s seafood. Talking with Venice fishermen, this much is obvious: the Louisiana seafood industry stands to take a hit from which it will never recover.

The political pundit James Carville is fuming. “We’re about to die down here!” he recently raged on a national morning show. In his hometown New Orleans paper, he explains further: “And then BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster hits us with the deadliest combination imaginable of corporate greed and governmental malfeasance. We’ve been lied to by BP at every turn, from oil flow estimates to the existence of plumes to health effects . . . Add that to the fact that we have not seen a single penny of royalties for oil produced more than six miles off our coast. We assume all of the risk, produce seafood and oil and gas, with none of the reward.” Strong words indeed from the man who’s touted as the maestro who won Bill Clinton the White House.

“It’s about done with now,” shrimp boat captain Dewayne Baham says. “The oil’s moved in. It’s about shut everything we got down.”

He continues with a shake of his head as he discusses BP’s inability to contain the oil. “If they don’t stop it from coming out, man, we’re in for it. It’s gonna be 10 years before we can catch any shrimp anymore.”

When asked what will happen if such a situation occurs, how Dewayne will feel, how he’ll feed his family and make a living, he says, “I don’t know. How’s a doctor going to feel if he gets told he can’t be a doctor anymore? You got to leave your house, your whole place where you grew up. At 46 years old [after 30 years of shrimping], where am I going to go to start at? I’d start at the bottom making chump change.” Dewayne, clearly, is far less optimistic than the Coast Guard.

Dewayne’s not the only man aboard his boat who’s upset. But deckhand Myron Smith isn’t just upset. He’s apoplectic with anger, with BP’s ineptitude, with frustration at The Man and the entities he can’t see or touch or argue it out with. “Shoot the f–kin’ Queen,” he says, apparently referencing the homeland of British Petroleum. “Hang the CEO of BP!” Myron spits. “And leave his corpse hangin’ there. Vultures need to eat, too.” He goes quiet for a moment, still full of rage. “I don’t have nothing good to say. And I need to keep my job.” For what little time he might have left at that job, it seems fair to say.

After listening to Myron Smith, though, the dividing line suddenly begins to delineate itself with more clarity, notwithstanding Mr. Smith’s clear affection for the Queen and her United Kingdom. This disaster doesn’t ultimately come down to warring parties necessarily, to foreigners vs. locals or interlopers vs. the home turf. It’s an us vs. them of a different kind, the result of which will reverberate for decades.

Both the natural world and the people who depend upon it for their livelihood—the humans who have long traditionally harvested what the natural world offers up to feed the rest of us—are the ones who stand to lose it all. Those of us who like to sun near the surf will find other beaches. And the oil executives will find new ways to take from Earth whatever they want.

But now, what’s done to the natural world by the BP oil debacle is already done. We can’t stuff Pandora back into her box. The aquatic breeding grounds of so many fish and mammals, alongside the bivalve oyster beds, have died or are, right this moment, being choked to death. Birds continue to seek out what prove to be their last meals by diving for fish swimming beneath floating crude. Shrimpers who’ve not made a profit since Katrina have begun dry-docking their boats and putting them up for sale; their source of livelihood has been polluted into near oblivion.

Some believe the measure of any culture’s humanity can be gained by observing how it treats its elderly. Others would argue that taking a culture’s temperature is most accurate by looking at how we treat our prisoners of war. Not just those of us living in Louisiana but in all the world should redirect our communal gaze this year. We must measure the success or failure of our utter worth by how we treat our natural environment. How much, exactly, can we inflict upon Earth before it decides to quit? Not tomorrow or next year or a decade from now, but today, this very day, is the right time to reassess our dependence on oil. Our economic dependence alone tolls a warning bell for all who can hear it.

It might be so much anthropomorphism to believe the hawk flying its slow circles in the southern Louisiana sky thinks Earth is bleeding. Hawks likely don’t think metaphorically. But one thing’s certain: the hawk knows that what it sees isn’t right. The shape of the thing, the dark mass in the waters, isn’t right.

June introduces the literal hurricane season. It barrels in on us now. Predicted by experts to be worse in scale and number of storms than the last few years, these coming months on the horizon feel to Gulf Coast residents like guns loaded with armour-piercing bullets. The man-made BP oil fiasco, in the vortex of a furious natural phenomenon, threatens to morph into a cataclysmic disaster beyond all reckoning. Humans need to fix this. We have to fix it now.


Why the oil spill is even worse than it looks

  1. Exactly one year after Katrina hit, we flew down and helped rebuild homes in the the lower ninth ward of NO (or upper-ninth ward… can't quite recall). While Louisiana had an eerie feel (boarded up homes and businesses, etc), peoples' attitudes were surprisingly resilient and optimistic.

    Louisiana has slowly picked itself up from Katrina, and it will slowly pick itself up again after this tragedy. This too shall pass.

    • Hurricane is part of the natural order of things. The ecosystem down there has grown suffering through hurricanes. It's evolved to be able to deal with it. The only real significant damage done there was to the human structures.. and yeah, we can rebuild those, because we needed to build them the first time.

      This is another matter entirely. We didn't build the ecosystem down there in the first place, and we don't have the technology to rebuild it now. How do you recover when one of the pillars of life — food — is no longer able to be developed in the environment? The remains of Egypt, Sumer, Easter Island, and the Maya, among others tell us: Not very well.

  2. The tragedy of this disaster is that BP and its partners are not taking the full cost. If the full cost is accounted, BP and the other business will have to work to pay off the debt to society for a long time. We need a system that the external cost of business is charged to them.

  3. What a beautifully written article about such a dark and devastating issue.

  4. I too believe that BP should become broke after this, by paying the very men and women you have interviewed, whose lives will change for the worse as a result of this disaster. And I can't help thinking there must be some genius somewhere who knows how to stop the oil from leaking, and to clean up the mess. Maybe a college student?

  5. This too shall pass??? There may be no solution and from photos taken down below it appears to be getting worse. Humans are accustomed to always finding a fix to problems, to have it fit into a story arc – it may not happen in this case.

  6. why should BP pay ? they didn't do it. The contracting rig made the error. All these companies do, is service the US oil addiction. The gov't was negligent in its regulatory inspections and licencing of the oil rigs in this particular case, however accidents do happen. The gov't is also negligent of allowing the US addiction to get out of hand in the first place, allowing lobbying in Washington, and ceding the govt to corporate interests such as Oil, Transport, Media, and Military. Then as above, we see the US public is also guilty, by not be able to recognizing the real culprits and fault.

    • BP is responsable for the actions of it's sub-contractors – I believe it falls under the rules covering agency. Reports indicate an emerging pattern of BP officials over-riding the engineering advice from their own sub-contractors as a cost savings measure. Should this prove true, then BP will definitely be liable.
      It is additionally misguided of you to critisize lax governmental regulation when a very large portion of the regulatory apparatus in the USA was co-opted by beneficiaries of largess from the oil party. I will give you points for the overall thrust of your post that, paraphrasing, says soceity is really @#$% up.

    • The government is responsible in that it is the government elected by people who don't want to hear the truth. Americans voted out Jimmy Carter in favour of Ronal Reagan; they would rather hear about fictional 'Shining cities on the hill' than be told that their lifestyle is unsustainable.

      Americans are masters at hiding their heads in the sand, their idea of sacrifice is to send their young men/women to be killed in the Middle East for oil. They only 'care' about the Gulf insofar as what it means to their beaches, it seems.

      They will continue to elect leaders who yell Drill Baby Drill, because that is what they want to hear.

  7. oh yeah…

    & the TarSands, gas pipelines (sour gas) & offshore oil rigs… are so much *safer* in Canada…


    until they aren't or they're caught in their lie.

    They can lies, steal, cheat, cause accidents & pollution… make money hand over fist, spend fortunes with legal & PR firms to twist & lobby Canadian foreign & international policies…
    but the day they're caught: "we had no idea! don't blame us!!!"

    much like men who abuse & batter their Families: "you let me get away with it, its YOUR fault!! I'm a VICTIM!!"

  8. Very nicely written. The situation is truly a heartbreaker. More heartbreaking still are the humankind who still want to pursue the crude as far as it will take them and damn the inherent negative consequences. Our government is still ignoring that Chevron would not be able to adequately respond to a spill off of the coast of Newfoundland and continues to allow licenses to drill deep off shore. Even in the face of scientists who report it's not a question of if, but when.

    The oil industry's environmental morality is witnessed around the world through devastating pollution of the air, ground and waterways. These atrocities are more shameful to big oil in their exploitation of impoverished countries, where one could get killed demonstrating against them and the common man has no say that their livlihoods have been wiped out due to pollution in their water. Nevermind the higher incidence of cancer and death because of the oil pollution.

    Big oil has no shame.

  9. it is raining oil from the sky in the gulf coast now.

  10. The pictures speak for themselves and it tells me that not only is 20 Billion a down payment it is time to start talking about jail time (and I do not mean club med) for these people at BP start at the top and go down. Plus any company like Blackwater than was in bed with BP.

  11. Interesting perspective, but the numbers don't add up. You could not possibly stay in business more than a short time selling your product at a fraction of what is costs you to produce. As for the invasion of Iraq, please remember the UN had a lot to do with that!

    • They add up just fine, because what JWB is talking about is companies externalizing costs. Those security costs he talks about.. paid by the taxpayer. Building pipelines? Often subsidized by the taxpayer both directly, and indirectly through land appropriation. Environmental damage — in the Valdez case there were a couple of suicides in the town worst affected by the disaster because people couldn't support their families. I'm not sure how you put a cost to that, but it certainly wasn't a cost that Exxon bore.

      What your products costs your company to produce may be considerably different from what your product costs society to produce.

    • The UN did not approve an invasion of Iraq. In fact, it condemned it.

      The attack on Iraq was based on deliberate lies and/or misleading 'evidence' …… Bush&co didn't even wait for the UN Inspectors to be done their job, because Blix wasn't finding anything.

  12. BP will never have to pay the dead and they know it, and how will they get the money to them in the replacement camps?
    Bp knows the world will have a lot of other things to think about besides the money. People will be fighting for their lives.

  13. This is of course a disaster of unprecented proportions, and we don't know yet how much worse it's going to get. Very sad.

    However, wildlife aside, it's getting harder and harder to feel sorry for the people there, when so many of them seem determined with their inane calls of Drill Baby Drill, supported by GOP elected officials who are horrified when it comes to taking $$$ while fighting a moratorium on drilling!

    Watching the citizens most affected by this disaster support MORE drilling goes a long way toward understanding how these elected officials got elected in the first place.

  14. Humans can NOT stop this horror from gushing. Plain and simple. It will go on until it runs out…and when will that be?
    In the meantime, all of creation will cry over this. The wildlife, sea creatures, plankton, birds, animals, people. The shorelines will be corrupted extensively, as the currents spread the poisonous crude around. What other horrors will come from this? For example, the changing of the pressure below the earth's crust has changed in at least one location….will it result in more earthquakes? What can we expect?
    The money means nothing. The life/death does. The long reaching effects of this human caused tragedy has only begun. And the worst part is: Man can NOT stop it!

  15. The real culprit is us the consumer. How much do each and everyone one of us spend every year on fuel for our cars, boats … How much do we spend on air travel. All of this pays for and creates a demand for oil and thus the incentive and need to drill and exploit this natural resource including all of the risks associated with this exploitation.

    Unless we are willing to change of lifestyle or are willing to accept far higher fuel taxes as in Europe which would reduce consumption and encourage the use of alternative energy and transportation methods or more efficient transportation ie smaller cars, more public transit …, we are all guilty. Maybe this event will catalyze the lifestyle changes that we will need to make over the long term. There will be pain and adjustment for all of us, but we will eventually have to go through with it.

    • Actually some of us ride bikes, walk, and don't fly anywhere. We're the new cutting-edge.

    • Good points, but it would be interesting to find out what percentage of crude oil exploited actually winds up in our gas tanks. A quick Google search shows that crude oil winds up in detergents, fertilisers, medicines, paints, plastics, rubber and fibres. Planes, trains and automobiles, while admittedly a lot easier to give up than detergents and plastics, are not the only things we should focus on.

  16. States Need To Launch Criminal Investigation Into BP, Federal Government's Role In Oil Spill http://www.prisonplanet.com/states-need-to-launch
    Get some skepticism… Oilbama has you duped…

  17. I have the great fortune to live in the hot destination spot for American white pelicans, who make their impressive migration from the Florida coast to southern Alberta every spring. On ground, they are somewhat awkward,shy and silent; in the air they are poetry in motion. Thanks to BP, when these beautiful marvels of aerodynamics leave at Thanksgiving, I can't help but wonder how many will return in the spring of 2011.