Morgan City, Louisiana – Driving old Highway 90 paralleling the Gulf Coast under a vast, super-heated blue sky filled with cumulus it’s almost possible to forget the horror that continues to gush beneath the nearby sea.
But the man-made scenery that lines the road – warehouse buildings, one after another, parking lots filled with pick-up trucks and SUVs — brings me right back to the connective tissue that links all of Louisiana: Oil.
Let’s be clear: There is really only one industry in Louisiana. Yes, fishing generates a couple billion dollars a year. And tourism, most of it focused around New Orleans and conventions, brings in more than $6 billion a year.
But all of that pales when stacked next to the $70 billion a year the oil business generates in the state and the 320,000 jobs it creates. A rigger with a high school education can, with overtime, make $100,000 a year. When workers come home from the rigs reeking of oil, they chide their buddies at the bar: “Smell that money!”
(For the rest of my dispatch and new video blogs from the Gulf at takepart.com.
It’s a steamy, early-summer day in Southern Louisiana – expecting the “heat index” to top out today around 108 degrees F! – but it’s good to be back on the ground here. I’ve been coming every few months for the past two years, producing a documentary film, and it’s started to feel like a second-home. One with really good food … and music.
For video blog from Lafayette, http://www.takepart.com/news/2010/06/25/lafayette-louisiana-in-search-of-the-last-oyster-po-boy
Though yesterday evidence of the impact of the oil spill came home when I went in search of an oyster po-boy. At the first couple stops café owners apologized for not having any … a first in their lifetimes … because the oyster beds have been shut now for more than five weeks. When I finally did find one something didn’t feel quite right, so I asked: The oysters came from … somewhere else, outside Louisiana, was all the server could offer with a shrug.
While the spill is conversation number one (with World Cup football second), I can feel a kind of creeping frustration/resignation settling in.
In Lafayette, which has more oil-industry jobs per capita than anywhere other than Midland, Texas, there’s a fair amount of rumbling in the bars and on the street corners about the deepwater drilling moratorium, with a majority believing the New Orleans’ federal judge’s decision to start up again is a good one.
There’s lots of concern about where all that oil waste is heading. A few people have brought up concerns about the health of the workers involved in the clean-up; apparently BP is against the workers wearing respirators on the job because 1) it looks bad on camera and 2) they’re afraid people with their faces covered are going to overheat and collapse.
There’s concern too that while BP appears to be saying all the right things right now in regard to its long-term commitment and willingness to pay all “legitimate” claims that six months from now, a year from now … locals will be locked in fights with the mega-company for their money.
And still the well keeps gushing ….
Every Wednesday that I’m home I trundle a big green garbage bin to the end of my long asphalt drive; by the end of the day I find it in a slightly different position on the dusty country road, empty. Like 20 million other U.S. residents, a very efficient truck from one of the three biggest carters in the country — Waste Management — has carted my refuse away. And I hate having to admit, but I have no idea where they take it.
I’m pondering this today because last week I wondered where all the waste being accumulated from the Gulf gusher – all those sturdy plastic bags we see lining the beaches filled with tar balls and soiled sand, those absorbent “pompoms” soaked with heavy crude used in valiant efforts to mop up the wetlands, all that sludge, rags and oily booms – is taken. At the time, reports assured me that it was all heading for appropriately lined landfills specifically built to keep such hazardous waste from leaking and leaching back into the soil and water, and eventually to the sea.
But now I read that Waste Management-owned landfills – in places like Perdido, Florida, Harrison County, Mississippi and Mobile County, Alabama – are increasingly becoming home to unexpected tons of such oily refuse. And I’m wondering just how prepared they are for these unexpected additions.
Waste Management reports that in two states – Alabama and Mississippi – it tracks all the oil-soaked garbage collected from the spill areas and currently has 535 containers being used, on 65 trucks. Liquid waste from those states and Florida is all taken to Theodore, Alabama, where the oil and water are separated.
In Escambia, Florida, 15 truckloads of oil related waste is being dumped by WM at Springhill Landfill, thanks to a contract with BP. (For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com.)
For nearly forty years one of the planet’s most energy-rich continents has been ruled successfully by international treaty. It has also been off-limits to drilling for the sizable oil reserves, which lie off its shores.
Of course given that no one lives in Antarctica (other than a few thousand seasonal scientists) and that much of it is covered by two miles of ice makes it a tough place to drill and far more easily managed than say Gaza or Afghanistan. Its remoteness has kept its vast offshore oil resources far more easily protected than those in the Gulf of Mexico or the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
Yet the ice-cover in both the Antarctic and Arctic gradually disappears, each region — rich with oil and other precious minerals — is being viewed anew, with many eyeing future resource development.
The treaty that governs Antarctica officially keeps the continent off-limits to drilling for oil until 2041. It’s a different story in the Arctic. As the Arctic Ocean’s annual sea ice cover disappears – many believe that within two decades the region will be ice-free during the summer – competition has already begun among its neighboring countries (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway plus Iceland and Greenland) over who owns what, especially when it comes to oil. (For the rest of my dispatch from the Arctic, go to takepart.com.)
Does it bother anyone else that the 600,000 gallons of oil BP is sucking out of the broken wellhead each day is being burned at sea?
And why are they burning the oil rather than trying to capture, save and possibly sell it? Because it is the easiest and cheapest way to get rid of it.
The risks are obvious. The burning creates toxic gases including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, all now being added to the atmosphere, eventually to be blown inland. The long-term risks to man of all this poison being added to the atmosphere should be clear.
My friend, 66-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist and MacArthur grant genius from New Iberia, the region’s most articulate voice of protest against the physical harms of all the chemicals from the accident being added to the water and air – calls the burning horrific: “This is one of those decisions that will have negative impacts for a long time.”
For several weeks the company knew it was going to attempt to suction oil from the leak to waiting ships at the surface. I was under the now naïve assumption that they would have a conga line of tankers standing by to carry that oil to shore where it could be refined.
But no such effort is underway; instead the captured oil is being mixed with water, turned into a fine mist and “smokelessly” burned on-site. For the rest of my story go to takepart.com.
For weeks now we’ve seen hundreds, thousands of haz-matted workers bending over along beaches or hanging out of small boats attempting to clean up the mess that has begun to invade Louisiana’s beaches and wetlands.
On the beaches you could see the piles of plastic bags mounting, filled with oil and oil-marred sand. The boats were piled with more white plastic bags filled with absorbent, diaper-like cloths workers are using to try and soak oil from the surface and nobly clean it off the grasses, stalk by stalk. Out to sea, bigger fishing boats were similarly filling even more white plastic bags, booms and absorbent paper full of oil skimmed off the surface of the Gulf.
My question from the beginning has been, Where is all that trash headed?
My experience around the world suggests that it probably won’t go too far from the sea. We often we see landfills built within easy blowing and leaching distance from the water. If that’s the case in Louisiana, unless all that garbage is carefully disposed of, the oil that’s been collected to-date will pretty quickly be flowing right back into the system, leaking into aquifers or dirt, on its inevitable return to … the ocean.
(One day off the island of Vis, far off the Croatian border, we kayaked into a pretty, V-shaped bay and headed in. Only to find when we arrived that winds and currents had turned what had looked from a distance to be a pristine beach into a dump. Plastic was piled knee-deep, blown in from all over the Adriatic Sea. An old woman was standing at one end of the beach doing what, to her, was the natural thing: Throwing the plastic back into the sea. When I asked her why, her response was simple: Because that’s where it belongs! Sadly, that’s an attitude still held by too many around the world.)
The 14 million gallons of oil and water that has been sucked up already are apparently destined for what are known as Class 1 nonhazardous injection wells, essentially pipes that extend far below the earth’s surface and deliver the gunk into “porous layers of sand 7,000 feet below.” (NPR did a great story on waste yesterday, including a description of why the oil we’re seeing is so red; it turns that color once it becomes 60 percent water.)
In Louisiana the promise is that all those white plastic bags – which now must number in the tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands – plus all the contaminated gear the workers are wearing are headed for lined landfills, approved by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Both private companies and government workers are hoping to get big BP paychecks for the all the overtime they’re putting in making sure all of this waste is properly disposed. Apparently, thanks to the state’s long relationship with hurricanes, there is still plenty of available landfill space.
And what’s to happen to all the oil now being sucked from the spewing well and sent a mile up to a waiting ship? I had imagined a fleet of smaller tankers running back and forth in order to download the ship as it topped off, but that apparently is too cost-and-time-inefficient. Instead, all that oil and gas coming from the bottom will soon be burned.
The ship sitting on the surface can only process 756,000 gallons of oil a day; the report is that they are bringing up 420,000 a day. All that oil needs to be gotten rid of so from the ship’s storage tanks it will be “sent down a boom, turned into a mist and ignited using a burner to burn the oil.” Keep in mind, this has yet to be tested. That’s to happen this weekend.
Two more ships are on the way, to stand by.
Estimates – even official BP estimates – now have the well spewing somewhere from 600,000 to 1.8 million gallons a day. Take the high number and you’ve got an Exxon Valdez equivalent happening every six days. Quite a bit lower than BP’s initial estimate of no-harm to 1,000 barrels a day.