With the upcoming five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29), the Gulf Coast is bracing for another media onslaught.
Network anchors all have their tickets (each competing for turf with Anderson Cooper along New Orleans’s Riverwalk), CNN is broadcasting a two-part special (“New Orleans Rising”) and next Monday/Tuesday HBO will air Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary, “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
As if the place hadn’t gotten enough attention during the past four-plus months, the Gulf States can’t stay out of the news these days, which is a good thing. Given the continuing debate over just how much oil is still stewing in the ocean it deserves to be in the headlines for a long time to come.
As I predicted a few days ago, every day seems to bring a new estimate on just how much of the oil spewed by BP is still out there. The statistics grow evermore confusing. The government says “74 percent of the oil is gone.” A University of Georgia team claims “79 percent is still there.” And today a report in Science – which the Times calls “the most ambitious paper to emerge yet” – casts grave doubt on the government stats and suggests there is a huge plume of oil two miles long floating beneath the surface, which will pose problems for the ocean, wildlife and man for months, possibly years, to come.
While that chatter dominates Gulf-related headlines, I think now is an appropriate time to reflect on all the other bad shit impacting the region on top of the multi-million gallons of crude that were recklessly dumped into it.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking was one of two sizable man-made disasters that will have long-lasting impact on Louisiana shores. The other goes back to 1927, when man (i.e. the Army Corps of Engineers) began his failed attempt to “control” the Mississippi River. The twin debacles, combined with a historically corrupt and inattentive state government, has assured that despite the cantankerous quality of life that makes the state the most unique of all fifty is also treated like America’s toilet bowl.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
When, on August 4th, President Obama’s chief environmental adviser Carol Browner put the White House stamp of approval on stats claiming “74 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf” had already been cleaned up, captured, burned, dispersed, evaporated, degraded or dissolved in the water … most of the people I know living along the coastline of Louisiana rolled their collective eyes.
Mike Roberts, a shrimper who lives on Barataria Bay – the hard-hit marshlands leading to the Gulf – said, “they obviously haven’t been to my backyard recently, which is still caked with oil.”
His wife Tracy Kuhns, Louisiana Bayoukeeper and director of the local family fishermen’s association, has been outspoken about BP and the government’s math since the gushing began. “They haven’t gotten it right from the very beginning when they told us only a few hundred rather than a few thousand barrels were leaking a day … why should we trust them now?”
On the other side of the estuary, P.J. Hahn, a Republican politician whose job it is to look after the future of the coastline of Plaquemines Parish and has been out on the water virtually every day since the gusher first began, said of the federal government numbers “they sound just too good to be true.”
One thing those “too good to be true” stats helped produce were some very optimistic news reports. “Sunshine is evaporating the oil, and bacteria are rapidly digesting it,” reported Bloomberg Businessweek.
“In a year or two we can forget this ever happened,” Roger Sassen, an adjunct professor of geology and geophysics at Texas A&M, told Bloomberg. “The fact that the Mississippi is the drainage ditch for the fertilizers and nasty agricultural chemicals of the entire central U.S. is much worse than this transient spill.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Last week’s Rally for the Economy in Lafayette, Louisiana, went largely unnoticed outside the state, though 11,000 vociferous oil workers, their supporters and the elected political elite of the state showed up and shouted to the rooftop about their concerns over the continuing moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.
The Cajundome on the campus of Louisiana University was packed with those who see the greatest crime created yet by the BP mess is the federal moratorium which its opponents say has already cost thousands of jobs and taken tens of millions of dollars out of the local economy.
The overarching sentiment at the event, sponsored by the state’s gas and oil lobbying group, was that, yes, the environmental mess may be bad … but the economic hit to the oil industry caused by the moratorium is far worse. The first 3,000 attendees got free t-shirts, others wore their own emblazoned with oil company logos or slogans like “Drill Baby Drill” and “No Moratorium.”
Twin themes emerged as more than a dozen politicians took to the stage. “You’re playing politics with our livelihood!” and “The moratorium is an attack on a way of life!” were the rallying cries, messages that were rowdily applauded here in the heart of Lafayette Parish, where 40 percent of all jobs are tied to oil and gas.
(For more words, pictures and video from the really, go to takepart.com)
The more things change the more they stay the same. The cap plugging BP’s broken wellhead has been holding for nearly two weeks now. Tropical storms are still approaching. Debate continues over the best way to prevent the busted well from continuing to gush, whether to tap it via relief wells or stuff it full of mud. There are some who still believe the well may be leaking thanks to cracks in the ocean floor. Many reports are wondering out loud where all the oil has gone.
While all suggest progress, or at least continued ready-reaction to current events, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are still tens of millions of gallons of crude oil afloat in the Gulf that weren’t there 95 days ago.
I reached out to a small, diverse trio of Louisianans for an update from this particular ground zero.
P.J. ((“Yes, that’s right, P.J., as in pajamas!”) Hahn, who heads up the coastal restoration department in Plaquemines Parish — home to the port town of Venice and the very camera-friendly Parish President Billy Nungesser — can’t wait to get back to his main pre-occupation these days, cleaning up.
“Certainly I’m glad the well is capped. But we are still crazy busy. We’re meeting with Thad Allen and the Coast Guard as often as we can, to stay on top of its plans for cleanup. That will determine a lot of our agendas.
“I went out over the last few days and boated and flew the coast. Because of the winds and current, we didn’t see too much oil coming ashore.”
(For more of my dispatch from Louisiana, 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.