Is it really possible that the planet’s blue space is at risk of being completely consumed and abused?
Given the gusher in the Gulf (86 days and counting) it is easy to imagine man having nothing but negative impact on the world’s ocean. But with 72 percent of the planet covered by salt water is it really possible that our one big ocean could truly be at risk of what some have dubbed “ocean sprawl?”
I’d like to say no, that the ocean is simply too big, that while the its fringes may suffer from man’s flagrant contempt, won’t the bulk of it be protected simply by its its depths, its enormity, its far-awayness?
Then I remind myself just how rapacious we have proven as a species.
Man’s heavy footprint on the ocean came to me the other day flying low in a helicopter south of Port Fouchon, Louisiana, headquarters of the state’s $70 billion a year oil industry. Below, everywhere I looked were scattered oilrigs, shrimpers, tankers, small fishing boats, floating docks and barges, stretching for many miles away from the coastline.
Let’s not be fooled by current events though; it is hardly just the oil industry that is threatening Planet Ocean.
Oil and natural gas are obvious villains, in part due to the BP spill, but also the infrastructure that accompanies it, giant physical rigs and infrastructure carrying resources from seabed to shore.
But we use – and abuse — the ocean in hundreds of ways, from fishing to generating electricity, from tourism to military protection. Shipping lanes collide with the migration routes of endangered whales. Fish farming booms while climate change alters ocean chemistry. Power lines, reefs, lobster traps and sunken ships compete for seafloor space. New energy sources including wave generated power and offshore wind turbines each eat up space. Every year coastal development destroys 20,000 acres of estuaries and near-coast fish habitat (Louisiana’s coastline alone loses 25 square miles a year, a football field every half hour). Urban waste runs-off into the ocean, so do millions of gallons of pesticides from farm fields. Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter. And then there are those damn oil spills.
It is the cumulative impact that is most worrying. Is the ocean’s future to become some kind of watery version of Houston – paved over, horribly polluted, with no zoning, no controls.
Around the globe three billion people live within an hour of the ocean. In the U.S. the ocean that surrounds creates more than two million jobs and more than $128 billion in gross domestic product each year. One impediment to taking care of and monitoring man’s impact is because there is no one agency or policy controlling it. In the U.S. more than 140 laws are administered by six different federal departments and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another in their efforts to “look after” our ocean and coastlines.
Within months of taking office President Obama set up a first-of-its-kind task force to put together a federal plan for the ocean and coastlines. He stocked it with some of the best and the brightest drawn from the marine biology world. Since issuing an interim report ninety days after it was first set up the task force has been largely on hold as the same team has devoted itself to the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.
For all those good intentions, which I hope arrive at some kind of national Ocean Policy, ever since man started using the ocean – to explore, to open trade routes, for resources – he has approached the ocean with a single mindset: Out of sight, out of mind.
It is in part the ocean’s very vastness and seeming toughness that has allowed us to continue to abuse it.
That has to change, for the ocean’s sake, for our sake.
Along the beaches of the Florida panhandle and Alabama there is a massive rescue effort underway involving butter knifes and forks, tricked-out Styrofoam coolers and specially-rigged FedEx trucks.
The job is to scoop 70,000 mostly loggerhead sea turtle eggs out of the sand (very carefully, using kitchen utensils among other tools) before the hatchlings can swim out into the Gulf where they will either suffocate or be poisoned when they start floating with the current and munching on oil-soaked seaweed.
It is an unusual example of across-the-board cooperation among the federal government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and local environmentalists, who are usually loudly against any such intervention. No matter the threat, relocating turtles nests is rarely done. Here it’s being regarded as essential.
Early this morning I talked with J. Nichols, a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences who was just leaving the dock in Grand Isle for a day observing the impact of the oil gusher on local wildlife. His Grupo Tortuga has for years been dedicated to restoring Pacific Ocean sea turtles. His response to the unorthodox rescue plan? “I wouldn’t want to put any turtle into that oil if there’s another option.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com.)
The French-born helicopter pilot zooming low over the Gulf is focused on two things: Whether he can find more fuel in Venice and whether or not the brown streaking we’re seeing north of the Chandeleur Islands is oil or just the transition of muddy Mississippi River water mixing with salt water.
Barataria Bay from 500 feet
It’s his first day flying out of Plaquemines Parish and, with maps piled on his lap, he admits to being a bit confused by both the landscape zipping past below at 100 mph – over solitary oil rigs, marsh and sand islands and a half-dozen shrimp boats trailing skimmers — and just how deeply the oil has penetrated up the mouth of the Mississippi.
From five hundred feet above sea level, with a mid-afternoon sun streaking in the window, it is admittedly hard to distinguish oil from muddy water. But when veteran Gulf photographer Gerald Herbert, riding shotgun, points worriedly below it’s clear we are seeing a new stain heading inland, which we estimate to be about 12 miles long.
(For the rest of my dispatch from Barataria Bay, go to takepart.com.)
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.)
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.