A confidential government report has leaked suggesting that scientists believe the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could be unfixable and turn into “an unchecked gusher” for weeks or months to come. It cites scientific estimating that suggests the leak may be ten times worse than what’s being reported now by BP, so the real number could be closer to 2.1 million gallons. A day. I saw the report at al.com, a blog of the Alabama Press-Register. See my post at takepart.com.
We are in the process of finishing a big, beautiful, provocative film about Southern Louisiana, focused on the relationship between man and the sea … so obviously when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, inflamed, sank and now continues to pump oil into the Gulf of Mexico we are watching with a vested interest. (In our film – Sola, Louisiana Water Stories – current Governor Bobby Jindal is on camera telling an interviewer that one of the “beauties” of Louisiana is that are no oil spills ….)
One of the conservation activists we profile in the film, Tracy Kuhns, is the Louisiana Bayoukeeper – affiliated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance – as well as running the Fishing Community Family Support Center. Her husband, Michael Roberts, is a fisherman and they live on Bayou Barataria where fishing is down for multiple reasons, one being the waste left behind by oil and gas explorations and takings going back many decades.
A shrimper on his way home at day's end, up Bayou Lafourche. Photo: Fiona Stewart
I asked her for her take on the still-growing oil spill in the Gulf, now spreading through Louisiana’s fertile fishing grounds (40 percent of the US.’s seafood comes from the Gulf of Mexico):
Tracy Kuhns: “As a resident of one of Louisiana’s many coastal fishing communities, I am very worried and saddened, right now, about the massive, on going, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The media, government agencies and naturally, the environmental community seem so wrapped up with the oil they can see on the surface, it’s as if, that is all there is to the spill. While dealing with what is seen on the surface if urgent and extremely important to minimizing damage to our estuaries, our fishermen know from experience, with inland and other offshore oil spills, that what is on the surface is nothing compared to what will cover the water bottom and can not be seen. They know that after everyone proclaims the clean up to be complete and the fishermen go back fishing, their nets will come up covered in oil tar and that they will not be able to fish, in the area of the spill, for years to come. A complete clean up never happens, so this oil spill is bound to have long term impacts on the Gulf of Mexico and Inland fisheries for years to come, (Approx. 90% of Gulf Marine Species spend some portion of their life cycle in our estuaries). What will it take for us to learn that oil and gas are not worth the long term costs to the environment, communities and the people of the Gulf Coast? Why do we accept coastal destruction and erosion, oilfield debris, oil and gas explosions, spills and pollution as a necessary trade for jobs? Why are we willing to trade sustainable local seafood, tourism and recreational jobs for destructive, polluting ones? When will our legislators begin to move towards bringing us jobs from clean energy development (solar, etc), rather then hanging on to the past and continuing to support social and environmental destruction in the name of the economy? Jobs that promote sustainable, local small businesses and communities rather then pushing forward with industrialization of seafood production, which will cause further environmental destruction, fish population decline, and the collapse of local coastal community economies. Have we not learned anything from the industrialization of our farming communities and the resulting environmental and social destruction? Dead Zone in the Gulf and the loss of family farms and communities. Jobs where we produce and build what we need, locally, rather then importing it from elsewhere. When will those, who claim to serve the people, stand up for us, our communities and our natural resources, rather then corporate interests and environmental and social devastation?”
Good questions. Any comments?
A fiery reminder of our continued addiction to fossil fuels lit up the sky fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana yesterday when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. After 36 hours the 396-foot-long, 256-foot-wide rig sank; its leasors – British Petroleum – insisted that pollution from the fire would be minimal, since most of the oil would simply burn off. I wrote about the accident at length at Take Part’s The Current.
The timing – on the eve of the 40th Earth Day – is an impeccable reminder of the real-life impacts of the oil drilling which many Republicans, and some Democrats in Congress regard as our best way towards “energy independence.” The hallow chant of “Drill Baby, Drill” must now be followed by “Burn Baby, Burn.” Nighttime images of the fire, which killed at least eleven oil workers, resemble a Satanic ritual afloat in the heart of the ocean.
I spent the bulk of Earth/Ocean Day on airplanes, hardly the most environmentally healthy thing to do. I would have much preferred a long walk on a beach somewhere … anywhere … but ultimately escaping my week-long lockdown in London and avoiding that long bus-ride to Madrid to get off the continent was worth it. I arrived at Heathrow armed with several different airline reservations and flew back to New York on a plane oddly only half-full and laden with more smiles than I’ve ever seen in any airport scenario in a well-traveled life.
Being at 36,000 feet and looking out the window for several hours did give me an opportunity to ponder just how the orb below is faring. I would have liked to divert and fly over the Icelandic volcano that had so handcuffed much of the world’s air travel for the past week, though the pilots probably would not have been inclined to test their engines by flying into the ashen sky; I wish I could have talked them into detouring south and flying over the Gulf of Mexico, for a bird’s eye view of that horrific/spectacular fire burning on the Deep water Horizon oil rig, a reminder of one of the real impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels; if they’d been willing to drop even lower, I imagine we could have skimmed over the surface and seen those growing gyres filled with plastic in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But from high altitude it is hard to see the pollutants threatening the ocean. Truth is, it’s even hard in most cases to see them at sea level. Which is a big part of the problem when it comes to environmental protection. Out of sight, out of mind. (As spectacular as the images are of that oil rig ablaze, for example, it’s 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Very few people will see it up close, thus its damage will always seem very far remote.) The fact that the ocean has been altered by man over the past century – polluted, its acidity levels altered by carbon dioxide, over fished, its reef damaged – is indisputable. That in so many cases the ocean still manages to look pristine and unharmed almost works against it. I’ve fallen victim to that myself, both at sea level staring out at that place on the horizon where blue meets blue, and from up high looking down on a watery landscape that often – mistakenly — seems the very definition of pacific.
If you want to see some of the ocean’s greatest beauty, slip out in the next few days and see the new Jacques Perrin/Jacques Cluzaud film OCEANS (their last together was WINGED MIGRATION). I’m biased, since I’ve done the companion book to the film (Oceans, The Threats to the Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide), but the $75 million movie – distributed in the U.S. by DisneyNature – strings together some of the most incredible ocean footage ever. And for the first week it’s out, Disney is donating a dollar per ticket to a Nature Conservancy program to set aside a marine protected area in the Bahamas.
A feature film of course can only go so far in regard to making a difference. Sitting in theater “observing” the ocean is only half the battle. If you really want to affect change in regard to the ocean, the first thing we have to encourage is changing rules and regulations to protect it. On a more personal level I think you have to go out and get in the ocean every once in awhile to remind you of its beauty, its power and its fragility. To save the ocean, I’m afraid, you’ll have to get wet.
There’s nothing like announcing a plan that could bring new oil rigs to 300 million acres of ocean to start a loud conversation among ocean-lovers of all stripes. Which is exactly what President Obama did a week ago, reopening a debate that many of his supporters thought was moot once candidates McCain and Palin had been shunned.
By coincidence, I was in Louisiana when the announcement was made, where a $65 billion a year gas and oil industry is THE state’s major business and the Gulf of Mexico coastline has long been dotted by oil rigs (and oil spills). We have been filming in southern Louisiana for the past 21 months, focused on the relationship between man and the sea. In “SoLa” it is impossible to ignore the impact that oil and gas have on both the populace and the waterways.
The Obama administration’s plan could prove to be either be savvy politics or blatant pandering. In the immediate future it curries favor with pro-drilling interests and helps lure some pro-development Democrats – like Virginia’s Mark Warner and Jim Webb – to potentially support other climate change initiatives. The reality is that the first lease sale under the plan could take place off the coast of Virginia within a few months; the rest would not start lining up until 2012, but probably longer given anticipated state and court fights. The argument that opening up these new domestic resources will help push us away from dependence on foreign oil is a false one; even if all of the continental shelves proposed are tapped there’s only enough oil there to last for three years, enough natural gas for two. Not all Washington politicians were charmed: “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a ‘Kill, Baby, Kill’ policy,” said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenburg.
And what’s the reality of having big rigs in your backyard, plus all the tanker and barge traffic that accompanies them? Use Louisiana as an example.
Some years ago the state set up the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, to “protect Louisiana’s citizens and environment from the effects of oil spills.” Today the state leads the U.S. in annual oil spills; between 1991 and 2004 an average of 1,500 per year (and those are just spills in state waters, the stats don’t include federal waters – three miles offshore – where many of the oil rigs live and where many of the new drilling is proposed). While we were filming in July 2008 two barges collided near midnight on the Mississippi River, in the heart of New Orleans, spilling 400,000 gallons into the river and spreading 80 miles downstream within 24 hours.
The mother of all recent Louisiana oil spills? Hurricane Katrina, when more than 9 million gallons of oil were lost, nearly comparable to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (11 million gallons). During Hurricane Rita another 1 million gallons leaked into Louisiana’s rivers and the Gulf … statistics which should give all coastal residents of the East Coast and Alaska pause.
Since it was announced ten days ago that Dow Chemical would join 2010′s version of Al Gore’s “Live Earth” I’ve been concerned about the Nobel Prize winner’s sense of direction. For several years Dow has been sponsoring “Run For the Planet” marathons, in an effort to draw attention to the world’s need for clean drinking water. Which is a good thing. The downside is that around the world Dow chemical plants are among the worst polluters of nearby drinking water and air.
For the past eighteen months we’ve been working on a film in Louisiana about the relationship between man and water; it’s a relatively easy subject since there’s water everywhere, and every Louisianan has a water story or two or three. But my introduction to the state was nearly twenty years ago, when I went on assignment for Audubon magazine to write about a small town called Morrisonville, in Plaquemine Parish.
A hundred-fifty-year-old town homesteaded by just-freed slaves, in the 1990s it was home to a small core of eighty-seven indigent blacks. Over the years its closest neighbor – Dow Chemical – had expanded its property, and its pollutions, until both butted up against and ran under the small town; it was so close that the company installed alarm radios in each home to serve as alerts in case of an accident or spill (which most refused to turn them on, convinced the company was eavesdropping on them). Here’s what my friend Marylee Orr, founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network told the New York Times 20 years ago: “Companies are reducing their problems by moving people instead of reducing accidents and pollution.”
Over the years Dow’s chemical-making processes had badly polluted the local aquifer that lay beneath Morrisonville with vinyl chloride, information the company discovered but did not make public. Instead, when they discovered that the cancer-causing chemicals had spread over several acres just below the earth’s surface, spreading beneath the town, it did the only reasonable thing from a corporate perspective: It tried to buy off any potential complaints and lawsuits. As residents of Morrisonville resident’s began to get sick from the pollution, and as Dow recognized the impact it was having on local waterways, the company stepped up and bought up the town, house by house, moving the residents into shiny new brick houses in a nearby suburb. Though many in Morrisonville were already cancer-tinged, did the chemical company suggest to them it might be because it had polluted their drinking water? No. That would have been something of an inconvenient truth. Instead they simply said they were buying properties in order to move people away from “potential” harm.
Of course Dow’s support of “Live Earth” (I’m hoping to find out how much cash they’re putting into the event) is not completely altruistic or even out of guilt. It’s about growing its business. Turns out they have a sizable water purification business – Dow Water and Process Solutions – they are hoping to grow “by double digits” and participation in “Live Earth” is simply good advertising. (At the NYC press conference announcing Dow’s support, Ian Barbour, general managaer of Dow Water and Process Solutions, told the crowd and gathered participating celebrities (Jessica Biel, Pete Wentz and more), “We want to generate a surge in awareness and level of funding that will make a difference – making a dent in the number of people who don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. We must energize people to get involved.” While helping to solve the global water crisis is a worthwhile humanitarian cause, it is also good for business, he acknowledged, suggesting that Dow Chemical aims to grow its Dow Water & Process Solutions unit by double-digit rates. “We’ve seen average annual growth of 12-15% for our water business in the last decade, and we expect this level of organic growth going forward. We are also looking out for acquisitions, especially of new technologies that can drive down the cost of water purification.”)
Dow’s Louisiana story has been repeated around the globe wherever it has made chemicals (see the story below from ecorazzi.com). My question for Al Gore, his partners at “Live Earth” and the celebrity spokespeople who’ve signed on to promote Dow’s “Run for the Planet” is do they need Dow’s sponsorship badly enough to put up with the obvious bad press they’ll deservedly get for the linkage? Or maybe their goal is to try and “cleanse” the company’s attitude towards clean water and community relationships.
From ecorazzi.com: As more bad news surrounding Dow Chemical and its pollution of a vast river valley in Michigan surfaces, one has to wonder if their sponsorship of Live Earth’s clean water initiative is looking less like social responsibility and more like a giant billboard for irony.
The company recently agreed to help clean up more than 50-miles of the Tittabawassee River after dumping cancer-causing dioxins into it for most of the last century. The contamination has turned the area into one of the nation’s most polluted sites — something the Obama administration decided was in desperate need of government intervention. According to company records, Dow has known since the mid-1960s that dioxins could sicken or even kill people. The EPA even performed independent tests confirming that the chemicals cause cancer and “disrupt the immune and reproductive systems.”
Despite this, Dow has been criticized time and time again for dragging their feet on the matter. “This cleanup can get done, and a company like Dow can afford it,” Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center told the LA Times. “But we are under no illusions that this will be carried out without constant pressure from concerned citizens.”
If current events aren’t enough to make Live Earth second-guess their partnership with Dow, the company’s handling of the Bhopal cleanup should have been the first red flag. 25 years ago, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents happened in Bhopal after a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked a deadly gas that spread over the city. 8,000-10,000 people died within the first 72 hours — and 25,000 have died since. According to Wikipedia, some 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals abandoned at the Union Carbide plant continue to pollute the ground water in the region and affect thousands residents of Bhopal who depend on it.
Since Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, the company has refused to perform any additional cleanup, saying that UC’s settlement payments have already fulfilled Dow’s financial responsibility for the disaster. However, the on-going contamination of ground water in the region and high rates of cancer have brought heavy criticism on the company; most notably from campaigns fueled by corporate pranksters The Yes Men. In June, 27 members of Congress wrote to Dow Chemical Company CEO Andrew Liveris and Dow’s Board of Directors, urging the company to face their criminal and civil liabilities for the tragedy that occurred at Bhopal. “While thousands continue to suffer, Union Carbide and its successor, Dow Chemical, have yet to be brought to justice,” Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) wrote in the letter. “I appreciate the efforts of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal to raise awareness of the plight of the people of Bhopal. Members of Congress will continue to fight against companies that evade civil and criminal liability by exploiting international borders and legal jurisdictions.”
One wonders how Dow can be so concerned about clean water, but completely ignore or avoid responsibility for environmental dangers that continue to happen under their watch. It’s even more maddening when you see organizations like Live Earth and charity:water jumping into bed with them. Sponsorship means cashflow to pull off important events, but is a company like Dow worth the ethical headache? Should an initiative focused on the water crisis partner with a company that is responsible for some of that damage to begin with?
Short answer: No.