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More BP Oil Spilled … In Landfills

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

Madgascar Through the Looking Glass

Sunrise brings flying fish gliding, risso’s dolphins porpoising and seabirds squawking. In the near distance, about fifteen miles as the red-footed booby flies, silhouetted by an already bright sun, lies the northern tip of Madagascar. Surprisingly green (I have the impression that much of Madagascar’s forest has been denuded, clear cut) the tip of the island – the 4th largest in the world, bigger than France, considered by some the eighth continent – is bounded by Pleistocene coral uprisings and mangrove forests. But this is all seen from a distance. Landing on Madagascar these days is out of the question thanks to several months of civil unrest threatening civil war.

Why the upheaval? A dismal economy, of course. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world with seventy percent of its twenty million people living on less than a dollar a day.  When in January the charismatic young mayor of its biggest city, Antananarivo – 34-year-old Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey – accused the sitting president of failing to tackle poverty and of personal corruption, the country erupted in street riots. That the long time president, 59-year-old Marc Ravalomanana – a self-made millionaire, whose fortune began in the yogurt business – had recently bought himself a new presidential jet, made moves to sell off vast tracts of land to South Korea and offered up the country’s vast oil and mineral reserves to the highest bidder made him an easy target.

The resulting riots cost more than one hundred people their lives, the worst violence for years on the historically politically volatile Indian Ocean island. (The last big contretemps were in 2002, when disputed election results triggered eight months of nationwide political chaos and brought the economy to its knees before Ravalomanana was declared victor.)

The tourist economy has taken a huge hit; typically this most biodiverse island in the world takes $400 million off visitors each year. Today, with civil war a daily fear, that economy has dwindled to near nothing. In central Antananarivo, usually home to throngs of international tourists, blackened buildings gutted by fire scar the central 13 May Plaza, the epicenter of Rajoelina’s month-long campaign of rallies and strikes. Though I am several hundred kilometers north of the capital, there are still concerns.

Today up and down Madagascar the desire for change is palpable among people in the thronging market places and from behind the metal grilles of businesses whose owners remain too nervous to re-open. They are fatigued by what they call “la lutte” – the struggle. For me it is a green/golden opportunity, lying just off the bow that must be missed. I’m sure we’ll come back … one day.


My young friend Olly Hicks, who sailed with us to Antarctica a year ago, is apparently giving up his goal of rowing around the world. He left 83 days ago from Tasmania with the intent of taking 500 days to circumnavigate 15,000 miles by oar in his custom-built “Flying Carrot.” But at the rate he’s been rowing since leaving Tasmania, far slower than expected, it was looking like it might take him more like five years. So … he’s headed for port in New Zealand.

“It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that we will be suspending the global row in New Zealand,” he said. “The main reason is our incredibly poor progress.

At the meetings of representative nations with interests in the Arctic and Antarctic last week in Baltimore, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would take the lead in calling for the Antarctic Treaty to be amended to address tourism and its potential impacts on the seventh continent. But amending the fifty-year-old treaty will be tricky since it requires a unanimous vote of its 49 voting signators. Yet the media at large – including Discover – are already announcing “big changes” for Antarctic tourists and tour operators.

I’m not sure that wish will happen too quickly, so stay tuned. My guess – though I hope it won’t take this – is that such an amendment will only come when there is a tragedy of a proportion we’ve not yet seen along the heavily touristed Peninsula.

Who Owns Antarctica (A Continuing Saga)

The unique treaty that governs Antarctica – written in 1959, signed by 46 countries in 1961 and amended in 1991 to keep the seventh continent off limits to oil and mineral exploitation until at least 2041 – is facing its most severe test yet.

In November 2007, the United Kingdom, citing decades-old territorial claims, claimed for itself 385,000 square miles of the continent, including the 600-mile long Peninsula and – most importantly – the coastal shelf that lines it.

When the treaty was written after the successful International Polar Year of 1957-58 it defined Antarctica as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south. No mention was made of the continental shelf, nor specifically who had rights to it. By international law every coastal nation “owns” 230 miles off its coastline. But if no one “owns” Antarctica, who owns its continental shelf? Today a fight has begun over who owns what in Antarctica, a struggle that promises to last long into the future.

Why the fight? Simple: Potential oil and gas reserves. Why now? Because this May the U.N.’s Convention of the Law of the Sea will expand each coastal nation’s sovereignty over its continental shelf from 230 miles to 380 miles off shore. But claims must first be approved by the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which also meets in May.

Which is why in historic manner lawmakers from long-squabbling Chile and Argentina flew to Antarctica last week to publicly denounce the U.K.’s claim and instead suggest that those same icy plains – and shelf – belong instead to the two South American countries. Last Thursday they met at the Chilean base of Eduardo Frei and on Friday jumped to the Argentine base known as Jubany to announce their very rare collaboration.

The Antarctic claims of Argentina, Chile and Britain are particularly difficult to sort out since they are all claiming the same sizable pie slice of the continent. The British territorial claim goes back to 1908. Another eight countries (Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Spain and Norway) also still claim pieces of the continent, which, according to treaty, is supposed to be unclaimed and open only to science. The U.S. has never (not yet?) made a claim in Antarctica, though it operates the largest science base on the continent (McMurdo) and controls the South Pole (Scott-Amundsen).

It’s long been thought that Antarctica and its coast was too foreboding, too far away and chocked by too many 15-mile-long icebergs to make drilling for oil and gas possible, or cost-effective. But as we are witnessing in the Arctic as its ice disappears, as the ice along the Antarctic Peninsula lessens – thanks to temperatures that have warmed more than anywhere on the planet during the past fifty years – territorial battles have begun.

I’ve been up and down the Antarctic Peninsula for many years and can testify there is still lots and lots of ice both on land and afloat. Today it still looks like a tricky place to put up oilrigs. But who knows how technology will change – and how Antarctica will change – in the coming years? All of these nations are simply planting new flags all over the continent … just in case.