I’m beginning to feel like something of a jinx. I go to the Antarctic Peninsula every austral summer and invariably while I’m there ships run aground, or sink. I slink into the U.K. for an anticipated 48 hours and an erupting volcano shuts down 8 million travelers. And the very week that we are putting the finishing touches on a new film, two years in production, about the complex relationship between man and the sea in southern Louisiana … catastrophe strikes the Gulf of Mexico, impacting many of the fishermen, conservationists and activists featured in it. (Not to mention my several Chilean friends who are still leading efforts to clean up their coastline and get people back in homes before winter arrives down south.)
Just how bad are these recent seeming-catastrophes?
Even as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches anew (yesterday its drifting ash shut down airspace over Ireland and Scotland, nothing like the damage done by cancellation of 100,000 flights while I was there) by comparison to past blasts it remains a small burp.
How small? In 1815, on the island of Sumbawa (in today’s Indonesia), a volcano named Tambora sputtered and coughed for nearly two weeks before blowing 24 cubic miles of lava into the sky, opening up a crater more than three miles wide and a mile deep. More than 120,000 people died, largely because everything around them – vegetation, marine life – was smothered by ash causing crop failures and epidemics.
Sixty-eight years later, Krakatoa spewed just 3.5 cubic miles of molten rock and ash; Vesuvius 1.4 cubic miles and Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, 0.3 cubic miles. Each of those was considered major; Iceland’s recent burp was just that. Yet it shut down all of Europe for six days, impacting the world’s economy to the tune of between $2 and $3 billion.
Similarly, as the Times reports this morning, the ongoing spillage in the Gulf of Mexico are – for the moment – far from record-setting. (Its list includes the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqis during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991 and the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil before it was stopped. The Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons is the biggest spill since.) Of course we won’t know for some weeks/months to come just how much the Deepwater Horizon will leak into the ocean.
But as winds and currents for the moment are keeping much of the leaking oil from washing ashore in the Gulf States – though trade winds may very well carry the spillage around the southern tip of Florida and eventually up the Atlantic coastline – there is a kind of creeping “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the mainstream press.
Not so dissimilar from the attitude towards offshore drilling itself, until a couple weeks ago. If you can’t see the rigs from shore, they must not be a problem. If the majority of the now-spilling oil doesn’t come ashore but stays out to sea, disaster has been averted. Unless of course you’re a dolphin, whale, mollusk, seabird or fishermen, whose lives and livelihoods depend on a clean, healthy ocean.
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.
It’s true. For roughly nine hours last Saturday I was honored by Baton Rouge’s real mayor – the Honorable Kip Holden – to stand-in for him. (I wasn’t handed the paperwork until mid-afternoon, otherwise it could have been an all-day affair.). We took our new ‘SoLa’ film to screen for an annual conference of L.E.A.N. (Louisiana Environmental Action Network) and even before they saw the rough-cut, apparently someone leaned on the mayor’s office for the honorific. Included in the award was a certificate announcing that Saturday, September 26 was officially ‘Jon Bowermaster Day’ in Baton Rouge; needless, I carried both documents with me all day long, just in case I needed to bail myself – or any of my friends – out of trouble.
Spent Sunday with my friend Dean Wilson, roaming around the Atchafalaya Swamp in his flat-bottomed metal boat. Since we were there with him earlier this year, and last August, he’s had some good successes in his full-court press to protect the swamp, particularly the cyprus trees which have until recently been logged to make garden mulch. That practice, says Dean, has been stopped. Next up? Making sure that his activist ways are included as the state and some of its big environmental group allies include him at the table as protection plans are made, and money distributed. Over a late lunch of deer stew (Dean and very-pregnant wife Kara live just a few feet above swamp-level and are as self-sufficient as any family I’ve met) we laughed about his role in our new film. “You made the swamp look very good … and you even made me look good, which is not always easy.”
We’re just wrapping up the editing of a beautiful, provocative film about Southern Louisiana – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – about man’s relationship with water in a part of the world where everywhere you look you’re surrounded by bayou, swamp or wetlands, the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico. Home to the most unique and vital culture in America, every Cajun has a story – or two, three or more – about … water.
Today too many of those stories are negative. SoLa’s waterways are home to some serious environmental problems, including oil and gas spills, petrochemical waste, fertilizer run-off from its neighbors and coastal erosion that is disappearing twenty-five square miles of Southern Louisiana each year.
This Saturday, we are screening a rough cut of our new film with our friends at LEAN in Baton Rouge. If you are in the area, please come by and join in the festivities.
We first went to Southern Louisiana with cameras one year ago; we’ve been back a couple times since and are just wrapping up the editing of a beautiful, provocative film – “SoLa, Louisiana Water Stories” – about man’s relationship with water in a part of the world where everywhere you look you’re surrounded by bayou, swamp or wetlands, the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico.
The region is home to the most unique and vital culture in America and every Cajun from Grand Isle to Breaux Bridge, has a story – or two, three or more – about … water.
Theirs are stories with a lot of passion and heart but also a fair amount of dismay. SoLa’s waterways are home to some serious environmental problems, including oil and gas spills, petrochemical waste that has filtered into the air and water, fertilizer run-off from its neighbors and coastal erosion that is disappearing twenty-five square miles of Southern Louisiana each year.
Tomorrow morning (August 27) between 8 and 9 a.m. EST ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Sam Champion are excerpting a piece from our film, taking their own look at one of the most serious and mysterious of SoLa’s problems, a growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.