Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Year After

It’s been a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Over this year, reports about the severity of the resulting oil spill and its effects have varied widely, and there remain conflicting reports about the long-term effects of this disaster. What do we know? What have we learned?

One thing on which the majority of people looking at its effects can agree is that we don’t know enough at this point to know what to expect in the future for the gulf and its coastal communities.

Immediately after the explosion last year, this blog had two posts that talked about it. One of them, The Day After, was written on April 23, the day after Earth Day. It talked about the discouragement of having something like this happen around the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, especially given that an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 is said to have inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s proposal to have such a day. But then the post added this: “The good news the day after Earth Day is that there doesn’t seem to be a major oil spill, though there is an oil slick that at last report…measured ten miles by ten miles.” The days immediately after the explosion were like that – conflicting information, an effort to minimize worries about the disaster, and a public eager to believe the more positive reports.

On April 24 I posted Two Days After. The main point of the piece was that environmental problems were most probably not going to be solved by either the political establishment or industry. The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill had been put on hold. As for the oil rig explosion, there was this:

The Coast Guard discovered today that, contrary to earlier reports, the well that fed the oil rig that exploded and burned last week, collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day, is leaking oil. This evening’s story from the AP about the situation reports that the oil slick has grown to a twenty by twenty mile square.

Things suddenly looked very different! As information continued to change over weeks and months, it was often hard to tell the size and scope of the disaster.

An Associated Press article from this week, Scientists: Gulf health nearly at pre-spill level, surveys some of the scientific opinions about where we stand a year later. While there is some disagreement, the overall consensus is that the health of the Gulf waters is close to where it was before the oil spill. That rating is not particularly high. The article explains:

If that pre-spill grade isn't impressive, it's because the Gulf has long been an environmental victim_ oil from drilling and natural seepage, overfishing, hurricanes and a huge oxygen-depleted dead zone caused by absorbing 40 percent of America's farm and urban runoff from the Mississippi River.

A close reading of the article reveals that while this standard sort of overall rating is back to where it was, many of the scientists expressed concerns in interviews about what we might see down the road that either hasn’t shown up yet or isn’t the sort of thing taken into account in grading the overall health of the gulf. There is simply a lack of data in some areas. Of particular concern are observations of effects on certain animals: dolphins, sea turtles, crabs. Effects on cetaceans (dolphins and whales), for example, can be found here where the NOAA Fisheries unit posts information about the “cetacean unusual mortality event” in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

What do we know? We know that environmental disasters affect all living things, including human beings. We know that ecosystems are complex and there are things we simply don’t know, such as the long-term effects of the dispersants that were used. It’s very difficult to predict the effects of this sort of disaster.

What have we learned? Apart from what scientists and the oil industry might have learned, those of us who aren’t directly involved in it have observed a couple of things. One is that collectively we have short attention spans. Once the aerial shots of the huge oil slick and the close-ups of pelicans covered in oil were gone, we moved on to other things. Little has been done to prevent another such disaster from happening partly because there is not a strong and sustained outcry from the public for policies to change. Things look pretty normal now, and we move on.

Related to this is something else we have learned yet again: we see things as isolated that are really connected. The concerns about the proposed oil pipeline through Nebraska are connected to the Gulf oil disaster; in both cases, local ecosystems are put at risk because of our addiction to oil. The situation in the Gulf is connected to the way we devalue poor people, people of color, and nonhuman creatures. It has to do with an inability to see the connection between our own consumer habits and the suffering of other people. It’s connected very much to the Gospel, to the command to love our neighbors, and to the teaching that the way we treat the most powerless people is the way we treat Christ (Matthew 25).

An assessment not of the science but of some of these other concerns comes from Patty Whitney, a Louisiana coastal communities advocate. Her piece, For Gulf Coast Residents, the Oil Spill Nightmare Continues appeared in Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics blog yesterday. She describes the ongoing social and economic effects of the oil spill on Gulf Coast communities, ending her post with these words:

The cameras and attention needed to bring light upon the injustices that continue are darkened and silent. The plight of the voiceless has been minimized and shrugged off in the name of scoring points for one political party or another in a unique game of one-upmanship. The fact that God’s creations are priceless makes them value-less in our society, which only measures value by the dollar.

So, where are we one year later? Still suffering the impacts of human-made and natural disasters. Still fearing that the other shoe is yet to drop. Still fighting for justice. Still tired. Still aware that God is the Master and the final judge, and that God doesn’t value things by the dollar. We’re counting on that.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

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