The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
MauiTime's former staff reporter checks in from Florida with an update on the spill and a look at where we go from here
June 30, 2010 | 03:37 PM
High noon. We're all wearing black in the Florida sun. The attire requirement seems sadistic, though it was mandated by good people: the organizers of Hands Across the Sand, an event protesting offshore drilling. We face the water and form a solemn chain.
The black isn't comfortable, but since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 and quickly becoming the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, neither are we. We're outraged. We're mourning. We want BP CEO Tony Hayward, oil man Dick Cheney and Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas to sail off into the Gulf with straws and personally suck up this mess–maybe wash it down with some dispersants. But at the same time, we're guilty; most of us drive to work every day.
A prior Hands Across the Sand event took place in February, before the spill, when we Floridians were braving the worst winter in years (which wasn't exactly a boon to our economy either). That event was statewide, and meant to catch the eye of legislators who were considering opening state waters up to oil exploration (the legislation died in Tallahassee before "loop current" became a household term).
The most recent Hands Across the Sand demonstration, held Saturday, was observed worldwide, in response to the horror in the Gulf. Even Hawaii, probably the last place in the U.S. that would ever see direct fallout from this nightmare, participated.
It comes as millions of gallons of crude continue to spew out of the seabed every day, as our state's already-ailing economy is being brought to its knees and, conveniently enough, during an election year.
Politicians in the Gulf States have been tirelessly making the rounds, writing letters to BP and the Obama Administration demanding accountability. Democrat Bill Nelson, a senior U.S. Senator from Florida, has been one of the strongest advocates for those who BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg recently called "the small people." Nelson was among a group of senators who successfully lobbied BP to cough up $20 billion over the next four years for a trust fund to compensate people in the Gulf states dealing with lost revenue, lost jobs, lost you-name-it. He recently noted the disaster's terrible timing.
"We have every reason to believe now that we are coming out of the recession, but it's just going to take longer in Florida. That's what makes this oil thing so devastating," Nelson, who is not up for reelection until 2012, said in Jacksonville Monday. "Just as we were beginning to come out of it, now people are losing their livelihoods because tourists are not coming to our beaches because they're afraid there's oil."
Florida Governor Charlie Crist, determined to win Florida's other U.S. Senate seat this November, has also been a key advocate in the recovery. In May he successfully got BP to set aside $25 million for an ad campaign to convince people to come to Florida (another $25 million has since been released for this purpose). That may seem like a lot of dough for a few montages showing Florida's (mostly) oil-free beaches. Yet compared the $2.6 billion in quarterly dividends that was, until this month, slated for BP shareholders, not to mention what the oil giant can spend on its own PR campaign, it's a drop in the barrel.
Florida pulls in some $65 million each year from tourism, an industry that generally does better in places where air, land and water is not soiled. So people hear about oil washing up in Florida (it's only up in the Panhandle right now, a solid eight-hour drive from Treasure Island, where I live) and think twice about coming.
"[Tourists] see the picture of Florida as one big giant state," said Robin Grabowski, president of the Pinellas Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "They don't recognize that though we don't have oil, they hear the Panhandle, and the fear is statewide."
Another major blow to the local economy is that the seafood industry has practically been forced to a screeching halt.
"My fishery's done. I've had to cancel every charter I had on the books," said Captain Travis Palladeno, a Madeira Beach fisherman. Palladeno said he had to halt all of his charter boat trips because the federal government has closed off so much of the Gulf's fishing grounds for fear of fish becoming contaminated with oil and dispersants. "This was actually taking me through the summer. That's the bulk of my business–summertime business." He estimates he'll lose about $130,000.
Palladeno said that the feds shouldn't arbitrarily close off a third of the Gulf to fishing. "I wish they would have proper research and proper boats going out there before they start closing fishing areas," he said.
For those of us who live on the Gulf, the oil disaster has been a slow-motion tsunami. It gets worse every day; or, as independent researchers provide more credible information, we're finding out how bad it really is.
When Deepwater Horizon exploded more than 70 days ago, we were initially told that no oil was coming from the well. Shortly thereafter, BP said that number was actually 1,000 barrels (or 42,000 gallons) a day. They then upped that to 5,000 barrels a day (or 210,000 gallons) in early May. The sum has since undergone several revisions, and the high end of the most recent estimate is 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons). That's an Exxon Valdez every few days.
In mid-May, the New York Times reported on voluminous oil plumes stretching for miles beneath the water's surface, something that BP denied. In June, scientists aboard a University of South Florida research vessel confirmed the presence of these plumes, reportedly caused by BP's use of hundreds of thousands of gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit, a chemical with as-yet unknown effects on the environment and human health. The company continues to use the chemical despite a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order urging them to stop.
Also unknown are the effects of the underwater plumes.
"We've known that there's subsurface oil," said Steve Murawski, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's pretty obvious that if you've got a source a mile down, it has to get from the bottom to the surface. So the real questions are these: Where is it? In what concentrations? Where is it going? And what are the potential consequences for people and the health of the marine environment?"
Initially, BP was not helpful in getting these questions answered. USF oceanographer David Hollander said the oil giant refused to provide samples from the busted well to help him confirm whether the subsurface oil his team found was in fact a product of the disaster (last week BP finally handed some over).
They haven't exactly been forthcoming with elected officials, either. Members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have grilled execs from BP and other energy-related corporations, frustration visibly mounting after hours of stonewalling.
One grilling in particular stands out from these hearings, which aim to get to the bottom of what went wrong. Joseph Cao, a Republican U.S. Representative from New Orleans, said the following at a June 15 hearing to BP America CEO Lamar McKay, who looked pale, exhausted and dejected: "In the Asian culture we do things differently. During the Samurai days we'd just give you a knife and ask you commit harakire," Cao said. "The cleanup process has been a disgrace, the claims process has been dismal."
Sheila Jackson, a Houston-area Democratic Representative, decried the oil industry at that same hearing. "You failed. You have patently failed," said McKay, who sat on a panel that included the heads of Exxon-Mobil and Chevron. "You don't know us and you don't want to know us."
At that hearing some Republican lawmakers said blame also lies with federal regulators, given that the Minerals Management Service looked the other way while BP practically submitted coloring books as spill-response plans. BP claimed that not only could it easily contain a gusher significantly larger than the one they're currently struggling with, but also that gulf wildlife, including walruses, would be a-OK if such an event were to occur. Surely, if walruses actually existed in the Gulf of Mexico, they'd be in the same boat as dolphins and Kemps-Ridley turtles (it was revealed last week that BP is torching thousands of barrels of recovered oil daily in an area frequented by sea turtles).
Investigative reporter Greg Palast recently wrote a piece for BuzzFlash.com in which he said BP, a British company, is "deeply involved with our democracy." In late May he told me just how far these ties go.
"Bob Malone, who is chairman of BP America, was also co-chair of the Alaska state re-elect George Bush campaign," he said. "Here we have this foreign company involved in our political process, deeply."
He said the January Supreme Court ruling that essentially equates corporations with people will make it easier for BP to work its corporate magic in Washington, even as politicians across the board are wagging their flaccid fingers at the oil giant.
"Under the recent Supreme Court ruling, British Petroleum in London, as well as Shell Oil in London and Amsterdam, can put endless amounts of money into campaigns through their U.S. corporate entities," said Malone. "So we're going to see massive, massive lobbying and spending by British Petroleum–you can count on this–which was, until a few months ago, illegal."
So yes, those of us who have to live with BP's bad decisions aren't in the highest of spirits these days. But still, we have to stand and be counted, and at ten past noon this fine Saturday, that is what we do. Despite the heat we stand in solidarity for about ten minutes in an awkward chain. We face the ultra-turquoise Gulf of Mexico, and mutter criticisms about those who are playing in the gentle surf when they should be standing with us.
"Maybe we should tell them there's been an oil spill," someone says. This elicits a chuckle or two. Gallows humor.
A plane flies above, pulling behind it the name of an unknown candidate in the race for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat. The banner ad states said candidate's stance on offshore drilling–he's against it, as one might imagine. Everyone cheers. Of course, every politician these days is more or less against offshore drilling, though there are some grey areas, so he or she can easily decry drilling off our coasts and still support drilling operations closer to shore than Deepwater Horizon.
The airplane-banner candidate is running in the same race that's been making national and international headlines for months, the one that apparently drove Governor Charlie Crist to ditch the Republican party after the polls showed him trailing Tea Party darling Marco Rubio–who vaguely supports some offshore operations–by double digits.
On this beach, the sand is soft. Millions of little purple shells coat the shoreline. Pelicans circle and nosedive into the Gulf. Dolphins are a regular sight. All this, and not a drop of oil. The water is fine, but unless you're here, you probably don't know that. Whether or not we're in industries directly impacted by the disaster, we're all trying to fend off an unfathomable sense of dread.
Still, some see a silver lining in this tangible doom.
"One of the overriding lessons I think we all need to take from this is this dependence we have on fossil fuel," said Governor Crist. "I understand that all of us are guilty because a lot of our cars use it, but there are alternatives we need to be moving toward. I mean, we've been talking about this for 30 years in this country."
Clearly, it's time to turn the talk into action.
Kate Bradshaw is senior reporter/producer at WMNF 88.5 FM, an independent community radio station in Tampa, Florida. You can check out more of her oil spill coverage at www.wmnf.org/news
Number of days that have elapsed as of July 1 since the explosion that killed 11 and initiated the leak
High-end estimate of the number of gallons of oil spilling daily
BP's initial estimate of the daily spillage (after denying that any oil was spilling at all)
Gallons of dispersant that have been applied to the surface and underwater; the long-term effects of the chemical are unknown
Number of ships assisting with cleanup efforts
Miles of coastline impacted by the spill in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi
Sources: Reuters, GovMonitor
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