A New York Times news analysis on Tuesday, May 4, sought to put the current Gulf Coast crisis in perspective. The article reminded readers of larger and more devastating oil spills. And that makes a certain kind of sense -- we forget that the largest environmental disasters are caused by war -- but then went on to declare, "The gulf is not a pristine environment and has survived both chronic and acute pollution problems before." I guess it matters how one defines survival.
Large sections of the gulf region are referred to as cancer alley due to the prevalence of cancers that seem directly attributable to the region's other nickname, chemical alley. Hundreds of thousands of people suffer the multiple effects of poorly regulated air pollution, the occasional refinery accident (explosions, devastating releases of toxins to ground water, gas flares that fill the sky with flames and toxic smoke) and medical facilities unwilling or unable to address the health effects of these conditions. And of course a major pollutant of the Gulf Coast in the past five years was Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The oil industry failed to acknowledge and largely escaped accountability for the spills that occurred in the wake of these hurricanes. The Institute for Southern Studies points out that in the past 10 years there have been 172 oil spills of more than 2100 gallons.
And let's not forget all that detritus of human settlement that filled up the marshes and levees in Katrina's wake: refrigerators, automobiles, roofs from people's houses, photos of loved ones, children's toys. Oh, and let's not forget what else got washed away -- arguably the 135 persons yet to be accounted for after the storm.
As for pristine. This country lost the possibility of pristine when the Europeans arrived.
Oil Spill Update
Folks along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are gathering today to clean the beaches in preparation for the oil eventually reaching their shores. They will be removing trash and the detritus that washes up from the ocean. This will make clean up easier, giving the oil fewer surfaces to wash over and cling to.
The last report is that the oil has reached the fragile barrier islands off Louisiana's coast.
The containment structure that is being lowered 5000 feet over the source of the largest of three outflows is a complex and risky engineering proposition. Oil flowing out of the earth at that depth is much warmer than the ocean water it is being pumped through or into which it is leaking. This presents the possibility that portions of the containment unit could freeze going down to the leak, that the temperature differential between oil and water in the containment unit could cause a rupture or explosion or that the pressure at 5000 feet will make the whole operation unsuccessful.
Here's the NOAA Oil Spill Trajectory Map for the next 48 hours: