By Natalia A. Bonilla-Berrios/ Special Report originally published in Revista Latitudes
Twenty-one years ago, Exxon Valdez’s tanker crashed against the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling over 11 million gallons of oil. Today, the U.S. government is facing another ecological disaster that would eclipse the largest spill in its history in a matter of days.
On April 20, 2010, another crude reality awakened the nation. A BP drill rig in the Mexican Gulf, kilometers from the Louisiana coast, suffered an explosion resulting in the disappearance of 11 workers and injuring 17 others. Since then, neither of the 16 U.S federal agencies nor BP´s response team has been able to stop the two of three remaining leaks of the Deepwater Horizon Spill (DHS). The U.S. Coast Guard has revealed that over 5,000 barrels are being released into Gulf’s waters per day.
“Exxon Valdez oiled a cold coastal system. DHS is oiling a 5,000 foot water column adjacent to one of the largest river delta ecosystems in the world in a very warm climate. The damage will be different and possibly worse”, said Robert S. Carney, professor of Oceanography of the Louisiana State University.
So far, not much has changed to clean-up the leaks. In both cases, the federal team has discharged chemical dispersants, burned oil and boom containment, all methods to increase the efforts. While Valdez covered over 700 miles of Alaska shoreline with crude oil, the DHS range has reached the Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and proximately, the Florida coast.
The 1989’s renowned ecological disaster had much to do with the Exxon Corporation’s involvement in decreasing the impact. According to Ron Smith, professor and chair of Communications in Buffalo State College, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration scientists arrived on-scene within hours, “corporate response was much slower. Exxon CEO was uncomfortable with a public role and did not make a public comment until after six days, and did not go on site for three weeks.”
After Exxon pleaded guilty to violating the Refuse Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Clean Water Act, the company settled and agreed to pay $1 billion for the damages and criminal fines to the U.S. and Alaska State government. Plus, the Environmental Protection Agency press release of March 13, 1991 says that since then, Exxon “has spent approximately $2.2 billion to clean up Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska”.
Meanwhile, BP’s management has been strong since the beginning with the DHS’s response. As of May 18th, over 950 cleaning vessels deployed and more than 1.36 million feet of containment boom have been part of the BP and federal agencies efforts to decrease the black sea threatening the southern coast.
“BP has been visible and is seen as part of the response, rather than merely the cause of the problem”, said Mr. Smith. In response to Latitudes inquiry, John Curry, representative of BP-Atlanta, told us that “we want what everyone wants…to stop the leak of oil. We are prepared to do what we can to attack this issue and to protect the shoreline.”
Wildlife and Energy Impact
What is surely more dangerous than cleaning up is dealing with the consequences of crude oil in the wildlife and overall habitats of the species. Twenty-one years later, the Valdez aftermath remains as one of the greatest loses of the 20th century. As of today, subsurface oil continues threatening the species in the Gulf of Alaska, which already has a death toll of 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council reports.
“It looks as though the damage could be bigger in the Deepwater Horizon situation, because there are more sea animals and birds and more nesting and fishing areas in the Gulf that could be affected over a much larger area. The relative remoteness of Prince William Sound limited some of the potential damage in the Exxon spill,” said Mr. Smith.
Besides the potential damages to the flora and fauna and the current menace to the fishing and tourist industry in the southern states of the U.S., reactions to the DHS have brought to the table the long-time debate on oil dependency.
“If attempts to stem the flow of oil fail, sheer quantities of oil may permanently affect the coastal habitat. Imagine the lost of the entire west coast of Puerto Rico to fishing,” said professor of environmental sciences Ralph J. Portier, of Louisiana State University.
On March 30th, President Barack Obama announced the opening of large swaths of U.S. coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling reinforcing the expiration of the 26 year-old moratorium of the Outer Continental Shelf on September 30, 2008, which prohibited that in great part of the Gulf.
Now, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the Obama administration looks to create more “clean energy jobs” in order to reduce our consumption of petroleum and its derivates. Nonetheless, Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford made a statement on May 12th towards this issue, declaring that the bill does not bring progress to the goal. According to him, it includes “financial incentives for, among other things, nuclear power, offshore oil and gas drilling, and coal fired energy. This includes billions for “clean coal” technology development, as well as free permits for heavy emitters like manufacturers, oil refiners, and merchant coal generators”.
All experts coincide that by the end of this month the DHS will exceed Valdez’s discharge on March 24, 1989, if the efforts to stop the leaks are not effective. The differences between the vessels’ incident and the BP platform explosion are less important than the main factors that unite them: oil spill and ecological damage. What remains in the table is the need to reinforce environmental laws for the protection of the natural resources as well as human and wildlife.
“The regulation of the offshore oil industry by the Minerals Management Service needs to be carefully examined. Decisions to lease seafloor or not and decisions about the location of wells must be based on far greater information about ocean ecology than now exists. At the same time that the Obama admin calls for innovative and ecologically sound new energy, they must also make absolutely certain that oil development be carried out with equal innovation and ecological soundness,” told us Mr. Carney.