Back from the Gulf
All media happily captured at Miramar Beach, FL during the week of October 24, 2010.
The sand was thick and soft and white. Even a light step was easily molded. I spent the week hoping that the impression of my fractured second toe wouldn’t appear gargantuan against the delicate imprint of the sandpipers that walked close beside me.
Faced with the clear, emerald waters of northern Florida, it’s easy to put aside memories of the disaster that threatened the Gulf waters, coast, and wildlife, and that continues to damage the coastal economy. It was only six months ago that an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig led to eleven deaths and the uncontrolled spill of nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It has only been three months since the spill was first arrested; the well was finally confirmed sealed on September 19.
After a night of high winds and turbulent surf, a reddish brown stain appeared on the sand outside my vacation rental, and I did wonder whether oil had been uncovered from deeper waters. There were no tar balls on the northern Florida beach, however, and no other reminder of the oil spill disaster. In contrast, “Operation Deep Clean” along the Alabama coastline has recently mobilized heavy equipment to remove tar balls buried in the sand, and the Louisiana coast is still described as “heavily oiled” in some parts. While the active leak has been sealed, important clean-up work remains.
The economic impact of the spill has been considerable. Fishing waters were restricted immediately after the accident, and have gradually been restored. Hotels and restaurants that are usually filled during the summer vacation season were significantly impacted. Hotel occupancy rates in Florida were down 30% this summer due to the perception of oil on the beaches.
BP (British Petroleum) has set the end of 2010 as the target for full restoration of the pristine Gulf coast beaches. Assuming that target is reached, and visual reminders of the oil spill are removed, I think that the challenge is then to keep the accident in the forefront of our collective public memory.
During the height of the crisis, photographs of the burning rig and plumes of oil were ready evidence of the damage done. During the summer and early fall, beach restoration efforts have been in full public view. Well publicized and well attended Gulf front concerts that featured stars including Jimmy Buffett, Brad Paisley, and Alan Jackson heightened awareness of the crisis and brought visitors and customers to the coast. Alabama spokesperson Taylor Hicks lent his name and face to the cause, earnestly imploring Americans to “…see this catastrophic disaster through from beginning to the end”.
What is the end of this disaster? Is it over when the beaches are clean, and no visible signs of the spill remain? Is it over when the Gulf coast economy rebounds, when the hotels are full and the fishing boats again make daily trips?
Is this disaster ended when we insist upon and enforce stringent practice and safety standards that will minimize the likelihood of another blowout? Or is this disaster finally over when acceptable sources of “clean” energy become available and offshore drilling in the Gulf is ended?
On October 12, the Obama administration ban on exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was lifted. Reportedly, new requirements will make it more difficult to obtain a permit to drill. Companies will be required to meet new standards for well design and demonstrate disaster readiness. Safety equipment, including blowout preventers, will have to meet engineering standards and be independently certified. Oil company chief executives will be required to personally guarantee that their rigs satisfy all applicable safety and environmental regulations.
Are these changes enough to ensure the health of the Gulf, and the well-being of those who depend on the Gulf for their livelihoods? I don’t know. I do think that we have a responsibility to remember what has happened, to continue to ask questions and to insist upon answers, even and especially when the sequelae of the oil spill are no longer clearly visible in the sand or headlined in the evening news.
For more on the oil spill disaster, efforts to stem the leak, and effects on wildlife, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/25/us/20100525-topkill-diagram.html
For more on lingering effects of the spill along the Gulf coast, read here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130878588
For more on the moratorium on deepwater drilling, and new government regulations, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/us/13drill.html?_r=1