Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In the Words of the Educators: Impressions on the Gulf Coast's wetland loss and environmental degradation

By Karen Matsumoto, Marine Science Education Coordinator, Seattle Aquarium, WA

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” ― Upton Sinclair

On April 20, 2010, off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring another 17. The resulting disaster spilled nearly 5 million barrels - approximately 200 million gallons - of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly two years later the full impacts of the spill on the Gulf ecosystem and the people who live and work there are still unknown, but they are expected to be felt over many years. In the short term, up to 80,000 square miles of the coast were closed to fishing, resulting in loss of food, jobs, and recreation. It is the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Where are we today?

After following the oil spill over the past two years and viewing a photo exhibition on the Gulf oil spill by Daniel Beltra on display at Seattle Aquarium, I was inspired to join the NYSMEA group to Louisiana to view firsthand the effects of the disaster.

Beltra comments about his work: “The fragile state of our ecosystems is a continuous thread throughout my work… My photographs show the vast scale of transformation our world is under from man-made stresses. By taking viewers to remote locations where man and nature are at odds, I hope to instill a deeper appreciation for the precarious balance we are imposing on the planet.”

Terry Tempest Williams, noted author and environmentalist writes in Orion Magazine (December 2010): “The blowout from the Macondo well has created a terminal condition: denial. We don’t want to own, much less accept, the cost of our actions. We don’t want to see, much less feel, the results of our inactions. And so, as Americans, we continue to live as though these 5 million barrels of oil spilled in the Gulf have nothing to do with us. The only skill I know how to employ in the magnitude of this political, ecological, and spiritual crisis is to share the stories that were shared with me by the people who live here. I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both.”

Our NYSMEA restoration trip to the Gulf Coast was an epiphany for me. The projects we participated in inspired hope in ecosystem restoration efforts, and the stories we shared with the people working directly with these projects gave insight into the forward momentum of efforts to restore the Gulf coast’s wetland habitat. But what caused wetland loss and environmental degradation in the first place?

The reluctance of our speakers to talk about the oil spill and its effects on the Louisiana shoreline and the oil industry in general gradually made me aware of the “elephant in the living room.” I was surprised that the effects of oil spill were not an all-consuming concern by local resource specialists or residents. The most common response I heard was, “Oh, that happened over a year and a half ago—things are fine now. Natural oil leaks happen all the time, and the ecosystem can heal itself.” I was stunned and not sure what to think.

I learned that the Gulf is home to over 13,000 active offshore oil rigs and that one of every five residents in Louisiana is employed by the petroleum industry. That was when it suddenly became clear to me that much of the populace is caught in a love-hate relationship with the oil industry, a relationship that could only be maintained by impenetrable denial. Upton Sinclair’s words rang true. But I still wondered, How can you reconcile the everyday needs of people and their livelihoods with the wholesale destruction of the environment?

Gregory Bull/AP Photo
Christian Science Monitor: In this June 24 file photo, oil workers from the Gulf Island Fabrication Yard listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during a speech in Houma, Louisiana. The Governor spoke out against the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, saying it would kill thousands of jobs.

Doing a little on-line research, I found this: “More than 50,000 wells have been drilled onshore in coastal Louisiana, accessed by 8,200 miles of canals crisscrossing the swamps, marshes, and bayous. Experts estimate that mineral extraction is directly responsible for one-third of all the coastal wetland loss and land subsidence.” (Burnett/NPR 2010) With oil and infrastructure development, including 83,000 miles of pipeline, and an “85-mile corridor of petrochemical factories, Louisiana has sacrificed much in the name of oil, including the biologically rich wetlands that nourish its seafood industry and protect its cities from storms.” (Cart/LA Times 2010)

The Los Angeles Times (September 15, 2010) also reported: “On a per-capita basis, Louisiana has the highest volume of toxic chemicals in the country. The energy infrastructure that followed the state's first gushing well in 1901 has transformed it into an industrial powerhouse, converting a stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans into chemical alley. Some residents refer to it as cancer alley."

These examples throw a harsh light on the denial we live with every day, whether in relation to the consequences of the largest oil spill in our country’s history, the extent of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, or the environmental devastation caused by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. I left Louisiana to wanting to know the full story on what is causing the environmental degradation of one of the richest coastal ecosystems on earth, and wondering how to get around the wall of denial with a message about the urgency of action.

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