Justice for Deepwater Horizon and Massey Mine Disasters – Charge the Real Culprits

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Criminal charges filed against Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer, for destroying records detailing the amount of oil spewing during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill  in 2010 are encouraging. But it’s not enough.

It’s the same thing as arresting petty drug dealer on the streets. Those guys are easy to replace. Visit a local middle school to groom the next replacement. Same thing for replacing an engineer – recruit at any university across the country or world, and there will be thousands of replacements standing in line for the interview.

It’s not so easy to replace the kingpins – those money-dripping lords at the top of the feeding chain, whether it’s drugs or a fossil fuel that’s being pedaled.

BP was quick to distance itself from its former employee; however, the culture created by a corporation such as BP also creates employees who will do anything to save their job. Joel Achenbach in A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea points out that BP regularly gave bonuses to employees who managed to cut costs. Safety be damned.

The Macondo well that blew after the Deepwater oil rig exploded and killing eleven men, had been a problem from its inception. It never should have continued. According to Achenbach, Shane Roshto, one of the workers killed on April 20, told his wife just before leaving for the rig in the Gulf of Mexico, “Mother Nature just doesn’t want to be drilled here.” Roshto was 22 years old.

It’s easy to forget dates as time moves forward, but Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and fire occurred just fifteen days after another fossil fuel disaster. An explosion on April 5, 2010, at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine  in West Virginia, killed twenty-nine men. Massey was notorious for its violations of mining regulations, but always seemed to get by without paying the price for mining coal no matter the cost to safety. The former superintendent of the mine, Gary May, pleaded guilty  in March 2012, to federal conspiracy charges for manipulating the mine ventilation system during inspections. He’s the highest ranking official from Massey charged in connection with the blast. Yet a report released May 2011, blames Massey Energy for the explosion by creating “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

The culture that permeates a corporation does not start at the local level. My question: When will the real culprits be criminally charged for the forty lives lost because of corporate disregard for human life in the pursuit of power and profit?

What do you think? Am I being naive? Is it unrealistic to think that if we start punishing the real culprits, the kingpins of industry, we might stop paying such a high price?

The “Human Heirs” of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

[This essay received the First Place Award in the 2001 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Essay Contest. This award came one month after I left teaching to pursue writing full time. I saw it as a sign that I had made the right decision.]

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

My new world frightened me. I didn’t see the beauty of the live oak trees draped in moss or understand the lure of frogs singing on a summer night. The wildlife of northern Florida held threats to my safety and left me wondering why we had moved here from Michigan.

I saw danger lurking in the surrounding wilderness. One morning I looked in the mirror and saw a tick, fat with my blood, attached to the center of my forehead. The first time I saw a broadhead skink, I threatened to leave my new home and head back to a land of lizard-less landscapes.

After hearing that I wanted to leave, a neighbor suggested I read Cross Creek. I had never heard of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings even though The Yearling sounded familiar.

Not only was Ms. Rawlings a writer, something I aspired to be, but she had conquered her fears of a Florida wilderness and wrote with affection about an area much more rural than anything I had experienced. For the first time, I began to understand the rhythms of life in this land that was beginning to own me.

When I heard the call of my first “chuck will’s widow” heralding spring, I welcomed the songbird with pride because, thanks to Ms. Rawlings, I knew it was a  cousin of the whip-poor-will. Now I listen for it every year.

I read about her trip to the Everglades with Ross Allen to hunt rattlesnakes. This woman became my hero as I fought to overcome my fear of snakes. When I welcomed a Black Racer into my garden last year, my appreciation for the nature of north Florida became complete. I had not made a mistake by moving here.

I devoured her novels. Jody Baxter’s struggles chronicled a rite of passage much purer than anything I’d read before. And South Moon Under allowed a glimpse into the people I had begun to call neighbors.

The picture of Ms. Rawlings, on her porch with the typewriter in front of her, remained a constant in my mind as I struggled to find the writer in me. That picture became reality when I began to put aside the distractions of my life as a teacher and started my own journey as a writer.

Recently one of my students struggled to find an American author to read. I suggested South Moon Under. When he finished, he said, “I never thought I’d like this book, but I want to thank you for suggesting it. It is the most interesting book I’ve ever read.”

No longer afraid of the world around me, I returned what had been given to me when my neighbor suggested I read Cross Creek. Ms. Rawlings lives on in those “human heirs” who sojourn here for only a short time while the creatures and landscapes around us continue their cycle of life and death and rebirth, completing the essential rhythms of a world filled with wonder.

Are you concerned about climate change?

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

As we celebrate the 42nd Earth Day, take a moment to consider what we know about global warming and climate change. How many of us believe that our climate is changing? A recent Gallup shows that we are less concerned with climate change and global warming issues now than we were in 2008.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette published a thought-provoking article  today, April 22, 2012, on the topic.

Let me know what you think.

Are you concerned about climate change? Do you believe the scientists?

Celebrate Rachel Carson and Earth Day 2012

Oregon Coast 2008

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

The Earth Day Network  credits the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  in 1962 as a “watershed moment for the modern environmental movement.”

In the emerging light on the pollution we were spraying into the air, Earth Day 1970 took a share of the spotlight.

That first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, came in part as a public response to the gargantuan oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. Ironically on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in 2010, news of another oil spill began trickling into the media. But little attention was paid to an oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico because we were all patting ourselves on our eco-friendly backpacks for the strides made in past forty years.

When the green bio-degradable balloons burst several days later, our spirits fell as flat as those deflated balloons to learn of the massive amounts of oil spewing forth from the depths of the sea and with no possible solutions in sight to stem the flow after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

Ms. Carson’s book from fifty years ago brought change – that can’t be disputed. The Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act  and the Endangered Species Act  stand as testament to the revolution she brought to bear on industry in the United States. But it didn’t protect us completely from big corporations’ quest for profit over safety.

Her words still are relevant and pertinent today, and we must not forget them. We’ve come so far since she made the connections between what we do to the environment and the toll we pay for its destruction. We can’t let her down now as we prepare to celebrate another Earth Day.

The PBS documentary A Sense of Wonder uses Ms. Carson’s words in her final year to sum up her legacy.

“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself in his cities of steel and concrete, away from the realities of earth, water, the growing seed. And intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into experiments toward the destruction of himself and his world. . .I do believe, that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and the realities of this universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”

She also states, “There is no single remedy for this condition.” But as Earth Day 2012 is upon us, I wonder what we can do as individuals to keep her vision alive 50 years after the publication of Silent Spring.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you do or what do you believe we all should do to prevent mankind from destroying himself? Or do you believe we are headed on the right course already?

I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Saving Florida’s Springs One Drop at a Time

[Originally published in Florida Wildlife Magazine, July/August 2010 issue. Photo of manatee taken at Wakulla Springs, Florida in November 2009.]

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Cave crayfish move out of the fissures in the limestone 100 feet underwater. The least killfish, the smallest vertebrate animal in North America, searches for snails among the waving tapegrass, its white flowers blooming just beneath the surface of the water. Eel skim the deepest depths of the cave systems. Apple snails attach themselves to eelgrasses that gracefully pirouette just beneath the surface of the water in the spring runs. And the endangered limpkin comes to feed on the apple snail protruding from the crystal blue water of Florida’s unique spring system. Alligators and turtles sun themselves on the banks of the rivers filled with the spring water that has emerged from the Floridan aquifer.

This is the picture of a healthy functioning spring, spring run and cave system that exists within the backbone of the northern half of the Florida peninsula. At the bottom of the springs, fissures in the porous limestone create the alleys and passageways leading to large rooms where the water is so clear it seems not to exist at all. And beneath it all lies the Floridan aquifer, which supplies most of North Central Florida – from Jacksonville to Tampa – with its drinking water.

The problem

When the springs show signs of contamination, when the plants narrow down to only a few species of algae, when the endangered and uniquely Florida limpkin leaves because the apple snail no longer exists, then the aquifer and the very water we drink stands on the precipice of extinction.

“The water coming out of the springs tells the health of the aquifer and the aquifer provides us with our drinking water,” said Jim Stevenson, coordinator of the Wakulla and Ichetucknee Springs Basin working groups. “But we’ve been sloppy housekeepers of the springs, messing them up with wastewater, fertilizer and irrigation practices.”

Now retired but still active in protecting Florida’s springs, Stevenson worked for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for 38 years as first a park ranger and then as chief biologist with the Florida Park Service. As he neared retirement, he was working almost exclusively with the springs. Stevenson recalls what he now refers to as a “watershed” moment more than a decade ago when he led then Gov. Jeb Bush on a canoe trip down the Ichetucknee.

“Gov. Bush was awed by what he saw. Soon afterwards, he formed the Florida Springs Task Force and appointed me chair,” Stevenson said. “That trip with the governor showed me the value of officials seeing the resources first hand.”

Kent Smith, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was appointed to the task force when it was formed in 1999. The task force has completed its work, replaced by interagency committees charged with implementing the recommendations of the task force. Smith remains actively involved in those working groups, an advocate for the species that occur in the springs’ habitat.

“Certain species of wildlife are unique to the springs, the spring runs and the cave environments,” Smith said. “Endemic species such as the blind cave crayfish and shrimp and lots of other crustaceans are highly dependent on this system.”

The wildlife, plants and water are all highly connected and when the water, pumping 7 billion gallons per day in Florida, becomes impacted so does the life within the springs’ environment. And the experts agree that when the springs’ health is jeopardized, the very lifeblood for humans is impacted as well.

“If dirty water is coming out of the springs, then we’re drinking dirty water,” Stevenson said.

And dirty water is coming out of the springs.

It’s a two-fold problem, Stevenson warns. The Florida’s decade-long drought combined with the withdrawal of water by humans lowers the volume of water in the springs. Cities, such as Jacksonville, broadened their wellheads out into rural North Florida. The resulting withdrawal means White Springs near Live Oak no longer flows. Impacts from Gainesville, Ocala and Tallahassee wellheads may have already started to lower the flow levels of many other first magnitude springs in Florida.

“This karst region is the backbone of Florida. The springs are in a lower region and the withdrawals of the wells means the water never makes it down to the springs – this issue is most significant to the volume in the springs,” said Wes Skiles, a world-renowned underwater explorer and filmmaker. “It’s a double-edge sword: Decrease in volume of water increases the concentration of pollutants even if the pollutants are lessened. Both are bad.”

The pollutants show up in the presence of nitrates, which offer rich nutrients to plants such as algae which can absorb and grow at a more accelerated rate than the flowering plants that are necessary to maintain a diverse habitat. Once the algae begin to grow it covers the bottom of the springs and smothers all other plant species, leaving a lifeless, sterile habitat and water filled with pollutants.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Harley Means, a geologist with the Florida Geological Survey with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re coming off a 10-year drought, and we’re continuing to pump out of the aquifer.”

Means points to a U.S. Geological Survey research that shows statewide from 1991-2003 there has been a trend of a downward flow in the springs.

Fanning Springs, near Chiefland, represents the postcard picture for springs’ contamination. The spring, once a first magnitude spring, overflows into the Suwannee River, but it’s filled with nitrates and the level of the flow has lessened.

“Fanning Springs is not a first magnitude spring now,” Means said. “And the Ichetucknee River’s flow is down 15 percent.”

 

The importance of the springs

The springs of Florida exist on small patches of land, offering tons of beauty for residents, tourists, artists, photographers and writers.

“The springs were the first truly magical place I explored as a child,” said Skiles. “We first went to Ginnie Springs, and I was totally mesmerized and consumed. I never had any doubt – even at that young age – that I was going to do everything in my power to keep coming back to the springs.”

By 1981, Skiles had mapped four of the major cave systems in North Florida. Eventually those maps led to more maps and the realization that everything humans do in the watershed area near the springs directly affects everything in, on, around, and under those bubbling pools of water.

“There has been an exponential increase in nitrates directly related to human activities in upland areas in the watershed of the springs,” Smith said. “These activities include agriculture, municipal stormwater runoff, waste dispersal, and lawn and gardens pesticides.”

Smith adds that springs such as Fanning Springs represent the visual contamination of the system.

“The water is clear; people are still using it and some species are still there, but if you go down the run there are no plants, such as eelgrass because it’s being smothered by the algae,” Smith said.

And without the plants, the wildlife leave.

The blind cave crayfish in the springs are like the canary in the coal mine and they are disappearing, says Stevenson. Another indicator is the limpkin, a rare Florida bird historically always present at the 14 main springs in Florida, but in 2002 when a team went out in search of them at the 14 main springs, only a few were found.

“We believe this is directly related to the presence of apple snails,” Stevenson said. “As ecology changed with more nitrates, the apple snails disappeared and so did the limpkin, which feeds almost solely upon the apple snail. In 1954, the Florida Bird Life listed Wakulla Springs as one of two centers for the limpkin. By 2000, all the limpkins had disappeared from Wakulla Springs. In less than 50 years, an entire species is gone.

“We’ve been sloppy housekeepers of the springs, messing them up with wastewater, fertilizer and irrigation practices.”

The culprits

According the experts, two major things have contributed to the problems with flow and increased nitrate levels in the springs: population increases in Florida and the decade-long drought.

“More people create a greater problem,” Stevenson said. “Everything in Lake City pulls down the flow of the Ichetucknee. Everything in Columbia County, including private domestic wells, creates huge withdrawals from the aquifer. Nassau and Duval counties have impacted White Springs, which no longer flows. The more we withdraw the more we impact our water supply.”

Stevenson points to the springs within the Ocala National Forest to prove this point. The flow at those springs has not been affected and the nitrate levels are under control.

“That’s because the watershed area is located within a protected national forest,” Stevenson said.

The solution

          “Individuals must curb their appetite for water,” Skiles said. “The unnecessary uses of water must be eliminated and we must resist pointing our fingers at others and instead point the finger to our own backyard.

“Everybody needs to tighten up their belts because the very planet depends upon it.”
Skiles suggests individuals can do several things immediately that will help to restore the flow and lessen nitrate levels going down into the springs.

“We must begin to let go of the idea of a highly manicured “sterile” lawn,” he said. “Nonnative grasses are no longer sustainable, so let’s give out awards for individuals who have native yards and environments.”

Keeping native grasses, plants, shrubs and trees in the yard means less watering because native species can adapt to the natural fluctuations of rain patterns. Fertilizers and pesticides no longer become a necessity to maintain a pest-free and perfect yard.

Many of Florida’s springs lie within rural areas that have become more populated with people in recent decades, but those residences still depend upon individual septic tanks that can seep nitrates into the watershed.

“I’ve made a commitment to replace my current septic system with an anaerobic one in the next two years,” Skiles said. “This is a dual-treatment septic tank, and there are several kinds available. Basically it uses the bacteria to eat the nitrates that can seep into the groundwater.”

Stevenson believes that permitting for withdrawing water must slow down until it is clear how much is being withdrawn and how it’s impacting the spring flow.

“Individuals must stop treating water as if it’s free and limitless,” Stevenson said. “We turn on the faucet and let it run; we’re watering our lawns; municipalities are watering medians to keep them green. We need to raise the price of water to its true value.”

Stevenson urges each household to look into ways to save water from installing low-flow toilets, decreasing lawn watering, and lessening expectations for the perfect yard.

The springs working groups in Florida are helping to save the resource, which can recover, but as Skiles puts it, it’s similar to a teenager with acne.

“When the acne is gone, the scars still remain,” he said.

The FWC works with the water management districts and has developed a minimum flow level to help the districts determine their standards for minimum flow. If the flow level increases, the habitat will thrive and the diverse and unique wildlife of Florida’s springs will return. And when the crayfish, the turtles and the limpkin find their way back to the water, Floridians can be assured they water they drink is healthy.

“Florida has the best of the best. I recently went to Texas and visited the springs there. Even though Texas is supposed to have the biggest and best of everything, their springs can’t hold a candle to what we have here,” Stevenson said. “This is an outstanding resource we almost forgot, but through the work of the working groups and agencies such as the FWC and individuals taking an important role in their protections, we may be able to save the springs.”

Pardon my blog

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

I’m learning daily on how to best post my blog, but something I did today with the settings caused my posts to post twice to Facebook and Twitter.

Overexposure is not the greatest thing if you want to be taken seriously in this writing business. At least it turns me off as a consumer, reader, citizen, person.

So in an effort to correct the overexposure I might have received on my Rachel Carson piece this morning, I’m doing this short little ditty to see if I corrected the problem.

However, learning about Rachel Carson and remembering her work over and over again is not necessarily a bad thing.

No Birds Sing – A Fable for All Time

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

John Keats (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1819)

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Imagine a world where the birds no longer sing from the treetops; imagine a world where the trees no longer tower above our heads; imagine a world where life is death. That’s the world Rachel Carson imagined as she delved into the research for her revelatory book, Silent Spring.

In the first chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Ms. Carson paints a bleak canvas for what happens in a town where the stillness in the air and sky and ground is caused by man’s attempt to unsuccessfully control nature.

“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves,” she wrote.

Although the town’s silence was a fictional account imagined by Ms. Carson for what could happen in a future world where man continued the folly of attempting to get rid of nature’s unappealing and destructive side by destroying all things in nature, she was discovering that her vision was not far off the mark in certain parts of the country.

When a friend wrote her about the death of birds in her bird sanctuary in Massachusetts, Ms. Carson was in the process of beginning her fourth book about children and nature. The friend was certain that aerial spraying over the bird sanctuary to kill mosquitoes also destroyed her bird population. The friend never wanted her sanctuary sprayed in the first place. She wrote Ms. Carson, wondering how she could stop the next spraying planned by the state of Massachusetts. The question gave Ms. Carson pause as she wondered what kind of rights any of us to prevent the government from spraying poisons over us.

She began researching and discovered the public had no say over the decision. And even though mosquitoes were the target of the spraying in Massachusetts, grasshoppers and visiting bees were the victims. The mosquitoes survived while the birds and insects died.

At first, Ms. Carson thought it would be a good article, but when she approached the magazines, they didn’t want to touch it. Their biggest advertisers were the corporations benefitting the most from the sale of the pesticides.

She then decided it should be a book, but she didn’t want to write it. She wanted to write about life, not poisons and death. None of her respected writer friends, including E.B. White, wanted to broach the topic. But the more she learned, the more she knew the topic must be put out for the public to understand about the nonselective poisons that had previously only been used during wartime and never tested. Within 12 years of World War II ending, the use of these poisons to control agricultural and domestic pests became common place.

One overriding question guided her writing and research: “Is it possible to lay down a barrage of poisons on earth without threatening all life?”

The answer still echoes today with a resounding “No.”

The documentary on Ms. Carson’s final interviews, A Sense of Wonder, shows the shock waves she felt when her research went beyond Massachusetts to Michigan to Florida to California to Wisconsin and beyond.

In Florida, efforts to control the sandfly resulted in the death of millions of fish and crabs. In Michigan, the fight to eradicate Dutch elm disease resulted in the death of robins through a chain reaction. Earthworms ate the residue of poisons left on the leaves of the diseased trees and within the year the robins that ate the earthworms were dead or infertile. She discovered the destruction of watersheds, the contamination of milk supplies, and evidence of children falling sick and some dying after playing with empty bags that once contained these poisons we were pouring over our land.

The book had to be written despite the backlash that might be heaped on the author. Fortunately, the Kennedy administration decided to come public with a report that criticized the industry and government several months after the publication of Silent Spring. That report silenced the critics and vindicated Ms. Carson. Eventually Congressional hearings began which concluded with the decision to create a federal policy to safeguard the environment.

Ms. Carson knew of this decision before her death, but she never saw what reverberating actions came in its wake. Silent Spring remains as a warning, but not yet a manifestation.