#BP Oil Spill Four Years Ago – Let Us Not Forget

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

BP’s oil spill in 2010 still haunts us today as scientists study the lingering effects of the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the spill, I worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public relations director. Immediately, our agency became watchdogs for oil headed toward Florida’s waters and beaches. I wrote about the oil spill in my novel, Trails in the Sand, using it as the backdrop for a family racing to save itself from destruction.

April 20, 2014 represents the forty-fourth anniversary of the first Earth Day, and it’s also sadly, the fourth anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

Click here to grab your #.99 cent Kindle copy

Click here to grab your #.99 cent Kindle copy

Trails in the Sand is on sale during April for .99 cents on Kindle. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Trails in the Sand:

As I sipped the aromatic brew, I glanced at the morning’s headlines before the television and George Stephanopoulos diverted my attention.

It was only a blip on the charts of the day’s news stories. I would have missed mention of it if I’d gone to the bathroom when George said an oil rig had caught on fire in the Gulf of Mexico the night before. On the morning of April 21, 2010, other news took precedence over this minor incident occurring miles off the coast of Louisiana.

As I flipped the channels to find more news, I learned that volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland was costing airlines $1.7 billion to combat the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Matt Laurer announced the death toll after the April 14 earthquake in China now topped 2,000.

CNN reported that a former coal miner at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia decided to give an interview detailing the unsafe conditions at the mine prior to the explosion two weeks earlier.

But nothing more on a little oil rig burning in the middle of the ocean. Since the fire occurred the night before, the morning newspapers contained no reports.

I took another sip of coffee, trying to determine the level of my reporter’s barometric pressure climbing up the back of my neck.

“Were you listening to NPR in the kitchen?” I asked Simon as he came back to bed with his cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.

“No. Why?”

“Just a curious little footnote to the news this morning, but I’ve only heard it on ABC so far,” I said. “It seems an oil rig caught on fire out in the Gulf last night. The report said eleven men are missing, but officials are confident the men are on lifeboats that haven’t been found yet because of the smoke on the water.”

“It sounds like it has the potential for a real disaster,” Simon said.

“They also said a former miner decided to talk about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine,” I said. “Sure wish I could have gotten that interview.”

A couple of the channels gave a brief account of the oil rig fire, but all agreed everything was under control. I hoped that was the case, but it bothered me when all the reports said the fire still burned. How did they have any idea what lay below the surface of that fire?

“Yesterday, April 20, was the eleventh anniversary of Columbine,” I said. “And the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day is tomorrow.”

“And the West Virginia explosion occurred on your mother’s birthday, April 5,” my husband said.

He knew very well I kept track of dates and wondered at the curiosity of so many significant occurrences in history coinciding with other dates important to those closest to me. In my family, birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths more often than not occurred on important historical dates. Two of my aunts had been born on December 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – a day of infamy. My best friend Holly was born on Christmas Day, and my sister died on the Fourth of July just two years earlier.

“I guess I better make some calls,” I said. “I’m a little skeptical that all is well in the Gulf.”

“Getting one of those hunches?” Simon asked.

“My ears are starting to tingle, so I better listen.”

I wouldn’t say I was clairvoyant or possessed powers of prescience, but I had a journalist’s instinct for news whether I was dealing with my job as a freelance environmental writer or as a woman assessing a person’s intentions. I learned over the years to follow those instincts. First, I felt something akin to hair rising on my neck. However, when I felt the tingling in my ears that sent a shiver down my spine, I began to pay attention to every little detail. The skeptic in me was still simmering beneath the surface even though my marriage to Simon the year before took some of the sharper edges off the knife of my cynicism. Love works miracles, but my transformation was still a work in progress. For the sake of my career, that was probably a good thing. I needed to question everything, or I’d never have a story.

I wondered where to start finding out about the fire. For nearly three decades, I made my living by writing about the environment and wildlife, with human interest thrown in the mix. One of the most recent stories took me to the Panhandle of Florida where a bear wandered into a residential neighborhood only to be darted with a tranquilizer by a wildlife biologist with the state wildlife agency. The drugged bear stumbled into the Gulf of Mexico before collapsing from the tranquilizer. The biologist wanted to knock the bear out temporarily, not drown him. He swam out to rescue the unconscious animal, dragging it back to shore. Photos of the rescue taken by a resident went around the world.

I wrote investigative pieces about illegal dumping of hazardous waste in rivers in far too many places in the United States. I wrote about environmental disasters and crimes whenever I received a tip from my sources that I’d cultivated and coddled over decades of trying to find the perfect quote. I wrote a story a few years back about a wildlife CSI lab in Oregon. I traveled across the country for stories filled with dramatic flourishes that somehow touched lives. I waded through the swamps of the Everglades hunting the invasive Burmese python, and I followed a group of camel traders in the deserts of Morocco, all in pursuit of the story.

When Simon came back into my life, I made the decision to give our marriage my full attention. I curtailed the scope of my writing, concentrating on stories from the southeastern Atlantic coast.

“Just when I thought our lives might settle down,” Simon said as he sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through the newspapers.

“You and I will never settle down. It’s our karma to be perpetually stirred up,” I said as I leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek.

 

Here’s to remembering the past lest we repeat our same mistakes.

 

A Review of an Environmental Novel

VaporTrailsBy Patricia Zick @PCZick

The subject of Vapor Trails by R.P. Siegel and Roger Saillant intrigued me from the start. I’ve been looking for other contemporary fiction novels with environmental themes, so when this one came across my twitter feed, I immediately researched it and then bought a copy. I wasn’t disappointed with the read, although there is no middle ground with this book, which might have drawn in a wider audience. The book preaches to the choir rather than pulling converts to the green movement.

Vapor Trails enters into the bowels of corporate greed to the highest level of power. And power or energy at any cost to the environment and its people, is the heart of this story. The story is told from the viewpoint of three main characters: a corporate stooge, an environmentalist attempting to work within the corporate system, and a free spirit who rides his bike 2,500 miles just to attend a sustainability conference in New Orleans. Through the eyes of these three, the reader receives an education on oil and its damaging effects.

An unnamed hurricane in New Orleans causes water to surge and break through the levee system. This storm brings the odd trio of characters together when they are stranded at the sustainability conference. The storm is used to bring the key players together, but it isn’t used in any useful way to make a comment about man’s folly with playing with nature. Also, it left me slightly annoyed that the three characters don’t have to put up with the unpleasantness of the aftermath because helicopters and corporate jets zoomed down to rescue them out of the hellhole of southern Louisiana.

Mason Burnside, the corporate stooge, brought a lethal oil disaster to the rain forest in Ecuador though his cold-hearted decisions encouraged by his CEO at Splendid Oil. Ellen Greenbaum is an idealistic college grads ready to make a difference by working for the evil behemoth Splendid Oil in their sustainability department. Jacob Walker yearns to make the world a better place. Add together a man missing in Indonesia, and the novel has intrigue and mystery enough to hold the reader captivated.

Through the conversations, much information is imparted on the state of energy companies, the environment, and the impact on human lives.

While the novel can come across as pedantic and biased toward the green side, the ideas presented are considerably well-researched.

It is Mason who changes the most, as the other main characters remain static. Mason goes from stooge to hero through a series of life-changing events. Perhaps if the other two characters, who experienced the same events, had also undergone some type of transformation, the novel would be a more even representation of real life.

“. . . his arrogance finally caught up with him when he thought he could control nature,” says one of the characters near the end of the novel, and that is the crux of the whole novel making it an epic undertaking by the authors.

I highly recommend the book. If you’re on the fence about how you feel on this topic, this book will give you a good background for one side of the argument. For those folks who turn red at the mention of green, this book will do nothing but turn them further away.

I applaud the authors for a well-written and well-researched book on the treachery of pushing through projects in unsafe and deadly ways. I just wish they’d left a little room for the shades of gray in this discussion.

Great News as Earth Day Anniversary Approaches

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Environmental stories usually leave me frustrated and disappointed – with both sides. But not today. Finally, I read something that gives me hope for civil discourse in this country on the issues that matter most. If we’re all shouting at one another to make our point, who’s listening?

In western Pennsylvania, where fracking for natural gas is becoming commonplace, a group has formed to help raise the standards of the fracking industry so the practice is sustainable and safe for humans and the environment.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development, formed on March 20, is comprised of a combo of representatives from energy companies vested in fracking and representatives from environmental groups dedicated to safe practices. Their goal is to adopt higher performance standards for fracking companies in the areas of air quality, water resources, and climate. Folks from Consol Energy, Chevron, and Shell are sitting at the same table with members of the Clean Air Task Force and the Group Against Smog and Pollution. Even better than sitting down together – they’re getting something done without shouting.

By September, they will begin certifying companies following exemplary practices. The certification will be a badge worn by companies to show they are practicing safe and sustainable methods of fracking. So if a company comes knocking on your door offering you a lifetime of riches for drilling on your property, you can ask for their CSSD badge. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says the “CSSD endorsement will be similar to the LEED certification given to energy-efficient buildings.”

I love it when we participate in civil discourse, particularly in areas of great diversity of opinion. I applaud both sides for coming together to find a way to get natural gas out of the ground without wrecking our water and future.

I hope this group can put a stop to things such as what happened in Ohio a few months ago when Hardrock Excavating illegally dumped thousands of gallons wastewater from a fracking operation into the Mahoning River. A mishap of miscommunication occurred, and no one let us folks know just across the border here in Pennsylvania. (Beaver County Times, March 31, 2013) The Mahoning River feeds directly into my beloved Beaver River where my husband and I spend many summer days kayaking and boating.

Beaver River

Beaver River

Lupo owns Hardrock Excavating. Lupo also owns D&L Energy, the company that operated the injection well that caused the 2011 earthquake near Youngstown, Ohio.

It’s time companies, such as Lupo are stopped, and companies who practice exemplary fracking operations are rewarded. We need to encourage the good guys and put the bad guys out of business.

When we do, all sides win. Our communities get much-needed jobs, we receive cheaper methods to heat our homes, and we protect our water from harm.

Blowing at Windmills

Girl and WindmillBy Patricia Zick @PCZick

Even when I think I’m being reasonable and moderate, I still walk a fine line with some folks.

“What do you want us to do, blow on windmills until we have enough power to fuel all our energy needs?” my brother asked me recently.

The question came after I tried to present a reasonable answer to the question posed to me: What is fracking?

“We shouldn’t jump into any new forms of bringing fossil fuels up out of the ground without investigating first,” I said. “They moved into fracking too quickly as a result of the bad connotations given offshore oil drilling and coal mining.”

That’s when my brother posed his question as if I’d said stop drilling, blasting, pounding, breathing.

Then this morning I received an equally “off the center” email from the other side. It seems there’s a group now demanding corporation and individual divestment from fossil fuels to stop global warming.

Is there no longer a middle ground on which to stand safely without fear of being knocked off?

I hope so, but just in case, I’m going to climb on my little mound in the center of the field safe here in my small office behind an anonymous computer screen to give my spiel in the hopes someone will listen. Neither of the sides quoted here will allow me to do so.

The subject of our energy and its sources are not new to me, but I became quite embroiled in the issue while researching Trails in the Sand. One of my sources, Power Hungry – The myths of ‘green’ energy and the real fuels of the future” by Robert Bryce, addresses what I’ve surmised all along. He writes, “But the reality is that the modern world runs on oil, coal, and natural gas. And while those fuels take a toll on the environment, they are indispensable.”

And as I would explain to either side, except they’re too ready to wield an ax on my head, we must ensure we are wise stewards and bring those forms of energy to us in a safe manner that does the least harm.

We’ve no choice but to rely on regulations and laws that mandate safety for the environment and human life. It’s a sad state of affairs when the government must tell corporations to engage in certain practices so workers aren’t killed.

I’m trying to make this post as uplifting as possible, but today an article I read about natural gas mining in Wyoming discourages me. “Too deep to drink, huh? Too shallow an excuse,”  by Suzie Gilbert with shalereporter.com, writes about a situation between Wyoming’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Encana, a fracking company. The government and Encana are tossing around the concept of allowing the company to dump 750,000 gallons of fracking wastewater per day into an aquifer for fifty years. Some agencies say “no,” others say “yes,” the scientists say, “hell no,” and the argument continues.

I’m all for tossing around ideas and discussing them, but for goodness sake, this one does not take a geologist to understand that wastewater has no place in an aquifer. Period. End of discussion. If our drinking water becomes contaminated with wastewater from unsafe practices, then it really will be the end of the discussion – all discussions.

#trailsbanner3webTrails in the SandA Family Saga Filled with Love Triangles, Sea Turtles, and an Oil Spill

Using real-life events as the backdrop, Trails in the Sand explores the fight to restore balance and peace, in nature and in a family, as both spiral toward disaster. Through it all, the ancient sea turtle serves a reminder that life moves forward despite the best efforts to destroy it.

Fracking Power

Sierra magazine published an article in its July/August 2012 issue called the “Fracking Nightmare.” I read the article with interest since I live atop the Marcellus shale region of western Pennsylvania. Washington County considered the “honeypot” for the “wet gas” resources underground. Those resources include propane, butane, ethane and other profitable chemicals.

Interestingly, until 2010, the Sierra Club supported natural gas as a “clean” alternative to coal and its coal-burning power plants. But this practice of pulling the gas up out of the ground was rushed into production with coal’s nasty image tarnished and rising oil prices without much consideration of what it takes to get the natural gas out of the ground.

It’s a brutal practice outlined in the article. The farmers, who thought allowing the drilling on their lands and who thought it would be a way to safe their farms, are finding out differently. While the gas companies pile on the profits from drilling on the farms sitting on top of the Marcellus shale, the farmers are paying the price. Local communities are now powerless in Pennsylvania to do much of anything since Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a prohibition on allowing municipalities to have any say at all in permitting and enforcing the gas companies’ practices.

The article, while attempting to look at all sides (albeit with a definite bend toward the environmental side) and attempting to explain their past support and now withdrawal of support for natural gas drilling, left out one important footnote.

An earthquake in Ohio earlier this year shook more than the foundations of homes. It left folks puzzled until a report was released that linked the earthquake to the fracturing taking place there.

In researching for my next novel, I’m discovering that there are no easy answers. I’m also accepting that we are all to blame for this rush to find more and more sources of power. We can all be a part of the solution, too. Please share the links in this blog. Being an informed citizen is the first step.

(NOTE: I usually don’t use Wikipedia as a link source, but when I put in “Marcellus shale,” I either found a link decidedly pro or con. This was the only one that provided the “facts” I was seeking.)

Five Ways to Go Greener

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

The Sierra Club  offers five simple ways to make a difference in your lifestyle. I’m posting them along with a few of my own. It’s always good to be reminded that we can make easy changes in our ongoing efforts to live greener.

  1. Keep your vehicles tuned up – A well-tuned car burns less gasoline. Change your oil every 3,000 to 4,000 miles and when the air filter is dirty, spend the money to ,change it! It will make a difference. The U.S. Department of Energy says you can improve a car’s gas mileage by an average of 4 percent.
  2. Keep the tires properly inflated – US DOE claims you can improve gas mileage by 3.3 percent with properly inflated tires (appropriate tire pressure for your vehicle can be found in owner’s manual or on a sticker on the driver’s side door jamb). Besides, keeping those tires at the right level will make them last longer, which is good for the pocketbook and for the landfill.
  3. Use “air-dry” on your dishwasher – What a waste of energy to use the heat-dry option when you wash dishes. Depending on your dishwasher, you use 15 to 50 percent less energy by not using heat to dry dishes. Towels work just fine!
  4. Low flow faucets and aerators – This might be a difficult one for most of us accustomed to as much water pressure as we can stand. However, the Sierra Club says  if every U.S. household installed just one, it would save more than 60 billion gallons of water annually. That’s a lot of water not going under the bridge.
  5. Lessen your driving time – Consider biking, walking, and carpooling whenever you can. If public transportation is available, use it. I live in a rural area, eight miles from the nearest store. I keep lists of what I need, so when I go out during the day, I’m going for more than one thing. If I discover I’m missing a crucial ingredient for a recipe, I change plans or I improvise. No impulse drives to the store for me!
  6. Use fewer paper products – I buy cheap dish towels and washcloths and reuse, reuse, reuse. They don’t take up much space in the washing machine when I’m doing towels. We also use cloth napkins at every meal, but we keep track of who uses what and reuse them for several meals before washing. Unless it’s a picnic away from the house, we don’t use paper plates or cups either. I buy very few paper products.

What things can you add to this list?

The Challenge: Eat one meal per week made from local food

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

The thumbs and hands of a gardener are not green, but brown from the soil encrusted on them after planting a flat of tomato seedlings.

My husband Robert grows food for our table, and when it overflows the plates, I find a way to preserve the abundance for the months when the garden lies beneath the white stuff.

I’m not sure we save money because the seeds, manure, sand, mulch, organic fertilizers all cost. The electricity to can and freeze the vegetables runs up the utility bill. The water to sterilize the equipment may not be in the best interest of conserving that precious resource.

But that doesn’t matter when the first tomato ripens on the vine and nirvana exists on our taste buds. What price can be put on the taste of freshly picked spinach lightly steamed and tossed with butter, salt and pepper? Last year I ran out of our preserved tomato sauce and used canned sauce to make marinara sauce. The tinny flavor and red water consistency did not make up for the fact I bought that can on sale for 75 cents. Give me my sauce made solely with food we grew from the fresh herbs to onions to peppers to garlic and infused into our crushed yellow and red tomatoes any day, at any cost. No price can be placed on the value of knowing where that food came from and knowing how it was made.

The U.S. Census Bureau says nearly a quarter of us grow some our own food. Some of us make an effort to get down to the local farmer’s market whenever they open for the season. But still too far many of us have no idea where our food came from and what has been done to it. I don’t have enough space or time to go into those details here, but thankfully author Barbara Kingsolver gives us the details in her 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

As our garden grows into its summer’s fullness, I’m reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction book, written with assistance from her daughter and husband. It is a memoir of gardeners and farmers and serves as a primer for agricultural history and food basics.

Our garden provides us with sustenance and satisfaction and the knowledge of filling our bodies with home grown goodness.But Animal, Vegetable, Miracle points out another good reason to eat locally as much as possible. The production of food, from the ground to our table, expends 400 gallons per person per year of oil. That’s 17 percent of our total energy use. Every step along the way to bring us the Jolly Green Giant uses petroleum in some form. If everyone committed to eating just one meal – any meal – per week that comes from locally and organically raised meats and produce, we could reduce our country’s oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels (not gallons) of oil per week, according to Kingsolver’s husband and co-contributor, Steven L. Hopp.

Now that is something to chew on and swallow.

Could you eat one meal per week consisting of food right from your backyard or neighborhood?