Paying the Price for Oil Spills and Coal Mine Explosions

UBB Miners' Memorial Completed

Upper Big Branch Miners’ Memorial
Whitesville, West Virginia

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

We’re approaching the third anniversary of two major disasters in U.S. history – both claiming undistinguished titles.

First, on April 5, 2010, at a coal mine in West Virginia, twenty-nine miners lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine. The tragedy was the worst coal mine disaster in four decades in the United States. Fifteen days later, another explosion occurred on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven men died in the explosion, which began the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s effect on the environment may take decades to assess.

Forty lives lost and record-making disasters in the same month in 2010 have something else in common.

Both could have been prevented.

It didn’t take long for investigators to determine that policies at both BP – the company running the oil rig – and Massey – the company that owned Upper Big Branch – played at role in the unsafe conditions that caused both disasters.

The Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2013, that the Justice Department found “a last-minute conversation between BP engineer on the rig and onshore . . . showed that the oil giant [BP] acted with gross negligence.”

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

BP runs television commercials that encourage tourists to the states impacted by their oil spill. They’ve also agreed to pay $30 billion in fines, settlements, and clean up costs. They’ve paid out $4 billion in criminal suits for charges as high as manslaughter, which gives the oil spill another distinction for paying out the largest settlement in U.S. history.

Deepening the burnish on the behemoth company, the U.S. government has suspended BP from any new federal contracts because of its “lack of business integrity.”

Yet former CEO Tony Hayward walked away with no charges filed against him, and BP’s shareholders barely felt a blimp on investments in a company intent on increasing profits at the cost of human lives. Something tells me BP is hardly unique or record-setting in that department. They were simply the ones who were caught – and the money and advertising are simply the price to pay.

CEO Don Blankenship headed up Massey Energy at the time of the coal mine explosion. His arrogance during the aftermath angered many. He eventually stepped down eight months and many disastrous press conferences later.

Now a former employee of a Massy subsidy has implicated Blankenship. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported recently that many of the families of the victims wanted justice in the form of prosecution of the former CEO who at one time even went so far as to suggest the miners were responsible for their own deaths.

Three years ago, forty men lived their lives and worked grueling jobs miles offshore on a rig or underground and in a mine shaft. By the end of April 2010, forty men paid the price for bringing fossil fuels out of the earth. They did their jobs based on the rules and regulations followed by the company.

They didn’t know they were risking their lives by following orders.

The prosecution of the men sitting at the top of the heap making the big decisions and reeling in the big paychecks and bonuses will never bring justice. Justice means the dead men would be home for Easter dinner.

But it might bring a moment of grace to the families and friends who remain.DSC00870

Florida’s Fragile Environment

Gulf of Mexico – off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I lived in Florida for nearly thirty years. Its landscapes and wildlife still inspire me. Its fragile environment serves as a canary in the coal mine for ecosystems everywhere. Here’s my view of Florida through my camera and words.

I often imagine what the early inhabitants of Florida saw as they fished in the rivers, hunted in the forests, and lived on the prairies. Breathtaking beauty exists in the Panhandle, on both coasts and in the central rolling hills of the peninsular state.

Unfortunately, wherever perfection exists, man attempts to perfect perfection. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the Sunshine State. Yet when we destroy one thing in an ecosystem, we are not just destroying a part; we are working on the erosion of the whole.

The wholesale destruction of mangroves for most of the twentieth century along the southern regions of the state should have sounded a warning. Without the mangroves, the entire southern coastal zone would be in danger of disappearing. Studies conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute show that in the Tampa Bay area alone, forty-four percent of the coastal wetlands acreage — including salt marshes and mangrove forests — have been destroyed over the last one hundred years.

mangroves in the Keys

What does this have to do with the ecosystem in which the mangrove lives? Plenty. The mangrove roots trap organic material and serve as surfaces for other marine organisms to attach and thrive. The forests themselves serve as the home base for marine life, and animals shelter themselves from the elements within the protective cover of the mangrove arms. The salt marshes serve as the lifeblood to the mangrove – a tree that revels in a salty environment.

woodstork in the Everglades

Efforts to protect some of the last of rural Florida include the government buying lands at the federal, state, and local levels. However, places such as St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, with its nine-mile stretch of state park, cannot fight the development that is creeping up on the entrance to the park.

dunes of St. George Island in the Panhandle of Florida

Even with the purchase of these lands for public use, ribbons of asphalt roads and ropes of boardwalks make an impact upon the pristine nature of the land. However, they are unavoidable if we are to enjoy the rawness of nature without doing more destruction, such as destroying the sea oat from its protective berth upon the dunes.

sea oat roots help hold the sand in place

Those little wisps of stalks sitting upon the sand shoot deep roots into the dunes helping to keep the sand in place and thus preventing erosion. Without their presence, the coastline would begin disappearing back into the sea at an alarming rate.

In the middle of the state the connectivity to all that happens in every part of Florida is seen in the appearance of pollution in the rivers and springs, which lead directly into the Floridan aquifer and the drinking water.

manatee in Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee

Ichetucknee Springs, a long time local favorite for tubing and canoeing, appears to be one of the last pristine locations left in north Florida. Floating down the fast-flowing river past the great blue herons feeding on the banks, the turtles sunning on the rocks and the live oaks hanging low over the river, it is impossible to imagine that trouble lurks all around.

great blue heron – St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Yet recent studies from Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey show pollution from Lake City’s wastewater spray field is making its way down into the underground water system to the headspring of the Ichetucknee nearly fifteen miles away. The discovery of DEET traces in these waters should sound the alarm to wake up.

Studies show that an underwater highway beginning at Alligator Lake in Lake City connects to the headspring of the Ichetucknee, a completely spring-made river. The Ichetucknee River eventually flows into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe, several miles later, reaches the Suwannee River, which then flows into the Gulf Mexico.

If we can make the connection from Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, is it such a giant leap to connect the dots between the Keys, the Everglades, Tampa Bay, Miami, and the rest of the state and beyond? Florida’s example is one of the most visible, but the connections exist in every single ecosystem in the world.

We can’t live in oblivious ignorance regarding the world around us any longer. If we continue on the same path, our water and food, contaminated with our irresponsibility, will cease to exist.

 

Florida’s Water or Lack Thereof

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

I moved from Florida two years ago, but I still keep track of this place I consider a part of my history. I learned to canoe and kayak on the Santa Fe River in North Florida. This river flows to the infamous Suwanee River, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Santa Fe River is host to several first-magnitude springs, such as Ginnie and Blue. But for how long? Already some of the first-magnitude springs on the Suwanee are no longer. And I’m hearing those springs on the Santa Fe are in a fight for life.

This photo was taken on the Santa Fe River somewhere between the High Springs boat ramp and Poe Springs in 2009. Compare that to a photo taken this weekend and posted on Facebook by Santa Fe River resident Robert McClellan.Santa Fe RiverFilm maker Jill Heinerth shoots footage for her documentary “We Are Water” at the High Springs boat ramp in North Florida on what was once the Santa Fe River.

Robert’s Facebook post shows startling pictures of the death of a river. For far too long, we have ignored the practices that are harming and destroying our lifeblood – our water. Contamination and withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer to feed and fuel the explosion of Florida’s population have now taken a toll. Tropical storms and hurricanes can’t come soon enough dumping much needed rain back into the earth. I doubt that one or two seasons could undue what havoc has been wrought by out of control development and irresponsible agricultural practices.

Last year, my husband and I kayaked this river. There were some low spots made even more unnavigable from the plants and algae crowding and suffocating the water’s surface, but at least there was water.

Thank to Robert McClellan for putting this information out there. Florida’s political environment is not very friendly to the ecological environment these days. We all need to become vocal proponents of saving the most important thing to all of us: our water. Just because it’s flowing out of your faucets easily now does not mean it will always be that way. If you don’t believe me, then perhaps I could sell you some waterfront property in North Florida just a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico – no bridges to cross to get there.

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.

Coral reefs damaged by Deepwater Horizon oil spill

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

It’s been almost two years since the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico began gushing oil after the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. These days, folks remark about the exaggerated reports of damaged and dead habitat and wildlife. After all, we’re eating the fish again from the Gulf and no more pictures of oiled birds and sea turtles dominate the nightly news broadcasts.

But a report released last week, to little fanfare, shows we’re not done with the effects of Deepwater Horizon. Scientists recently determined that a dead coral reef in the Gulf contains remnants of the oil from the months-long spew of petroleum into the ocean.

It’s horrifying to learn about the death of a coral reef. Coral reefs are called the “rain forests of the sea” because of the number of species they harbor. They cover only 0.07 percent of the ocean’s floor, but they are home to one-quarter of the world’s fish and marine species.

The creation of a coral reef is a complicated process and takes thousands of years. Yet with increasing sea temperatures a reality, coral reefs are already in trouble. They didn’t need any assistance with deterioration. The increased temperatures cause coral bleaching which could wipe out all coral reefs by the end of this century. Now Deepwater Horizon and other potential oil disasters may speed up the process.

The vibrant colors of the corals are actually caused by algae that feed the coral. High temperatures create stress, and the coral expels the algae. When this “bleaching” occurs the coral loses its color.

In 2009, I interviewed Patty Glick from the National Wildlife Federation  for a column I was writing on coral reefs and climate change. She spoke about the sensitivity of coral to temperatures at higher thresholds, even the one degree rise that has occurred over the past three decades.

“When bleaching occurs, it means the coral is starving to death,” Glick said.

And so now the scientists know for certain the oil from the Macondo well killed 86 percent of the 54 coral colonies in the reef in the Gulf. One of the scientists described site as a “graveyard.”

So far no other coral reefs have been found with this extensive damage, but it’s enough for all of us to be aware that the verdict on the damage caused by the oil spill is still not final. Joel Achenbach reports in his book on the oil A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea  that 26 percent of the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf did not evaporate and was not burned, skimmed or recovered.

Glick told me that coral reefs are “the sentinel for climate change. And in the Caribbean and Florida, we’re already seeing the signs.”

So much of it seems out of our own personal control, and perhaps it is. But we can continue to elect officials who won’t bury their heads in the armpits of big corporations, but who will pass laws and regulations ensuring oil companies practice safety above profit and who will stand up for climate change legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.