Our Alice in Wonderland moment in the Gulf oil crisis
Posted August 11, 2010
Every crisis reaches a point where there is an Alice in Wonderland moment, where reality is turned on its head and fantasy rules the day. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive was such a moment, when the Pentagon tried to spin the bloody Viet Cong offensive as a military victory for the woefully overmatched South Vietnamese.
In the Gulf, the Alice in Wonderland moment came last week when state and federal officials effectively declared victory over the worst maritime environmental disaster in history. NOAA and White House officials stated 75% of the oil was cleaned up or dispersed. The Food and Drug Administration declared that fish was clean of oil and was safe to eat. Governors in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi opened most state waters to commercial and charter fishing. President Obama served Gulf seafood to White House guests.
The message was clear. Life was returning to normal in the Gulf. The crisis has passed.
But on the front lines, people tell a different story.
Oil is still coming into the shores and marshes and bubbling up along the barrier islands that have been soaked in the toxic goo. My colleague Anthony Clark just blogged about his oil soaked experience recently with a shovel in the coastal waters of Louisiana.
Fishermen are protesting the opening of commercial fishing from Alabama to Louisiana. They say they know the waters are not safe. ABC News reported on Monday that fishermen are pulling up oily shrimp out of the bayou. No wonder so few want to buy the stuff. Fishermen are scared their reputations, already harmed by this historic disaster, will forever be tarnished by opening the commercial fishing season too soon. If just one bad batch of shrimp reaches the market, they say, it will take years before anyone will buy Gulf seafood again. But it appears politics has won out.
“I’m a Vietnam vet," says Louisiana Shrimp Association board member Clint Guidry. “I’ve been through some bizarre stuff before. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
They are not the only ones worried about what lies ahead. Many marine scientists say the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spewed into the ocean since April will have a lasting impact. It's way too soon to say the crisis has passed. Despite government and oil industry rosy scenarios, experts and fishermen alike think think we have just begun to witness the long-term destruction that millions of barrels of oil has unleashed on the environment.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in the Gulf over the past three months. I’ve seen dolphins swim through oil-tainted waters near the barrier islands of Louisiana, been in patches of petroleum so strong it gave me headaches, and I’ve seen stretches of oil-soaked marshes that spread as far as the eye can see. I’ve seen oil buried deep beneath the sandy marshes that sticks to your skin like tar. And I’ve seen oil-soaked chemical dispersant spread deep into the ocean water column like an oily stew. It doesn’t take a marine scientist to know this environmental catastrophe will not disappear into the Gulf’s soupy waters so quickly.
This will be a long fight. There will be environmental consequences of this oil catastrophe we can’t even dream of. No one can afford to sugarcoat this. Our nation is addicted to oil, and despite promises of presidents going back decades, we have done little to wean ourselves from this dangerous dependence.
Meanwhile storms are gathering again in the Gulf. Will they roar through the delta and its crude-embalmed seafloor? Will tropical winds shoot poisonous petroleum-laced waters across the fertile marshlands that await millions of migrating ducks and birds this fall? No one knows. And while most of the network news cameras have retreated, no one thinks the oil is gone. No one is stupid enough to declare mission accomplished. We learned that lesson in Iraq.
Or did we?
We’re fighting an epic PR battle in the Gulf. Many billions of dollars and powerful political fortunes are at stake. This disaster should be America's Tet offensive wake-up call. We don’t need to fall down a rabbit hole to find the key to a sustainable oil-free future. We just need the political and collective will to move forward.
Let's hope this on-going crisis in the Gulf is an international catalyst to make it happen.
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