Are We Learning the Lessons from BP’s Oil Disaster on the Gulf Coast?

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Some Environmental Experts Say No

Glynn Wilson

David Underhill of the Mobile Alabama Sierra Club discusses the one year anniversary of BP’s Gulf oil disaster at Fairhope’s Earth Day festival (see video below)

by Glynn Wilson

FAIRHOPE, Ala., April 23 — When the British Petroleum corporation issued a press release this past week announcing that the multinational behemoth would commit $1 billion for Gulf Coast restoration projects, every news organization in the world ran a story about it. But where were the reporters and editors asking the tough questions, such as: Is the $1 billion enough? What is the plan for restoration? What does the company and the government plan to restore?

No amount of money can bring back all the dead wildlife, rotting at the bottom of the sea. The company can be forced by the government to pay for cleaning a large percentage of the oil and chemical dispersants out of the beach sand in many places. But they can’t restore the lost eggs of hundreds of species nesting and spawning in the marshes and bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Nor can they heal all the sick and dying people along the coast who were exposed to the oil and chemicals in the air and water.

They can pay people, businesses and local governments for lost income for last year, when the largest and worst environmental disaster in U.S. industrial history hit the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up on April 20 and spewed crude from the Macondo well-head for nearly three months. But they can’t bring back all the businesses and people who simply closed up shop and fled the Gulf Coast. And no matter how many millions they spend on advertising to try to sell the American public on coming back to visit the coast and to eat the Gulf seafood, it will never convince anywhere near all the people that all is safe.

“BP has come nowhere close to paying the actual cost of the damage done, and they are not going to come anywhere close to paying the actual cost,” says David Underhill of the Mobile Sierra Club, interviewed on Saturday during the Earth Day festivities in Fairhope overlooking Mobile Bay.

Underhill is not impressed with the $1 billion pledge by the oil giant to restore the Gulf Coast.

Glynn Wilson
David Underhill of the Mobile Sierra Club paddles around an ancient cypress tree in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta

“The main effect of that is going to be to make some of the recipients a billion dollars more friendly to BP when the question comes up about whether they need to come up with another $20 billion to pay the major claims, and they’re going to have some advocates now that they’ve bought with the billion dollars that’s going to help them with the law and public relations,” Underhill said. “They are buying friends. It’s an investment in public relations so they don’t have to come across with the big bucks later.”

It’s like the power company buying ads in local weekly papers, he said. “It makes the local paper dependent on that ad revenue.”

“It’s insidious,” Underhill said. “You can’t expect people who are out of work, they can’t go fishing, they can’t keep up their house payments, to say no when BP comes around waving a billion dollars at them. It forces them to be grateful for what they’ve got and to take BP’s side in subsequent arguments about how much BP owes.”

As far as the state of wildlife on the coast, Underhill says, “They don’t know what’s killed and never will know. It’s out of mind.”

Bob Hastings of the Montgomery Sierra Club said there’s a lot we don’t know about the deep sea.

“But on the other hand, there’s a lot we do know,” he said. “We know a lot about what was killed by the BP oil spill. A lot more was killed than BP was given credit for. That disaster was a lot worse then people want to admit. And it’s not over. There are still things dying because of the oil spill.”

“I think the biggest problem we now have is the ongoing let’s get things back to normal attitude that people have,” Hastings said.

Underhill said the event could teach humankind a lesson “about what not to do,” but the people and the powers that be are not getting it.

“I don’t know how many chances you get to learn that lesson and do it right,” he said. “But the lesson is being learned wrong by just about everybody whose opinion counts. The lesson they are learning is that, well, we can be more careful and deliberate and allow the regulators a little more latitude to do it right so it’s safe and OK. That’s what they are proceeding to do.”

For example, he pointed out that a forensic report on the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer showed there was a design flaw that stopped it from working properly.

“But they’re putting it right back in service and saying we’re looking closer and everything is safe,” Underhill said. “The newspaper says that, editorially. Everybody whose opinion counts says that.”

There are examples around the world on other ways to produce energy that do not pose such a catastrophic risk to human life and the environment, Underhill pointed out. Even in Germany, in a more northerly latitude than the American South, they are now producing a major percentage of their power from solar energy.

“The sun, in Germany?” Underhill asked. “If they can do that, we can do that. You could run your whole society on the energy in the water, the wind and the sun. That lesson is not being learned. Instead, they are trying to find safer and more public relations soothing ways to resume the old ways.”

The transition will not be easy and won’t happen overnight, he admitted. And he acknowledge that there are similar interests between environmental groups and labor unions.

“But it’s always going to be difficult,” he said, “because it’s so easy to say this is an attack on employment and jobs. So you have to gradually wind down the old economy and simultaneously crank up the new one, and show by concrete action that you can provide a decent livelihood by developing, manufacturing, distributing and maintaining alternate energy sources.”

Meanwhile, to counter the jobs argument, Underhill said, you have to say, “yes, you lost some jobs when the offshore oil production was shut down, but more jobs were lost by far in the tourist business that died, in the fishing business that died.”

It is going to take a more mass movement than we have seen in human history to counter the BP BS and turn things around, and it is going to take people turning to an alternative press for information. Until that transition happens, mistakes will continue to be made and the catastrophes will continue to plague us. Just look what happened to the nuclear plant in Japan in the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Any day, another accident could cause another massive disaster on the Gulf Coast. Just last night, industry and government officials had to issue an alert-in-place warning for people in and around Texas City, when power was lost at BP’s largest oil refinery and a neighboring Dow Chemical plant.

“Virtually nobody is saying the lesson we have to learn is to stop this, stop poisoning ourselves and our environment and running reckless risks with it, doing damage we can’t recover from, neither in huge catastrophic mistakes or in drip by drip spoiling for yourselves or your successors,” Underhill said. “That’s the lesson you ought to learn — and it’s not being learned.”

© 2011 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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