“Hey, look at this!” I shouted to my husband, early one morning a few weeks ago. “Ian’s on the front page of the Huffington Post!”
Ian is my oldest brother. According to family lore, he went to school in France as an exchange student at 16. He then entered Friends’ World College where, after listing his interests as French, totalitarian government and oceanography, he was dispatched to Haiti on a shrimp boat. He earned graduate degrees in oceanography in Oslo, Norway and then spent an indeterminate amount of time building fish hatcheries and travelling throughout the world. He is fluent in English, Creole, French, northern and southern Norwegian and Italian. Eventually, he became an expert in the impacts of oil on Gulf ecosystems.
“He says BP is lying about the size of the spill,” I said as Richard brought me my coffee.
Richard and Ian are good friends. Upon graduating college in Santa Fe, Richard and I packed all of our belongings into his car and headed to Galveston to live near Ian. We wanted to follow in his footsteps travelling the world. Obviously, the first step would be finding work in the Gulf on shrimp boats.
Instead, I ended up waitressing at a Jo-Jo’s restaurant. Richard found a job as a desk clerk at the Marriot. “I think I’ll call him up and interview him,” I told Richard.
Dr. Ian R. MacDonald (my brother) is a professor of oceanography at Florida State University. He has over 25 years experience researching the ecology and geology of ecosystems surrounding oil rigs, and impacts of oil on Gulf ecosystems.
I asked Ian how the BP oil spill compared to Katrina as a disaster. “This event [the BP spill] is something completely unnatural in its effects and cause,” he answered.
“Katrina was a terrible disaster and a tragedy for more than 1800 people who lost their lives and many thousands more who lost their homes.” he said. “In human terms, there is no comparison. Eleven people have died from this.
“In ecological terms, the ecosystem of the Gulf is completely adapted to hurricanes and is even dependent on them. Storms have raged in the Gulf for many thousands of years. The Gulf ecosystem has also adapted to a certain amount of oil because there is natural seepage. But the dose is normally dispersed and small. What’s happening now is thousands of times greater. It’s much more concentrated in time and space. It has real potential to seriously harm the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, Mississipi and Florida. The wetlands in Louisiana especially cannot afford the insult. They are already stressed by overuse and poor management. They didn’t provide the protection they should have during Katrina, which is one of the reasons it was so devastating. The wetlands provide the coastal areas with a buffer. Their inability to buffer storms is a symptom of their sickness.”
Ian continued. “This disaster shows no sign of stopping. BP is not going to clean up this mess. People won’t. We can’t. The wetlands have to. Sun and microbes will do the work. The system is not well equipped to handle this insult right now.”
“Isn’t there anything people can do?” I asked Ian.
“There are a few things people can do to help. They can try to boom off areas to keep oil out, they can rescue birds. But there is an awful lot of futility. There is a lot we can’t do. The ocean and wetlands will have to do it for us. We are asking a lot of the ecosystem. I hope we realize it! It’s sort of a lesson to see how dependent we are on this ecosystem. We are making it sick and the sickness is being passed on to us. The health of society and nature are tied to together.”
I asked Ian how he had ended up on the front pages of the New York Times.
“I was looking at satellite images,” he answered. “BP was saying 1000 barrels a day were leaking into the Gulf and I knew that this was baloney. I started working with an activist friend named John Amos to analyze the area that was covered by oil. I figured out how thick it had to be based on colors and other characteristics evident from the photos. It is possible to determine thickness from these characteristics. Once I estimated the thickness of the slick, I was able to estimate the volume. At that time, BP and the government were saying 1,000 barrels a day were leaking. John and I estimated between 5,000 and 26,500 barrels were gushing. In retrospect, it might have been a mistake. That’s when the Coastguard said 5,000 and they’ve stuck to it ever since. But then, as we kept examing satelite photos, it was clear it had to be more. So we started telling reporters to ask BP to release the videos and eventually Congressman Markey (D-MA) got the video. For some reason, they thought nobody would be able to analyze it. NOAA accepted BP’s spin and didn’t use the video. But then Steve Wereley from Purdue and Tim Crone from Lamont Douherty (Columbia) were able to rigourously analyze the video using trusted techniques and they came up with 70,000 barrels. There are 42 gallons in a barrel so that comes to 2,940,000 gallons a day. That’s one Exxon Valdez every three or four days.”
Ian started to get a little hot under the collar.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded. “This is a classic confrontation between spin and science. You have Don Shuttles an exec from BP, trying to tell us they are leaking 5,000 barrels, even when they were getting 5,000 barrels per day up the pipe. But there are two leaks. We don’t really know how much is coming from the second leak. They keep trying to spin this 5,000 barrels per day rate which is obviously wrong. So finally, science is winning out over spin. This spill is historic. We don’t even know how to fix this god-awful mess. How do we stop the bleeding?”
“I don’t understand the administration’s response,” I complained.
“Nobody does,” agreed Ian. “It’s this spin versus science thing. They think they can control events by controlling information. Think about how silent Obama has been about this! He’s responding as a lawyer.”
“It really bugs me,” I blurted, “that some poor sap in California can be locked up for life for a petty, non-violent crime through three-strikes-and-you’re-out, but the BP execs responsible for this mess will get off scott-free.”
“It’s not just BP, who’s responsible,” answered Ian. “It’s our oil-addicted lifestyle. We’re all responsible. But I don’t think this will go unpunished. There will be an investigation. BP will be forced to pay. Somebody will go to jail.
“Dick Cheney and his henchmen rewrote all the inspection and permitting processes. That’s what happened with BP. Their drilling plan was a joke. The Feds really stopped doing their job. One consequence of that was there were a lot of shortcuts taken in the drilling process. BP used a bargain basement blow-out preventer. They did dangerous, stupid things! They pumped all the mud out of the hole and replaced it with drilling water which is an insane thing to do if you don’t know the pressure. There was a big argument on the rig between BP and the rig operator and BP won.”
At this point, I offered my own conjecture. “You know, I work with federal health care agencies like HRSA and SAMHSA. Bush ran out a bunch of career bureaucrats in those agencies during his administration. He got rid of everyone interested in health outcomes and replaced them with cronies. The agencies’ orientations changed under Bush. Instead of working with communities to improve outcomes, they came up with subjective, unscientific evaluation methods designed to shut down public health programs. Right after Obama was elected, HRSA reorganized. A lot of the career bureaucrats came back. It’s a different agency.”
I paused a moment. “Maybe he tackled health care agencies first because he knew health care was going to be a priority. Maybe he hasn’t gotten around to reorganizing NOAA and MMS. Maybe there’s no capacity there to address drilling and mining disasters.” I paused. “I read a really shocking BP memo in The Daily Beast,” I told him. I guess some BP execs used the fable of the three little pigs to demonstrate the that it is not cost effective to devote a lot of money to worker safety. A note attached to the memo indicates that they determined a worker life to be worth $10,000,000 and based their safety spending on that figure.”
“Maybe that’s it,” agreed Ian. “Tomorrow the Government is coming out with 25,000 barrels. We’re sticking with 60,000 and they’re increasing in response to our pressure, so I feel like we’re doing something. Four of us have an an editorial coming out in the New York Times talking about the oil spill. We have to know the truth about how much oil is coming out. We have to know how much mud to pump in the hole. You can’t respond without correct data. I assume BP knows how much oil is leaking and they’re just not telling us. We can’t stop the leak without knowing how big it is.”
“Maybe they consider that proprietary information,” I interjected. “I read in Mother Jones that they were forcing people off certain beaches in order to protect their oil. They hired workers to bag the sand so they could recover the oil.”
“Eventually, we have to build our capacity for future oil spill response. We need to know the magnitude of this incident so we can design all of our future responses appropriately.”"
I asked Ian about the dispersants. “BP is using the dispersant to stop oil from coming onto the beaches, and it does that but it does it at a cost. We don’t really know what the cost is. The oil doesn’t go away as a result of being treated with dispersant. It goes into the water along with all the benzene, xylene, etc.. We don’t know what it does if you have to drink the water or breathe in it as do, for example, whales or any marine life. We don’t know what it does to people.” I asked Ian about the Florida Keys.
“The Keys will probably get some tarballs, some dispersant but it will be pretty dilute,” he answered.
“What can people do?” I asked again. “What can my readers do? How can we contribute?”
“We have to pay the real cost of what we are doing,” answered Ian. “We can pay five dollars a gallon for gasoline. A Gulf without oil would come to a stop worse than a Gulf with oil. It’s not realistic to think we are going to magically transform ourselves into a hydrocarbon independent society without paying for it. Pay extra tax for oil and use the money to pay for wetland clean-up or whatever.”
The next day, I was listening to an NPR reporter interview a bird conservationist in a Louisiana marsh. They were discussing the innocent manner in which birds were going about their hopeful springtime business, mating, building nests, gathering food, unaware of the disaster about to befall their happy community. I realized I was out of gas, and pulled into a Shell station feeling like a murderer.
Perhaps this video of Rush Hour in the Netherlands is instructive: