IRIDESCENT SWIRLS OF DEATH
I imagine oil spills to be somewhat cartoon in nature. A thick oozing black blanket of death starts to cover everything within its reach and then stretches out for more.
By Anne Bradshaw
Just minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez super tanker collided with a reef in Prince William Sound of Alaska. Like poisonous blood from a dying , putrefying animal, oil spewed and flowed from the smashed ship. Over eleven million gallons of oil contaminated the life, air, land, and waters of the sound (Goldshore 32).
I imagine oil spills to be somewhat cartoon-like. A thick, oozing, black blanket of death starts to cover everything within its reach and then stretches out for more. There seems to be an endless supply of the goop. The oil is insatiable and continues seeping off in every direction it can, reaching outward and downward whenever possible. The water forces the oil to stay on top while gravity prevents it from rising. These seem to be the only forces fighting the oil.
The Captain of Exxon’s Valdez oil tanker, Joseph Hazelwood, was a known alcoholic at the time of the crash. He was not in control of the ship because he had put the vessel’s third mate in charge since Hazelwood himself was intoxicated (Goldshore 32). It was careless of EXXON not to have greater accountability among their crew members and careless of Hazelwood to take his responsibilities so lightly. Hazelwood and the company alike have expressed remorse, but the effects of the tragedy remain. Needless to say, there were few things done correctly in this situation. Suffering resonates as a result.
Animals don’t understand oil. It is not a part of their natural lives. In a spill, turtles come up for a breath of air, and, instead, thick oily sludge slides down their nostrils, and their entire face gets a waterproof mask of oil. Birds swoop down for a fish and experience an unexplained feeling of being weighed down by the oil that stuck to them during their dive. Seals, fish, plankton, turtles, whales, plants, humans, and ALL life is dumbstruck by this unexplained killer.
The area of Alaska’s shoreline that was directly covered with oil in 1989 was the size of two Chesapeake Bays (Okey 34). Some sea bird populations were cut nearly in half: “oil killed 250,000 waterfowl and choked countless marine mammals and fish… 2,800 sea otters perished; more than a dozen killer whales from a resident pod disappeared (Fonda 103).
I was not allowed to drive the lawn mower yet. My big brother had not been allowed to drive the lawn mower until he was thirteen, and I had to wait until the same age to make things “fair.” On one day, when we were both too young, we began to snip at the ground with scissors because we wanted so badly to cut the grass. I felt very prepared to become an excellent lawn mower driver, but I had to follow the rule. Whenever my brother would ride the mower, I would run around the yard helping by picking up sticks and toys. One day we decided to siphon the oil out and do an oil change just like the real men did. Somehow we managed to avoid drinking the oil in our makeshift procedures, but the transfer was still unsuccessful. The oil came spewing out of the tubing and went into the ground. We knew that we had made a mistake and that the oil was bad for the earth, but we had no idea that oil had the power to kill.
Mistakes small and large should be noticed and accepted as reality. Only by standing by our actions and taking care of their results can we prevent tragedies from reoccurring.
The damage done by the Valdez spill was so vast that our planet may never fully recover. Odey describes the situation like this: “Adding instill to injury, one tragically oiled cove after another metamorphosed into war-zone-style symbols of dominion and the mechanistic techno-fix, as men in white hard hats spewed from helicopters and barges in a frantic attempt to ‘fix’ nature by urgently spraying hot liquid from giant hoses onto the living membranes of submissive coves.” Some of the procedures designed to “clean” the oil only spilled more chemicals onto the screaming earth.
Sometimes decisions that have enormous impact ignore logic. If the right
person has not signed the correct paper and sent it to a certain office
with a particular seal of “officialdom,” no action can be
taken. In the case of the Valdez spill, many illogical procedures surrounded
the clean up. Sometimes important cleaning procedures were ignored altogether.
Research teams of ecologists and divers from the University of Alaska
say that it, “turned out that cleanup was often not documented or
coordinated in any organized way. Opportunities for learning were lost
in the jumble”(Okey 2). For many reasons, our government, as well
as Exxon and other involved parties, could not get their act together.
The consequences will remain forever.
It is foolish to think that any dollar amount can ever be equal to the damage that was done to the precious, life-giving Earth. During the trials dealing with the Valdez oil spill, “The algorithm of law was being used to convert lost ecosystem ‘value’ into U.S. dollars”(Okey 4). But what is a dollar? Can the worth of a piece of the earth be measured at all? Somehow, Exxon convinced the right people in high places that there is a monetary value that could be placed on the damage done by the bleeding oil tanker. The new amount as of 2001 lay far below the original demand for five billion dollars. Exxon will eventually pay “at most, $1.65 Billion” (Goldshore 36).
Exxon Chairman Lee Raymond calls the spill, “a tragic accident
that the company deeply regrets” but also complains that the punishment
that Exxon received was “excessive” (Dinesh 1). Exxon goes
as far as to blame the rising temperature of our planet for some of the
damage, which others see as a direct result of the spill. Many of the
animals killed were only passing through, never again to return home.
Despite the fact that countless research studies have shown that the effects
of the spill are being felt to this day, according to Exxon in 2001, “the
environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving”
(Pearce 4). Although it is true that there are, “signs of healing
in the Sound” (Fonda 103), the recovery process is long and may
never truly be over. Research done through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service shows that many species of birds that were injured by the oil
spill show little to no signs of recovery (Pearce 4). Perhaps this is
what Exxon means when it says, “robust and thriving.”