Lessons from the Oil Spill

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on May 17, 2010

I spent part of the summer of 1989 in one of the most pristine and beautiful wild places left in the world, Alaska’s Prince William Sound. But I was not there to enjoy its stunning natural grandeur. I was there to clean up oil – the toxic mess left by the infamous Exxon Valdez spill.

The painful memories of that life-changing experience have been resurrected by the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. I remember occasionally looking beyond the stench of crude oil and the decaying bodies of the spill’s animal victims, and being treated to glimpses of some of the most achingly beautiful country I had ever seen. While at my feet, all over me in fact, was the poison that has become the lifeblood of our modern world.

We would learn, later, that the army of cleanup workers I was a part of did little good and no small amount of harm in Prince William Sound. It was a bitter irony that the hot water hoses and pressure washers we used to remove oil killed the very micro-organisms that, over time, break down crude oil. It is these tiny animals upon which the real cleanup of an oil spill ultimately depends.

Unfortunately, as we are now learning, while our ability to find and drill for oil in ever more remote and fragile areas has increased dramatically since 1989, our ability to deal with the tragic and predictable consequence of massive spills has changed little.

The consequences of the Exxon Valdez spill are not over for Prince William Sound or its wildlife. The estimated 400,000 birds, untold numbers of fish, 5,000 sea otters and other animals killed in the immediate aftermath of the spill were just the beginning. 21 years later, tens of thousands of gallons of oil linger just below the rocks of many beaches, oil that is, surprisingly, still as toxic as the day it was spilled. Many species hardest hit by the oil have yet to recover.

For the moment, the consequences for the Gulf of Mexico remain to be seen. As I write this, the estimated volume of the spill has been increased from 5000 barrels per day to four or five times that amount. Nobody knows when the leak will be stopped. It now appears that much of the oil is sinking below the surface, making it less visible – but no less deadly. And while the beleaguered and fragile shoreline marshes of the Gulf have, thus far, been spared, nobody knows what the effects of so much oil might be to life beneath the surface, upon which all other life in the Gulf depends.

My experience in Prince William Sound changed me profoundly. The connections between our way of life and its consequences were easy to make there. I have spent the rest of my life working to protect animals and the environment. As the tragedy in the Gulf unfolds, I cling to the hope that a new generation will be similarly affected and that there will be a silver lining of renewed calls for alternatives to fossil fuels and restrictions on drilling, perhaps even changes to the root cause: our wasteful overuse of energy.

Meanwhile, I am forced to remember the sights, sounds and lessons of a spill 21 years ago. But mostly I remember the heartbreak.


6 thoughts on “Lessons from the Oil Spill

  1. Reagan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. It really brings it home.

  2. Alejandro says:

    Probably most of you have now heard about the dead dolphins that were washed up on the coast of the gulf. Now the question is did the BP oil leak wipe out dolphins and turtles? When 7 dolphins and more than 100 sea turtles bodies washed on the shoreline, everyone was speedy to believe it was from the offshore drilling that triggered a massive oil leak a couple weeks ago. Fortunately for Halliburton and Transocean this was not the situation. The cause of these animals’ deaths has not been unveiled, but a statement that the oil leak had nothing to do with their death has been. This does not mean that BP isn’t really to blame for the deaths or contamination of numerous ocean animals; just they weren’t responsible for this unique event.

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  4. Gloria Wolford says:

    I firmly believe that all BP, Haliburton, Transocean, and Dept. of Interior personnel should be held legally responsible for this “spill.” The knowingly bypassed regulatory procedures and were not prepared in any way to deal with this disaster. I’m tired of hearing how they are “doing everything they can,” and “trying everything that they know”–they needed to do this BEFORE they put the drill in the ocean. They lied in the beginning, they lied when the spill occurred, and they are still lying. I am hoping that ALDF can find a way to bring legal charges against them in defense of all of the creatures they have/will murdered/murder in the name of greed.

  5. I want to know who is going to bring BP, and HALIBURTON into court over the cruelty to animals charges that they need to respond to.

    I believe Haliburton should be held alongside BP in every lawsuit since the fail safe and most equipment were made by them. It is not just BP who failed. When will we stand up to Haliburton also? All we hear is BP, BP, BP but all the other fail safes and rig malfunctions I have heard and read about lead us to Haliburton as well.

    Why hasn’t Dick Cheny been here overlooking and making an assessment of his companies failures. He should at the VERY LEAST make a statement of Halburtons intentions the way BP is doing almost daily. Not that they have been the correct solution yet.

    Even if he or they say Cheny is no longer directly involved in this aspect of the company by being or the board or the MAJOR share holder He too should answer as The president of BP has done.

  6. Susan Trout says:

    Thank you so much Stephen for your perspective.
    I have cried so much about the terrible disaster continuing to assault the Gulf of Mexico. That it should NEVER, ever have happened makes it all the more tragic.

    We may never know the full extent of the damage being done. Who can say that it won’t affect the atmosphere by creating a dead zonen in the ocean. EAch and every living thing is an intricate, delicate link in this spell-binding chain of life we are all part of. Sadly, millions of people take their lives and everything else surrouding them for granted.
    Did we ever, for one moment, wonder what would happen to us if even a small asteroid would strike the earth undetected?

    No, we don’t care to think about that.

    If I could do without a car, I would. I’m now trying hard to search for items that aren’t packaged in plastic and to stop using plastic bags, period.

    Oh, to hope for every living person to come to view life with more reverence and wonder!



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