For several months now we’ve been hearing about the BP Deepwater Horzion catastrophe—which, in spite of some reports to the contrary, is far from over.
But that’s not the only place bad things are happening with petroleum – in just the last couple of weeks the world has experienced at least three other major oil catastrophes. Not an encouraging record for an industry whose reputation is spotty at best already.
First, there is the accident along the Yellow Sea in China, where, according to the AP, “cleanup efforts included straw mats and frazzled workers with little more than rubber gloves” and we see disturbing photos of firefighters covered in “half-solid” crude oil that’s “as sticky as asphalt.” Observers are calling it the worst oil spill ever in China.
(Side note—flooding in China has caused 3,000 barrels of dangerous chemicals to float into the Songhua River. Not technically an oil spill, but not good either.)
Official estimates suggest that the China oil spill is about 400,000 gallons—but Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska marine conservation specialist, thinks that the spill might really be 45 to 68 times that size, between 18 and 27 million gallons.
From that perspective, the 1 million gallons of oil that have spilled into a major river in southern Michigan, which governor Jennifer Granholm called “a tragedy of historic proportions,” barely measures up, and doesn’t hold a stick to the estimated 94 to 184 million gallons spilled by BP in the Gulf. So far, the spill has killed fish and soaked wildlife in the area.
Ironically, Tom Sands, deputy state director for emergency management and homeland security, said that he has seen oil past a dam at Morrow Lake, which means that the Michigan spill now threatens to contaminate a Superfund site—an 80 mile stretch of river that already has unsafe levels of PCBs–upstream of Kalamazoo, the largest city in the region.
According to the AP, Houston-based Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the leaking pipline, has been in trouble before–spilling 19,000 gallons of crude oil into Wisconsin’s Nemadji River in 2007, 189,000 gallons at its terminal two miles from Lake Superior, and 200,000 gallons (from two spills) in northern Wisconsin in 2006.
It also allegedly violated “Wisconsin permits designed to protect water quality during work in and around wetlands, rivers and streams,” the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said.
And then there’s the new Louisiana oil spill from a ruptured wellhead in Barataria Bay that has spread a slick over six square miles after it was hit by a barge. The Coast Guard, the AP said, has “ordered the last recorded owner of the well, a company called Cydeco, to pay for the clean-up costs.” Are we now forgetting who owns all the oil wells we’ve left lying around?
Is the confluence of these disasters just a coincidence? According to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, not really. According to the report, “Disasters are just a normal part of doing business” for oil companies. Over the past ten years the oil industry in the United States has been responsible for over 2,500 major pipeline accidents, causing 161 deaths and 576 injuries; offshore there were over 1,400 incidents, 41 deaths, 302 injures, 476 fires and 356 releases of oil into the water.
Have we simply reached the point past which it is no longer possible for industrial society to keep its lifeblood from spilling out into our rivers, lakes and oceans at regular intervals?