Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.
For those of us on shore, this slick is like one of those clever horror movies, where the terror is all the more intense because you never see the demon’s face.
Most of us on the Gulf Coast are, in a sense, no closer to this oil spill than anyone else in the world who’s following it. Of course, the threat of it hits way too close to home, and it’s already having an economic impact.
Fishermen have been ordered off the water in many areas; supplies of seafood seem to be getting tight. For many of us, whatever lives we had have been absorbed into this amorphous, mysterious goo.
But the truth is we can’t actually see the slick any better than folks watching TV in Minnesota can. It remains offshore, well out of reach of small craft, and even if I had the gumption to get there in my 12-foot wooden fishing boat, this thing has apparently gotten so big, it’s too big to see.
A few days ago, we were offered the impressive thought that this slick was the size of Connecticut. Now for some reason it’s Delaware. The only thing I’ve been able to deduce from this is that these two states must not be the same size. But imagine having to describe what life in Delaware is like when the only view you have of it is an image from a satellite.
It seems certain it will be many days or weeks before they shut this thing off, and months or years before anyone can say for certain what a spill that could become the 51st state will do.
That’s left us on the coast scrambling to prepare for every possibility. Judy Haner, The Nature Conservancy’s marine program director in Alabama, has spent the week pooling resources across four states.
She’s also making sure everyone understands what we’ve learned from earlier spills: If only 10 percent of the Exxon Valdez spill was actually cleaned up, as some estimate, what 10 percent of this spill should we prioritize first?
Jeff Dequattro, the Conservancy’s oyster restoration project manager, hasn’t had much sleep and no free time since this thing began. He hopped on a boat again Tuesday to Coffee Island, attaching absorbent material to the booms we used to protect the Conservancy’s restored oyster reef.
He was surprised to find government-funded crews wrapping all of Coffee Island with boom, connecting it with the 3,000 feet of boom we laid Monday. We almost had a celebration on the spot. Unfortunately, the new boom wasn’t anchored, and of course, booms won’t long stay put if they’re not pinned down at multiple points. The workers said they didn’t have any anchors on hand, and would come back when they found some more.
Jeff wryly speculates that we’re partly responsible for that lack of anchors. We had already used every anchor we could buy or borrow in Mobile County. All 26 of them. Clearly, someone needs to add hundreds, if not thousands, of anchors to the checklist of items needed during an oil spill emergency.
The flurry of similar preparations today — the most significant advance in protecting the homefront since the start of this spill almost two weeks ago — reminds us how poorly prepared all of us are for such an event.
“Every day changes what we think about what happened the day before.” That’s Jeff Dequattro’s wisdom, and it makes perfect sense to my ears.
The uncertainty of this spill means you never even know what to wish for. A week ago we were wishing that the wind storm descending on the Gulf would never come. Just as we feared, the high winds and rolling seas delayed any preparations for days, even as it spread the oil a hundred miles or more closer to the coast.
But the perversity of it all: The storm may have spared us, at least a little while. It shattered the slick into many fine pieces that more quickly “evaporate” into the air or sink deeper into the water.
Now that the Gulf is as calm as I wished it was last Saturday, I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t start wishing for another storm. But I’ll reserve all wishing until I better understand what happens with this unmeasurable pool of “chocolate mousse” the storms and dispersents have created just below the surface.
Our relief that it didn’t come ashore earlier this week is turning into a new kind of nightmare: That globs of goo and balls of tar could be pitched ashore like drifting seaweed for weeks, months and years. You have to wonder who’ll be listening if fresh contamination continues to occur next spring.
If those of us along the coast seem more concerned, more frustrated, a little moodier than some, it’s not because we know what the spill will do. It’s simply because we have a better sense of what we have to lose.
(Image credit: Bill Finch/TNC)