The Difficulty Facing Oil Spill Workers in the Gulf

Far from the wetlands and bayous of Louisiana, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio where I’m preparing with some of my colleagues from NRDC’s Chicago office for an evidentiary hearing on a proposed coal-to-liquids facility.  But I’m in touch by email with my Los Angeles colleague Jessica Lass and others who are in New Orleans, working at what is likely to be Ground Zero for damages from another fossil fuel project we don’t need:   the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig.

When I was in private practice, I tried a case involving the American Trader oil spill off Huntington Beach, California.  That spill, caused by human error, fouled Southern California beaches for weeks.  Teams of workers in hazmat suits wiped oil off rocks and shoveled it off beaches.  Ironically, the oil that was spilled belonged to BP, although BP had no role in the accident itself.  I also had a very small role in the Exxon Valdez litigation, a situation where we saw workers wiping off rocks by hand as well as steam-cleaning jumbled beaches. 

The Gulf oil spill brought these images back to mind.  One huge difference, though, is that if the oil reaches the wetlands, marshes and bayous of the Gulf, it will be next to impossible to get it out.  Those areas have no defined shoreline, few if any rocky sections, and precarious footing at best for workers.  And what would hot, sweaty, hazmat-suited workers attack – every cattail, every blade of grass in the swamp?  Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill had an easier task than that; at least he knew where the rock was.

This is much more than an aesthetic problem.  As my colleague Jon Devine points out, the main concern for impacts to wetlands themselves is that the oil can smother wetland grasses such that they are unable to photosynthesize.  When vegetation dies off, it leaves the underlying soil -- which the grasses ordinarily hold in place -- vulnerable to erosion, and that exacerbates loss of wetlands and the animals that rely on the wetland habitat such as blue crabs, shrimp, oysters, and the uncountable numbers of migratory birds soon to arrive. 

The only way to avoid this disaster is to keep the oil out.  One thing that my experiences on the Exxon Valdez and American Trader cases taught me is that human efforts have little, if any, effect on the fate of a large oil spill into the ocean.  Wind, weather and tides make the call.

As I pointed out in my last blog post, we don’t need to put up with situations like this.  We need to move to a clean energy future as fast as we reasonably can.  For some ideas on how you can help, take a look at this site.  Let’s make it happen.