Gulf Oil Rig Disaster: Perspectives from in the air and on the ground

High over the Gulf of Mexico, I looked down in horror and sadness Wednesday at the site of the massive BP oil spill.

Clear blue waters were streaked with rivers of crude oil, a thick brown stew of petroleum toxics streaming unchecked toward the open sea.

A thinner but still poisonous sheen coated the surface with a curd-like film as far as the eye could see.

"Off to the right," my helicopter pilot, Ted Grove said, tilting slightly to open my view to dark red plumes of oil, stretching for miles from the site where the BP oil rig sank April 22 after an explosion two days before.

Since then, more than 4 million gallons of crude oil have gushed into the fertile Gulf, threatening marine life and bearing down on the rich coastal waters, beaches and wetlands some 40 miles to the north.

As we circled the site, I felt I was looking down on some seaborne disaster area, as, indeed, I was.

There were some three dozen ships working within an area of perhaps 20 square miles or so.

I counted eight skimmers trolling the waters corralling the thick crude near the center of the site.

Close by, huge fountains of water fluid gushed from a pair of ships -- spraying dispersant directly at the spill site, according to the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

A ship with an enormous industrial-style crane was on site -- apparently in connection with the "top hat" BP was hoping to deploy to try to stem the flow of oil.

And there were tenders working the underwater robotic vehicles prowling the deep water below in search of a solution to the raging spill.

We can only hope -- and pray -- for their success.

What took my breath away, though, was the extent of the calamity unfolding in the Gulf.

The skimmers are a help, and the dispersant will chemically break apart down the oil into smaller globs. Some of the crude will evaporate in the warm Gulf air. [ed note: The dispersant doesn't chemically degrade the oil itself.]

The oil, though, is there, and the pollution with it -- in the ocean, in the air, and headed, inevitably, toward the shallow coastal waters and fertile wetlands and shore.

We can struggle to contain it -- as many were clearly doing on Wednesday and have done for weeks. But we can't put it back in the well.

That's why we need to find out what caused this terrible accident, what we must do to prevent anything like this from ever happening again and what we can do to hold BP accountable for the terrible cost this disaster has already begun to exact from the region.

I was reminded of those costs as we flew back toward shore. I saw hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands and waterways, essential habitat for shrimp, oysters, fish and birds.

I recalled the voices of oystermen, fishermen, shrimpers and others I visited with Tuesday on the bayou below, the Gulf Coast community activists I'd met with in Biloxi, Miss., and the environmental justice experts I'd listened to in nearby New Orleans.

As this oil creeps over the ocean it is suffocating not only habitat and wildlife but also the livelihood and way of life for thousands of Gulf Coast residents.

The people of this region are a resilient lot. This, though, has them scared.

They are untrusting of BP. They are worried about their health. They are frightened for their future and their families.

We need to do better in this country.

We need to begin the long process of reducing our reliance on oil and increasing our use of renewable and sustainable fuels.

As I was flying over the Gulf of Mexico, the despair of Gulf people mirrored in the terrifying glaze of oil moving menacingly over the sea, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were unveiling legislation that can help.

It isn't perfect legislation. There is much to improve. As I flew over those wounded waters today, though, I felt hopeful that this legislation can begin that process. Now, let's move it forward.

About the Authors

Frances Beinecke

Former President

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