25 years to the day after Exxon Valdez, oil is still spilling…and killing


History keep repeating, and not in a good way. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez accident and massive spill in Alaska, which for years was the standard by which all oil spills were judged…until BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster came along. Ironically, the four-year anniversary of that accident — which killed 11 people and spewed 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf — is just a few short weeks away. That’s an easy one to remember, unfortunately, because BP’s oil is still attacking our beaches, on a fairly regular basis. In fact, this popped up just this weekend:

As many as 300 pounds of tar balls were discovered on the Mississippi Barrier Islands on Friday by a team from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and the department says that oil is related to the 2010 BP oil spill.

About 10 pounds of tar balls were found on West Ship Island, and as many as 300 pounds were discovered on Horn Island, the release said.

BP contract workers were expected to begin cleaning up the tar balls Friday.

I’ve written frequently about these tar ball and tar mat incidents, because it’s important for people to understand that — contrary to what BP’s multi-million-dollar PR machine would like you to believe — the Deepwater Horizon spill is an ongoing event here in the Gulf, and unfortunately it probably will be for years to come. Indeed, it’s been reported that Alaska’s fragile eco-system hasn’t fully recovered from the tanker accident, now hitting the quarter century mark.

Which is why the latest news on the oil-spill front this week is so upsetting:

TEXAS CITY, Texas (AP) — A barge that once carried some 900,000 gallons of heavy tar-like oil was cleared Sunday of its remaining contents, a day after the vessel collided with a ship in the busy Houston Ship Channel and leaked as much as a quarter of its cargo into the waterway.

Coast Guard officials said that up to 168,000 gallons were dumped and that oil from the ruptured barge had been detected 12 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as of Sunday afternoon.

“This is a significant spill,” Capt. Brian Penoyer, commander of the Coast Guard at Houston-Galveston, said.

The environmental impact is already being felt:

Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas’ General Land Office, described the type of oil the barge was carrying as “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry stuff.”

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.

“The timing really couldn’t be much worse since we’re approaching the peak shorebird migration season,” Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.

While it’s true this is a finite — albeit large — spill, that’s no cause for rejoicing. While there’s no immediate word on the origin of the oil in this Texas accident, the dense nature of this crude is similar to the oil that’s now being produced in the Canadian tar sands, which is increasingly coming to and through America, by rail, by boat and — if Big Oil gets its wish — by the Keystone XL pipeline some day.

If you think we’re seeing more and more reports about oil accidents and spills, often with devastating consequences, you’re right. Thanks largely to fracking, as well as a favorable political climate, America’s oil and gas production is booming; just this weekend, the Los Angeles Times questioned whether the United States is becoming the new Saudi Arabia of global energy. It’s easy to focus short-sightedly on the short-term gains — some jobs, perhaps lower gasoline or electric bills (although they don’t seem that low). But there’s not enough conversation about the risks — both in the longer term from climate change, and in the short term from offshore oil spills, from tanker car wrecks, and from pipeline or barge spills, not to mention air and water pollution. From Quebec to Arkansas to now the shores of Texas, oil is spilling…and killing. What happened in the rocks off Alaska should have been a wake-up call…but instead we’re asleep at the wheel.

For more information about BP tar balls coming ashore in Mississippi, please read: http://www.sunherald.com/2014/03/21/5434500/tar-balls-discovered-on-ship-horn.html

For the latest news on this weekend’s oil spill in Texas, check out: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/23/texas-oil-spill_n_5018744.html

Read the Los Angeles Times article on increasing U.S. energy production: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-energy-exports-20140323,0,5478547.story#axzz2wszET9Fa

Here’s a CNN piece on the lingering aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster: http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/23/opinion/holleman-exxon-valdez-anniversary/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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