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The Element: Water 



As the past two months have developed, the situation in the Gulf of Mexico has reached new dimensions of dire, and the story has followed the pattern of every other chemical disaster, only on a scale that few people can imagine. It’s as if human greed and hubris have unleashed a pestilence of mythical proportions. The undersea well uncontrollably gushing out oil, turning the ocean to blood, is like a vision of the end of days more apropos of the Book of Revelation than the New York Times. The question is: What is the message?

After many failed attempts to stanch the flow of oil, BP used robots to cut the riser pipe and installed a new “top hat” to collect some of the oil. This has increased the flow substantially, and the company may actually be siphoning up less than the overall increase. Currently, that oil is being burned—not collected—because BP lacked the foresight to move a second tanker to the scene to hold the oil. This, despite its promise that the collected oil would be sold and the proceeds used to help wildlife. This is consistent with BP’s pattern of incompetence and pathological lying.

Here, we have a key component in the spiritual piece of this issue: the constant transaction of deception that keeps these big industries alive, and which allows them to do the damage that they do. Now, we need to investigate further and look for our own role in the problem. If we’re going to move past this, we need to figure out what this says about us.

A Change to the Natural World

In addition to the economic costs of this disaster, we are losing one of the world’s most beautiful ecosystems, as we watch. The Gulf of Mexico is a magnificent inland sea; it’s a world apart, with warm water on average less than a mile deep, and a sea floor comprised of canyons, continental shelf, reefs, and many other features. Its vast wetlands—the marshy places where land meets water, and the brackish places where river meets sea—are breeding grounds for many of the creatures who live there. Before humans arrived, the Gulf of Mexico was an aquatic paradise, and is no doubt home to numerous living relics of other epochs of history.

Every time you hear someone talk about cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, you can be sure they have no clue. It’s one thing to shovel up sludge—that’s a cosmetic cleanup. There seems to be little effort to get the oil out of the water, and most of the booms (which are barely effective) are not being tended.

Petroleum is a concentrated toxin and water is extremely sensitive. We learned from the Exxon Valdez spill that oil is toxic to fish eggs at one part per billion. That’s like a quart of oil in 250 million gallons of seawater. A single drop can render 21,000 gallons of seawater a substance toxic to fish. We may be far past an average of one part per billion in the Gulf, and unless we distill the entire Gulf of Mexico, or those petroleum-eating microbes really work and someone uses them, we cannot get that out of the water.

Then there are the millions of gallons of dispersants (which might harm the oil-eating microbes, if anyone thinks to use them), which are toxic in themselves and which convert the oil into plumes of benzene-laced snot. These are being injected underwater for the first time in history, and are made of secret ingredients (the ingredients are proprietary), but to the best of my knowledge seem to consist of kerosene and propylene glycol. The latter has a property of sucking oxygen out of the water. A gallon of propylene glycol in seawater does the oxygen depletion damage of a million gallons of raw sewage. Countless fish in the Gulf of Mexico are dying of asphyxiation in oxygen-depleted waters.

I hate using the words millions and billions, but there are few other ways to convey the scale of the situation, or the relative toxicity of the chemicals involved. And in truth you don’t need that. You just need to imagine a dolphin with her eyes burning, or see an oil-soaked pelican, to know the truth.
BP filed fraudulent permit applications with the United States Government, and the Minerals Management Service and other agencies approved them. The application talks about protecting walruses, which are native to the Arctic. The application said there was zero chance of damage to coastlines and wildlife. BP listed a University of Florida professor who had already been dead four years as a contact in case of a spill, though claiming there was no chance of a spill happening, and no chance of oil from a rig 48 miles from shore ever reaching the coastline.

Speaking of...

  • Eric Francis Coppolino on the emotional element and the Gulf.

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