More Questions Than Answers

Black Drum fish (Pogonias cromis)

Food chain links: Fiddler crab races to scavenge on a black drum fish washed ashore on the morning's tide (likely cause of death bi-catch), Gulf Coast Louisiana

“We’ve never seen so many species floating in so many different areas. I’m begging the E.P.A., or somebody to quit worrying about pulling barges and pulling our boats out, and cutting down the size of the vessel of opportunity. I’m begging them to do their job, get out there and lets test, and see what the hell is going on in the water,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

That was this past week as a new Gulf Coast mystery added a few more questions to the growing pile.  I keep coming back to something an old professor said to me, “The food chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and most of those links we can not see.”

“I hope the state wildlife is right,” Nungesser continued, “I hope the dead fish is just [lack of] oxygen. I got 100 fishermen here say no way Jose, they been here their whole life and never seen so many species (of fish) in so many different areas, and is it a coincidence that all of those areas happen to have heavy oil,”

Nungesser has at times been labeled a bit of a little boy crying wolf, using the BP spill to be a big fish in a small bayou.  Maybe so, but maybe he also knows that big fish in little bayous don’t have a lot of survival options if the water goes bad.  Perhaps when all the oil and dispersants settle he is just a fish trying to survive.  All along he seems to have had more questions than answers.  But are folks listening?

Trying to keep the BP disaster relevant is the challenge, especially when everyone from the President of the country to the President of BP just want this thing to go away. The September issue of Audubon Magazine is once again dedicated to the gulf oil spill (I prefer disaster, spill sounds like something on your kitchen floor), the October’s issue of National Geographic puts forth their version of the oily mess, heck even Mom’s Magazine spun out an oily postmortem . Thing is, it’s just not that oily anymore and the news they are presenting looks old because we still have our eye out for gooey slicks and coated pelicans and there aren’t any – BP’s liberal use of dispersants insured that.

After nearly eight weeks of walking beaches, motoring across bays and through bayous the story has left me with more questions, far more questions than oil, at least as far as the eye can see.  Sure oil is still there, I can show it to you in places like Grand Isle, but like everything in this disaster you have to dig for it.

And then as I prepare to leave the Gulf for a short bit, millions of dead fish fill the bayou.  And that triggers the question I think is at the heart of it all – Where will the mix of dispersant and oil rear its deadly head? We have evolved into such visually dominated beings that we have shut down our other senses – most disastrously – common sense.

My journalistic concern and personal fear is that the greatest human environmental screw up in the history of our screwing up on this lovely little living weigh-station in space is just that – we are forgetting because we can’t see it.  Is it out there in the bayous and beaches and benthic reaches, seeping into veins and tissues, starting the slow stockpile in kidneys, eventually massing in muscle, moving up the chain prey to predator, species after species?

If there is anything promising coming from the continued publications it the visual reminder that the BP disaster actually occurred – it wasn’t just a collective national nightmare.  We aren’t now awake, have a cup of coffee, splash our face with cold water and go on with our day.  IT DID HAPPEN. Furthermore, IT IS HAPPENING!

Is the fish kill BP related?  I don’t know.  It’s key relation is that it forces all those who want this to go away to keep being forced to look – and that includes most importantly the American public.  Like global climate change, HIV, and breast cancer, outta mind outta
sight doesn’t mean the danger won’t eventually kill you.  The great annual killer on our planet is invisible to the eye – malaria.  Over 2.5 million people, mostly children, die a horrible writhing death to something none of us can see.  That doesn’t mean it not real.  No, it means you have to look hard, in different ways, from alternate perspectives.  And you have to keep asking questions.

Why isn’t that alarming the hell out of us?  That’s one of those questions that lingers and haunts me.  Why aren’t we awake at night? Why can we buy BP stock without throwing up at how vile we have just treated a planet that in the next breath we claim we love enjoying?

COREXIT – remember it?

It’s the band-everywhere-but-here dispersant BP and the U.S. Coast Guard sprayed over surface oil slicks and more reprehensibly released at the damaged BP Deepwater Horizon well head 5,000 feet below the Gulf.  A depth and temperature which the chemical had never been scientifically (or otherwise) tested.  COREXIT in a nutshell:

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified the 2-butoxyethanol in Corexit to be a causal agent in the health problems experienced by cleanup workers after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill of respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders.

According to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), Corexit 9500‘s “potential human bazard is: High.” It can cause central nervous system depression; nausea; unconsciousness;  liver, kidney damage; and red blood cell hemolysis with repeated or prolonged exposure through inhalation or ingestion.

I find enormous irony in that a chemical witch’s brew name – “corrects it”.  Despite the carcinogenic effects and a list of side-effects that read like a late night pharmaceutical  commercial disclaimer, it was approved to be used in a place and method exceeding our understanding.

On the upside, beyond the devastating internal organ side-effects, COREXIT does displays
enormous public relations, media, financial and shareholder benefit properties.  After watching the short-term effects of this magical dispersant I’m convinced it is horribly under utilized.  Think of the possibilities – the national deficit, the healthcare, bipartisanship in the senate, the totally screwed up military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq – why hasn’t President Obama sequestered all the Nation’s COREXIT and just sprayed it liberally over the country?  Mygod it’s the ultimate secret weapon!

The truth is I’m not certain we need a secret weapon – we seem amazingly capable of personal brainwashing without help of chemical assistance – except for a few scientists, fishermen and the odd Parish president, the disconnect is pretty complete.  What seems at odds to me is, that in large part, the generation that is accepting this is the same generation, my generation, that fought so passionately against this same government and corporate bullshit 40 years ago.  What happen?  Why have we quit asking questions?  And maybe more importantly, quit demanding answers?

Even here on the doorstep of the disaster everyone a few miles from the shoreline has gone about their live, assuming they left them to start with.  No one asks any questions.  And there ARE questions we should be asking.  (Am I sounding like a broken record yet?)

At the Top of the list – where the hell is 150 million plus gallons of oil?  Wrap your head around that folks.  Based on one barrel (42 gl) of crude oil makes 19.5 gallons of gasoline, which converts to 73.8 liters of petrol/gasoline – roughly the capacity of your average SUV/pickup.  Our missing 150 million then is 180,000+  trips to the gas station by an SUV.  Pause – deep breath. Now, think about that.  Think about spilling that many gallons of gasoline in and around your house.  Or think of opening your front door to 5-6 feet of gasoline on your standard city lot!!  Alarmed yet?  Have a few more questions yet?

That’s my issue – let’s change our perspective and keep asking question?  I can photograph and film the hell out of this place.  I can interview every biologist and fisherman and official that will speak to me, but will you, the world, ask any questions?  ask for any more explanation than, “it’s gone”?  Parrish President Nungesser has still got questions,

“Can anybody look the American people in the eye and say it absolutely has nothing to do with dispersants, the oil, or the breakdown of the oil, or does anybody care? I mean somebody has to be as upset as I am huh,”

Tomorrow I board a plane and take a break, for a few weeks, then I return to look for answers.  I still have more questions than answers.  My guess is I’ll find more questions.

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