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The True Price of Oil

From my window in Alameda overlooking San Francisco Bay, I watch hundreds of men and women in white suits, some with masks, busily uprooting slimy sea plants and gently grabbing birds with feathers coated in black grease. Abutting the public beach, this “bird preserve” became a disaster for the very creatures it was designed to protect. On October 30, a line broke during a fuel transfer, the Panamanian-flagged Dubai Star. Some 800 gallons poured into the Bay.

During the first three days, clean up crews, according to official reports, found 36 oil-covered birds alive. Two more died after not responding to treatment to join 11 other dead pelicans, herons, gulls and sandpipers.

Puddles of thick black goo found their lodging along the Alameda public beaches. Hardened “tar balls,” as one crew member called them, hid among the sea plants. The bodies of oily fish rested nearby.

The Bay looked unusually quiet on the days following the spill. I missed the shrieks of the diving ducks and avocets, the playful feeding of the pelicans and the peaceful feeling of harmony that somehow derives from watching the current roll in and out. The clean up crews placed long plastic barriers in the water reaching from Alameda to Bay Farm Island a half a mile across to catch the floating oil pools so they won’t penetrate further into the delicate recesses of the Bay near the Oakland Airport. The ubiquitous fishermen that dot the shoreline were notably absent. “No Fishing Allowed,” said the official sign. Each entrance to the beach contained crime scene yellow tape. “Oil Spill. Unsafe to Enter Water.”

“Shit happens,” remarked one clean up worker placing the “shit” into a large plastic bag. “Lucky no one died. The birds took a hit and no one knows how many fish and shell fish, fish eggs and seals and other sea creatures ate it. And no one knows what the long term effects will be. That’s a risk people don’t tend to think about when we talk about our dependence on oil.” He offered a philosophical smile, as if somehow the entire mess belonged to a vague and immutable source; an oil spill, a veritable act of Nature, like an earthquake or hurricane. A fuel line broke. Just like that. No more need be said.

In November 2007, a far worse environmental disaster occurred when a tug boat pilot steered the Cosco Busan into a Bay Bridge pillar. The tanker spilled 54,000 gallons of toxic fuel into the Bay. The pilot mistakenly guided the container ship through heavy fog toward a tower of the Bay Bridge, instead of through the passage between towers. The collision cut 8-feet deep and 212-feet long into the ship’s hull.

That “human error” left 2,525 dead birds. Rescue teams saved 418 of the oil-covered creatures. Over time, work crews cleaned up the surface of 52 miles of oil-contaminated sandy beach coastline and 10 miles of salt marsh.
The workers managed to siphon from the Bay water 20,000 of the 54,000 spilled gallons of oil. Committees met on local, state and national levels to figure out how to minimize future “human errors.”

Ah, we humans, so prone to error and so dependent on oil. Hardly a month passes without some such oily “mistake” somewhere in the world. In September 1996, the Julie M, a 560-foot oil tanker, crashed into a bridge in Maine, pouring 170,000 gallons of oil into the water. It cost $130 million to replace the span on the Casco Bay Bridge.

Who deserves responsibility for such “accidents?” Government, owners, oil companies, the public that uses the product, or the entire system for which oil has become the equivalent of a blood line?

The tug boat pilot who ran the Cosco Busan into the bridge received a ten month prison term after pleading guilty to two environmental misdemeanors. He had become disorientated in heavy fog, he said, while using onboard navigational equipment, the National Transportation Safety Board found. He abandoned the ship’s radar system because he thought it had grown distorted. The pilot, it turned out, had taken “mind-altering pharmaceuticals.” (Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Planning for the Cosco Busan Oil Spill)

Like most working Americans, he felt stress and this led him to drugs, confusion and “human error.” Errors produce contamination, dead creatures that depend on balanced environment not filled with oil, which seeps into sand and infects all beneath it. Above ground, we cannot blame human error for pouring the stuff into engines that emit atmosphere-changing vapors that scientists say have altered the global climate – not for the better. Is there a larger human error at work?

SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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