Oil spill: when a science fiction nightmare becomes reality

Joseph and Amanda Boyden report from the front lines
Joseph Boyden, Amanda Boyden and David Parker Jr.
Lee Celano/Reuters/ Patrick Semansky/AP /Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We walk on the sands of Pensacola Beach tonight. We’ve strolled here before, in the past, but it’s different now. Really different. The sky has turned from lavender to purple to black, and what we see comes straight from a science fiction movie. Our darkest imaginings of some mishandled future have sprung to life. For stretches longer than football fields, dozens of white-skinned, red-eyed aliens plod like zombies across the beach where the water meets the sand.

And then we see: the white-skinned aliens are really hazmat-clad humans wearing single infrared lights affixed to their heads. They shuffle and bend in teams of two, one holding a plastic bag while the other digs at black gelatinous blobs in the white sand. They wear white masks, and the waxing moon lists in the sky. Suddenly understanding that the beings are human is no less frightening.

We’ve come to this Florida Panhandle beach, one of the latest victims of the BP oil disaster, with a local politician, a number of Waterkeeper Alliance representatives, and a local journalist. We’re here to meet a geologist, Rip Kirby of the University of South Florida, a man who brings a particular tool crucial to a better understanding of the oil’s impact: ultraviolet light. Oil illuminates an eerie orange under the light while water and sand remain neutral.

The local journalist likes to talk, and he seems relatively excited by the presence of other press, if not by the disaster that has gathered us on his shores. He yabbers as we walk across the sand to meet Kirby. In the dark, we can quickly spot him. A blue, cone-shaped glow appears on the night beach in the distance amongst all the red eyes, and we beeline for it.

What we discover shuts up the local journalist for good. It’s clear that his hometown shore is now afflicted with a scarring disease that isn’t going away any time soon. Throughout the day and into the night, workers scoured the beach for telltale blobs and dark patches, scooping and raking, but here under this ultraviolet scrutiny, we can see that, especially along the waterline, the oil has covered huge swaths of the beach in a sort of splattered blanket. We move to a section where the surface appears white and either successfully cleaned or as of yet unaffected. The geologist tells us to dig into this sand, and when we do, it’s hard not to cry. At a depth of 15 cm, the telltale orange glow of oil permeates the sand in bright twisting ribbons.

This oil only arrived yesterday. The saturation is the result of merely a few tides.

Not surprisingly, to be able to visit this science fiction beach proved to be an outright struggle. The U.S. Coast Guard, acting under the authority of BP, had a few days earlier instituted a 20-m boundary around all of its workers and oil-cleaning efforts, both on land and in the water. If the curious are caught disobeying the new edict, they stand to be slapped with arrest, a felony charge, jail time and a fine of US$40,000. Other sites were inaccessible to media altogether without a pass issued by an entirely illusive head honcho. After waiting for one such pass for hours to visit Elmer’s Island, we were turned away by a man guarding the beach we’d hoped to investigate. Evidently the pass we’d just procured had expired. Or changed. It wasn’t the right one despite it being issued by the head honcho within the past hour.

While BP has instituted its boundaries under the guise of protecting the safety of the workers as well as that of the media, its regulations surely attempt only to lessen the exposure of its missteps. BP’s Kafkaesque games have grown ever more evident, just as its cleanup efforts have proven ineffective. Keeping photographers and journalists away from the real dirt has always been one of the goals of polluters. BP proves no different.

Fortunately, over the course of our days in the Gulf, we succeed in skirting the newly strung, literal yellow tape on numerous occasions by keeping company with those allowed to bypass it. Each time we come into contact with dozens of workers cleaning or placing boom. And over and over we are told the same thing when we ask their opinion: “I’m not allowed to talk to you.”

Tonight, travelling with a local politician allows us to see Pensacola Beach. We’re told that the red lights affixed to the heads of the cleanup crew are to protect the returning turtles that will be laying their eggs soon. But these red lights don’t help workers to distinguish oil from seaweed or shells or dead fish. The red lights don’t illuminate the oil, period, and it seems ever more unlikely that turtles would swim their way through a choking skim of oil to lay their eggs on an oil-saturated beach reeking of petroleum and swarming with masked humans digging at globs of whatever they can guess might be oil.

The enormity, the weight, of the cleanup to come and the damage already done renders us silent. As if we needed any more proof that the environment isn’t a self-cleaning machine ready made for man-made injuries, one of us steps into the warm Gulf waters, steps out again, and asks Kirby to aim his ultraviolet light at his bare feet. This beach will be deemed clean and reopened by some other head honcho in only two days, but right now, the water is so polluted with particles of oil that our friend looks like he wears orange polka-dot socks. The science fiction nightmare has become reality.

As of Thursday, July 15, it appears a new cap on the well has succeeded in stopping the gush of oil. The flow apparently has been staunched. Indeed, Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said on Saturday, July 18, “There is less and less oil to recover.”

One can only assume that he refers to the surface oil that has sluiced its way over thousands of square kilometres of the Gulf waters—the oil that can readily be seen. It can be sucked up and processed or burned off, to some extent. And with days for BP to play catch-up, of course there’s “less and less oil to recover.”

What, though, of the oil that can’t be seen, the oil that’s been treated with dispersants and moves in large snaking coils of gelatinous muck away from the various methods of containment? What about the oil that never even makes it to the surface to be treated?

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the famous Jacques Cousteau and CEO of the non-profit organization EarthEcho International, whose mission is to “empower youth to take action that protects and restores our water planet,” has plenty to say on the matter. Earlier during our Gulf visit, we watch Cousteau speak with Robert Kennedy Jr. in Mobile, Ala., and clearly Cousteau’s an environmental rock star. He’s tall and handsome, and it’d be easy to write him off as yet another pretty face of the environmental movement. But he’s more active at a hands-on level than other mouthpieces. Beyond serving on the boards of important institutions and lecturing at the likes of Harvard, Cousteau happened to be with Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin when he was fatally wounded by a stingray barb to the heart. Cousteau obviously continues in his father’s and grandfather’s tradition of diving and exploring, investigating first-hand.

Addressing the question of what the oil is doing beneath the surface and its treatment with dispersants, Cousteau says, “We’re very concerned. The challenge—what’s happening in this situation—is this oil spill is very different than what happened in last U.S. memory with the Exxon Valdez because of the depth at which it’s occurring. Almost two kilometres beneath the surface. It’s never happened before. And it’s a situation that is essentially an uncontrolled experiment. With the application of dispersants, but even without the application of dispersants at this depth, it’s not as cut and dry, as the oil just rises to the surface. It can attach itself to sediment. With that temperature and pressure it can remain for long periods of time at that depth and cause very serious problems. The concern with this oil spill is not just what we can see, but what we can’t see.”

If what can’t be seen by the naked human eye except with the aid of an ultraviolet light is any indication, what remains slithering throughout the mile-deep valleys of the Gulf of Mexico is a science fiction monster of another genre altogether. Only robotic submersibles can reach the depth of the well. It’s truly hard to say just how much oil has yet to rise. And it’s likely BP prefers it that way.

What can be seen in the light of day, however, is the oil that has found a home at Fort Pickens in a national park that borders Pensacola Beach. It’s at the tip of one of a chain of Gulf islands that once held the imprisoned Geronimo. Normally the park squawks with fishing birds, and its warm surrounding waters teem with minnows and other young marine life. Today, the park has been left soiled and silent. Because it’s a national seashore sanctuary, it is, in all horrible irony, not allowed to be touched. Oil globules—their very existence designed for ease of cleanup—cover the national park like so many dead jellyfish, and at night, armed with our ultraviolet light, we see that free-floating oil coats the island in giant random patches. These nursery waters can’t be long for this world.

Of course there’s reason to celebrate the stoppage of the oil volcano. Nobody here in the Gulf South could be happier that some dim light of promise now flickers on the horizon. But surely the families of the 11 workers on the doomed Deepwater Horizon oil rig who lost their lives in the initial explosion can find little solace. Sadly, too, they’re now flanked by the family of the devastated charter fishing captain, Allen Kruse, who took his own life after months of pollution and loss. Local communities are suffering as much as the oil-soaked birds, whose images we’ve all seen. Crisis hotlines in Louisiana alone jumped from 400 calls in early June to nearly 3,000 by the end of the month. People and wildlife alike are suffering.

Across the region, there’s still very slim faith for a tenuously better future. One needs only to sit in any bar in the middle of the day, from Destin, Fla., to Sabine Pass, Texas, and chat with the unemployed shrimpers and oyster harvesters and fishermen to understand that what’s been done to the Gulf will take incredible fortitude to overcome. They all know that when a hurricane comes through, it also spins away. They rebuild. Start fresh. But starting fresh while the metaphorical storm still surges, oily tide after oily tide after oily tide, is difficult at best.

Looking forward, though, seems to be the only direction to go. Certainly we should have learned from history, but we’ve proven ourselves doomed to repeat a number of mistakes.

Beneath the loose rock and sand of Prince William Sound, Alaska, still pools one of our biggest mistakes. Dig a hole on the beach and watch it fill with oil. This happens in 2010, despite Exxon asserting that there “has been no long-term damage caused by the spilled oil.” They add, “The ecosystem in Prince William Sound today is healthy, robust and thriving.” Interesting that the massive schools of herring that feed both humans and animals have not returned and the orca population that hunted in the area is hurtling toward certain extinction.

Now, however, we have to focus on what’s to come. In light of BP’s and no doubt other oil behemoths’ shirking of their original safety obligations, we have to hope that something good, something positive comes from incalculable loss. We here in the Gulf need to learn how to take what’s slapped down on our communal plate and turn it into something that sustains an entire region.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, summed up what Robert Kennedy Jr. spoke of when delivering his speech in Mobile: “Bobby’s point is that cleaning up, ‘fixing’ this current oil spill, is not going to fix the real problem.” Mattson further explains that Kennedy’s vision for the future hinges on not just effectively cleaning up the BP disaster but kicking our cancerous dependence on oil.

It’s at least a bit interesting to think about what we might find in our own backyards with ultraviolet light. We know what it helps discover on television shows like CSI, but that usually feels too Hollywood to believe it’s as easy as it seems. A little too fictional, a little too made up, sci-fi or otherwise. But what we should be considering as we go digging for what’s already in the ground is what we might leave for those who come after us. A time capsule of a different ilk.

Shouldn’t we be the ones who do better? Shouldn’t we be the ones who turn the tide?