Cleaning Up after the Unthinkable

The destruction of BP's oil rig has devastated the communities of the Gulf and created an overwhelming ecological disaster. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who was on the scene in the Gulf last week, described it in the L.A. Times: "…an endless explosion of toxic muck, a sickening creep of poisonous sludge that may soon blanket a national park, more than a dozen wildlife refuges and hundreds of miles of coastline…"

What can we do about it? Already, more than 60,000 Sierra Club supporters have taken action online to demand a moratorium on offshore drilling and to call on the government to use all resources necessary to support Gulf Coast communities and ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Sierra Club President Allison Chin was in New Orleans last weekend for the first of dozens of "Clean It Up" solidarity rallies around the country to support Gulf Coast residents and demand accountability from BP. Find out more here.

Finally, we can demand that our leaders deliver a plan to get us off oil by promoting clean-energy solutions. The technology and solutions for a 21st-century transportation system already exist -- we just need the political will to implement them.

from Sierra Club Insider

Rain Gardens

Raingardens are a natural accompaniment to catchment systems. During the rainy season, unless you have a huge storage system, your storage will quickly fill up.

Raingardens involve landscape changes made to direct overflow from the catchment system, as well as natural runoff from the landscape, into small depressions (about a foot deep) dug into the landscape and filled with mulch or other absorbent substances which hold water but allow it to seep slowly into the soil. These can be dug easily with a shovel. Over and around these, one plants native plants that are attuned to the natural rain cycles of the area. Retention ledges or berms can also be built around lawns and gardens to detain runoff and encourage it to percolate into the soil. People are also replacing impervious surfaces such as driveways and walkways with porous cement and pavers. In all these cases the aim is to allow rainwater to seep into the soil without creating standing water where mosquitoes can breed. This encourages the recharging (replenishing) of groundwater. It also allows microorganisms in the soil to break down pollutants such as petroleum products and pesticides before they reach waterways. In short, by harvesting rainwater, you can:
• lower demand for municipal water;
• help reduce flooding, erosion, and sedimentation into creeks;
•  reduce strain on local sewer districts;
• protect local streams and habitat for salmon and other wildlife;
• prevent pollutants from reaching streams and bays;
• reduce your carbon footprint by saving energy used to treat and pump municipal water;
• save money.

from Sierra Club Yodeler

June 2010

The Oil Slick

Dangers of unknown size and character send you ricocheting between complacency and alarmist panic.  If attempts succeed to shut the leaking oil well’s valve, or if the magical dome manages to contain the spew on the seafloor, then the life of the waters and the shores will be largely spared, and the greatest tragedy of the BP blowout will be the eleven lives lost on the burned, sunken rig.   But if the crude geyser continues erupting for months—apparently a genuine possibility—then consequences could follow that are literally beyond comprehension.

We stand near the mouth of Mobile Bay.  Its shores are fringed with marshes, and from its head spreads the Mobile River delta, in the USA second only to the Mississippi delta in extent and in vitality as an incubator of marine life.  What happens to that life if the oil gushes for months and if winds and currents drive it into the bay and up into the delta?  Perhaps a wall of multiple booms across the mouth of the bay could stop this.  But wouldn’t those booms also stop the ships that are the life of the waterfront in Mobile, one of America’s top ten ports by cargo volume?

If circumstances force a choice, what is the rational and fair principle by which to decide whether to save the marine life and the livelihoods that depend on it or to save the commerce of the port and the livelihoods that depend on it?  No such principle is apparent.  The decision would likely come from an unruly and bitter contention among interest groups, all of which foresee ruin for themselves if they lose this showdown.

Fishing in Orange Beach. How long until we see the oil?

Short of such an environmental and social calamity, it’s much easier to decide who should do whatever cleanup and recovery proves possible whenever the oil arrives here in whatever amounts.  All in attendance today could not have gotten here without using in some form the petroleum products whose production mishap now threatens us all.  But we are not all equally complicit in this mishap.  For most of us these products are an inescapable daily feature of the society we inhabit.  For a few of us they are the source of a paycheck that supports a family, with little leftover at the end of the month.  And for even fewer, these products are a source of great wealth, luxury, and power from owning and controlling the global petrochemical companies.  These same folks, or their families and associates, also tend to own and control the companies that rush in to seize the recovery contracts when calamities occur.  Disaster capitalism it has been called.  Such buzzards seeking road kill to scavenge are not needed or welcome here. 

Instead, some people will volunteer to help.  Others should be hired.  Many in this vicinity lost jobs and homes to hurricane Katrina that have still not been restored.  They have skills and equipment suitable for recovery work offshore and on.  On the streets of Mobile and other nearby cities are thousands of the unemployed who should be hired.  And they should all be paid by the reckless operators and owners who caused this crisis but who mostly live in safely distant places.

And after the runaway well is plugged and the restorative work is underway, the lessons learned must be implemented.  During the Cold War, when mutual nuclear annihilation by the United States and the Soviet Union loomed as an instant menace, movies appeared expressing this anxiety.  They had titles like The Thing That Ate the Bronx and The Blob.

But humanity looked at the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and realized that just because you’re capable of doing something does not mean you should or must do it.  So no nuclear weapons have been used since then, and if this lesson holds, none ever will be used.

Technology has now spread our capacity for ruin to many other realms.  The maps of the spreading oil slick in our news today look remarkably like that ravenous blob from the Cold War movies.  But we don’t have to succumb to it, just as we don’t have to nuke ourselves if we decide not to.

The oil pouring from the well is like ink writing a lesson on the surface of the waters that we must learn.  We must not do things simply because we’re technologically capable of them—at least until they go disastrously wrong.  We must find other ways of providing the order and energy necessary for our lives.  That’s what Mother Earth or Father God or Nature is trying to tell us by this approaching menace. 

Use whatever name you prefer for this higher, incomprehensible power.  But recognize and adopt the lesson it is trying to teach—before it gets fed up and issues us a final, flunking, terminal F.

                                                                                    David Underhill
                                                                                    Mobile Bay Sierra Club

                                                                                    Coden, Alabama