Friday, April 30, 2010

The acrid smell of environmental disaster

There is a definite smell in the air, wafting its way into Louisiana's highways and byways. It is a reminder that the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will be a clear and present danger for some time to come. There are those in the seafood industry who fear this may be the death knell for oyster beds, crabbing and for shrimping seasons for several years to come. The fact that the spill is now thought to be five times as originally feared is bad enough. The loss of 11 workers to their families on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig that sank is sad enough. The inability to stop the flow of crude oil into the gulf should make all of us shout out that enough is enough. What hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav could not do to Louisiana and Mississippi - shut down the seafood industry - might actually be accomplished by this man-made event. The first reports of oil washing into the mouth of the Mississippi River came about Thursday evening, but the smell of disaster came into the region well in advance. With bad weather expected to hit the area in the next several days, skimming, burning and trapping measures to capture the oil spill could be stymied. Despite the best efforts on the part of BP technicians, the flow of crude oil from three separate leaks continues unabated. Even if the well was capped today, the damage to the ecosystem will be felt for some time to come. The point is that the well is not being capped and the environmental impact will loom large for some time to come. Louisiana has had a special relationship with the petroleum industry. It is a necessary evil because the fact is that oil production and the price of oil per barrel dictate whether the state budget runs into the red or black each year. Budgets aside, there is potential here to do more damage than the Exxon Valdez ever did in Alaska. Lives have been lost, livelihoods are in danger and life as we know it could disappear in a thick mass of tar lapping onto estuaries. The real danger is that damage to the fragile ecosystem below the waters and into the marshes could be catastrophic. Governor Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency, while critics have charged that the federal government's response has been sluggish at best. Frankly, it is questionable if any government or business is equipped to handle this level of tragedy. Meanwhile the smell of disaster hangs high in the air and its stench may eventually extend all the way to the hallowed halls of Congress and into the Oval Office of the White House.

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