There seems to be an outbreak of oil spills in the news lately. From San Francisco to Korea, Russia to Norway and Alaska to the Antarctic, oil spills are making headlines. What’s most aggravating to me is this notion that an oil spill can be “cleaned up,” and that an area can be restored to its pristine condition after an oil spill. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
I live in Alaska where the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons crude oil that that blackened 1,200 miles of our state’s pristine coastline and killed untold numbers of fish, birds, whales, seals, otters and other wildlife. It also decimated local fishing and Alaska Native communities who rely on the ocean and its resources for their way of life. I have kayaked in Prince William Sound and seen firsthand the “bathtub ring” of Exxon Valdez oil still visible at high tide line. Scientists report that oil from the initial spill in 1989 is still being dispersed in the sound today, and could continue for decades. Only a few species have recovered since the spill, the rest are in decline or have not recovered.
All this against the backdrop of ExxonMobil declaring the spill “cleaned up” 16 years ago, while posting record profits and continuing to stall and delay the payment of funds to fishermen and communities still feeling the effects of the spill.
In short, “cleaning up” an oil spill is a misnomer. Even under perfect conditions - warm temperatures, calm seas, no wind and oil, and oil spill response equipment close at hand – only 15 percent of the oil is removed from the environment. The rest remains, smothering birds and other wildlife so that they die of hypothermia, suffocation or by poisoning themselves through ingesting oil in an effort to clean themselves. The legacy of an oil spill lives on for decades.
It’s just one more reason we need to break our addiction to oil. Phasing out dirty fossil fuels like oil and replacing them with clean forms of energy such as solar and wind will not only reduce and eventually eliminate the threat and impact of oil spills, it will also solve the issue of global warming.
Above photo is me, at the site of the Selendang Ayu oil spill on Unalaska Island, Alaska, December 2004.