Investigating the Oil Spill at Horn Island, Mississippi


October 28, 2010

Camping on Horn Island, Mississippi, I am struck by the healing power of nature. Horn Island is a thin strip of sand surrounded by ocean where Monarch butterflies migrating to the cloud forests of Mexico flit about pine-topped dunes on this last bit of terra firma before continuing the long flight. 

       The full force of Hurricane Katrina devastated the island in 2005. The dunes were leveled and the litter of buildings and ships spread out over the vast expanse of sand.  Poles of dead pines still poke the sky like a vast fleet of sailboats. Yet in that sun scoured desert life returns. Tufts of sea grass anchor hillocks of sand. Tidal lagoons dammed by blowing sand capture rainwater and become fecund habitat. Up on the interior dunes of the island, healthy pine groves shelter a different ecosystem. Flowers and young trees dot the white expanse. The tracks of herons, raccoons, rabbits and lots of other creatures wind hither and tither through the brush. The burrows of ghost crabs dot the space.

       Five years after the deadliest of storms nearly wiped this narrow strip of island from the map, life is returning. Yet in this hopeful process a new devastation arrived this spring on the warming waters of the Gulf. Some 70 miles from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Horn Island and the waters surrounding it were full of oil. Six months after the beginning of the spill, contract crews are still out there every day sifting sand, filling buckets, bags and boxes with oily sand, but still a layer of tarballs litters the surface like gravel. Below the surface there are oil layers in the sand that look like layers of chocolate on a vanilla cake. There’s still a lot of oil. Oil that will still be there decades and perhaps generations from now.

       How it will impact generations of birds, crustaceans and fish remains to be seen. Does nature have the power to overcome this dark and deadly disaster? Not much is known, and even after hundreds of oil spills have plagued the earth, oil companies continue to probe into deeper waters and riskier places in pursuit of the last deposits of fossil fuel. When will we realize it’s not worth the ruin of amazing places like Horn Island and loss of the once healthy bounty of Gulf waters?  What will it take to give up and pursue renewable energy with the same kind of energy and investment as we are laying out for oil?


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