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Spills Happen

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YELLOWSTONE OIL SPILL 2011
Jim Urquhart, AP

They happen all the time. That's what the oil industry says. Oil spills are to be anticipated, frequent though regrettable by-products of petrochemical exploration. When you drill for oil or move oil, every now and then, something will go wrong with equipment or infrastructure, or someone will make a bad mistake, resulting in a disaster. Oil spills happen, and to hear the oil industry tell it, they're just part of the cost of doing business.

The oil industry believes this because spills do indeed happen. A lot. Just look at the figures from the last year. Since the BP oil disaster, there have been eleven major spills worldwide, resulting in a conservative estimate of nearly 200,000 tons of oil -- tonnage equal to one third of the oil that poured unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster. The estimate is conservative because the total amount of oil released by the Jebel al-Zayt disaster -- widely considered to be the worst spill in Egypt's history -- is unknown and not factored into the total. So, that's at a minimum more than 800,000 tons of oil, just poured out into the waters and environments of the world, essentially a write off for the industry.

It's not so easy to accept that this past year's total of more than 800,000 tons of oil is just the cost of doing business, especially when you consider the places (waters and lands that people depend upon for their livelihoods) that this lost oil has irrevocably polluted; the Gulf of Mexico, the Red Sea, the Niger Delta, the Yellow Sea, the Alaskan Tundra, The Great Salt Lake. The list, sadly, goes on.

Just recently, our nation heard of yet another oil spill in one of our most sacred natural places, the Yellowstone River. While watching residents react on the evening news, one can't help but think of the similarities between this spill and the BP oil disaster of last summer. While the amount of oil dumped into the river -- one of America's most pristine -- may not be the same, the anxiety sure is. People who make their living on the Yellowstone worry what will happen to them and their business. They're afraid of how the spill will hurt the water, the land, and community. They're concerned about the long-term damages that will impact the lives and health of their children and grandchildren. The only answer that Exxon can give them today is that no one really knows.

Despite the difference in scale, there are some answers to be found along the Gulf Coast. People are still suffering there, fifteen months later. You only have to see the latest video blog from Louisiana Bayoukeeper to know that the oil is not gone. Or read the letter that 154 environmental, fishing, chemical reform, and community groups sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Seblius to know that there are indeed. Or read Emerald Coastkeeper's latest Oyster sampling in Pensacola passes to understand that marine life continues to be impacted a year after an oil spill happens.

Despite bland assurances from big oil that they're doing all they can to make things right in the Gulf, impacts from the industry on our people and ecosystems are vast. They include chronic oil spills, land lost (Louisiana alone losses a football size of land every 30 minutes due to soil erosion in part because of canals from the industry), decaying infrastructure, and impacts on marine life. These are just some of the reasons why Florida residents and politicians continue to be in heated debates to stop offshore drilling from coming to its shores.

Decaying infrastructure isn't something that you automatically think of when you think of the oil industry. One imagines that big oil's record profits of the last decades should, in some way, have been reinvested into ensuring that blow-out preventers in the Gulf work, or that pipelines in America's most sacred rivers aren't about to fail. Our national media covers gas prices, OPEC, and political matches on whether to increase drilling, almost never telling us that what the industry leaves behind is also a threat to the quality of our water and our communities. In one exception, in July of 2010 -- during the height of the BP oil disaster -- the Associated Press released a story on the estimated 27,000 abandoned pipelines in the Gulf coast area, pipelines just like the ones Atchafalaya Basinkeeper Dean Wilson documented just after the flooding of the Mississippi River in late May.

In light of the Gulf's abandoned pipelines and the Yellowstone River's failed pipelines, it's difficult to find fault with Florida's residents when they want to block offshore drilling. Until other fuel sources are put to use, oil continues to be the dominant fuel for roads, rail and airways. But, with oil companies reaping record profits, it seems to many of us that the Exxons and BPs of the world have some responsibility to act in a way that doesn't kill us off in the process, or irreversibly destroy the clean waters we need to in order to swim, drink, and fish. Because in the end, that's a cost of doing business that none of us can afford.

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