Everyone loves an anniversary. This is the one-year anniversary of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil blowout that has wreaked biological havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, which of course in time that fairly open body of water will share with the rest of the Atlantic. Because it is the anniversary, everyone is talking about it. But when was the last time you heard anyone mention it?
That's the way our society is. We move on quickly from one disaster to another. In the process we don't seem to learn or correct much of anything. Until the anniversary caused this brief return to the subject of the BP disaster, what everyone was talking about was
the radiation pouring into the Pacific ocean from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. I have been getting a lot of queries about whether fish is safe to eat now that they have done that. This strikes me as curious since the plant was spewing radiation into the air long before they started dumping it in the ocean, raising the question: what on earth is safe to eat?
The two disasters have a great deal in common aside from the fact that they are both gifts from an energy industry that keeps reassuring us that their operations are safe while investing little in making sure that they really are safe. One of those things they have in common is that they both offer the same answer to the question: what is the impact of this disaster on ocean life? That answer, in both cases is -- we don't know.
The problem with ocean pollution, whether it is sewage, chemicals, oil, or garbage -- all of which is now in the seas in considerable quantities -- is that they either sink or disperse or wash away. In all of those cases it is gone, out of sight, and we don't have to think about it anymore.
Oil spills are a dramatic case of this. A catastrophe like the Deepwater Horizon leaves a lot of unsightly gunk behind on the surface of the water and along coastlines. All of this visible spillage can be cleaned up in time. The public demands it. Then the public is generally satisfied, unless they happen to be in the shellfish or fishing industry and are still seeing the impact in their production. But in reality the spill hasn't been cleaned up at all.
In 1969 a diesel barge broke up off of Cape Cod and the disaster got a great deal of attention because the famous beaches of Cape Cod became blackened with muck and were unusable. The muck was cleaned up, the tourists returned to the beaches, the crisis was over and forgotten about. But scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the Cape today still go to the marshes by Buzzards Bay and study the effect of diesel residue on the marine life there.
How can we be doing these dangerous things without even knowing the consequences? How can the Japanese build a nuclear plant along a coastline that is famous for tsunamis, to use a Japanese word, without knowing how to make it withstand one, without figuring out what to do when one hits, and without having any idea of the possible consequences?
How can oil companies drill in the ocean without knowing how to make sure that accidents don't happen, without having a well-defined course of action when they do, and without having any idea of the extent of damage they may be causing?
I was reminded of BP haplessly experimenting with various attempts to plug up the leak day after day while the oil was spilling into the sea, as I watched Tokyo Electric Power Company experimenting with various substances including shredded newspapers to plug up a crack in a tank of irradiated water. They simply had no plan for such an occurrence.
But what is most troubling to me is why we tolerate it. Why aren't we demanding that these companies do better research? Why aren't these companies barred from offshore drilling and seaside nuclear power plants -- they all are seaside -- until these problems are fixed. Our governments coddle these companies because they have determined that people would rather use energy wantonly than assure their own safety and the preservation of the planet. We would have wiser governments if we were wiser people.