As I listened to White House and BP officials describe the frantic search for an answer to cap the massive oil leak one mile below the Gulf Coast, all I could think about was the movie, “Apollo 13.”
In the film starring Tom Hanks, some of the nation’s best and brightest working at NASA feverishly try to find a solution to bring our astronauts home as their oxygen depletes and their space capsule runs out of power. With a nation sitting on edge and TV analysts speculating on what it will take to bring the stranded astronauts home, a solution is finally found. And a thankful country gives them a hero’s welcome.
Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told me Friday that the comparison between the two missions is fair.
“You are also dealing with an environment that is a helluva like space just by virtue of the fact that you are down there and you are limited because few vehicles can go down there,” said Jackson, who told me that she will spend her Memorial Day Monday in Louisiana.
Jackson says watching the millions of barrels a day flow into the Gulf Coast is painful since it is her job to ensure the air and water quality for the nation, but it’s doubly difficult because she is a product of New Orleans, having spent many days on the beaches that are now damaged by the spill.
“I think the greatest concern is that we are dealing with so many unknowns. It just keeps going up because the amount of oil keeps going up,” said Jackson, who holds a degree in chemical engineering from New Orleans’ Tulane University.
While President Barack Obama said Thursday that the federal government is in charge of the disaster area, they have no answers in stopping the leak; they are relying on BP and their expertise to get this done.
But trust is a critical issue. BP has provided conflicted answers and hasn’t been straightforward with federal officials, so trusting them is difficult for even the greatest optimist.
Jackson said the problem they are encountering is that the drilling techniques used today are far different than what oil companies were using 20 years ago when the Exxon Valdez tanker leaked millions of barrels of oil into the Alaskan waters. But Jackson said the techniques used to stop an oil leak are the same as 20 years ago.
“The technology has not kept up, and the results are potentially devastating,” she said.
Jackson said the blame has to be assessed initially with BP because the company gave federal officials assurances over the years that nothing like this could ever happen, and there really was no contingency plan to come up with in the case it did.
In the real world, we call that supreme arrogance, since even children know there are no guarantees in life.
Yet, she says they were aided by other federal agencies signing off on the drilling techniques used by BP — never demanding a plan of action if a spill of this magnitude took place.
As a result, Jackson says BP and federal officials are tossing out every conceivable idea to see if it will work, and they are doing so without any way of having humans go to the source and cap it. The solution must come from above ground.
One contentious moment was when Jackson and the EPA told BP to stop using highly toxic chemicals in the Gulf to disburse the oil. She says the company was approved to use the technique, but only with a limited spill. With them disbursing some 70,000 gallons a day, she says the EPA wasn’t comfortable that the science was there to keep water quality safe with that much toxicity. Now, they are using about 11,000 gallons a day.
And while the nation waits, those most affected by the oil spill are literally watching their way of life die. Tourism to the area’s beaches has gone away with signs saying they are closed. The beautiful wetlands that served as an oasis for wildlife have been destroyed. And shrimpers have no clue what to do since their livelihood is based on the Gulf Coast waters. In fact, I’m home in Houston for Memorial Day, and restaurants have erected signs stating that the shrimp they are now serving isn’t from the Gulf Coast, hoping that will satisfy scared patrons who are afraid of any seafood from the region. In fact, some are posting signs that their shrimp is coming from China.
As a child, Jackson said they had so many friends and family members who were in the shrimp business that they often got it for free. When her dad would tell the family that the crustacean was on the dinner menu, she would say, “We’re having shrimp again?!”
Now many who stake their lives on the industry would love to return to the days when their nets were plentiful and overrun with shrimp. Now they are praying for that day, hoping they will have an industry to work in when — better yet if — the leak is capped.
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as originally reported by Roland S. Martin.” Please visit his website at www.RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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