My family just returned from a week-long vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we saw first-hand the BP oil spill. When the oil nears the shore, the air burns as if you're breathing lighter fluid, literally making you sick. At times the oil looks like scattered drops of congealed blood in the water. In other places it is a thick coating of tar and muck. And if you think the damage being done to the environment is limited to heart-wrenching scenes of oil-black pelicans and dolphins, multiple that by the hundreds of thousands of animals and plants you don't see in this rich ecosystem. It will be decades before the Gulf recovers from this crime.
As a native son of the South, I've spent many summers on the Gulf Coast, so this spill has emotionally hit me hard. We'd planned our trip for months and even after the oil hit we refused to cancel the vacation. Part of this was pure stubbornness--we refused to stay away from a place we love. But our other desire was to witness the pain humans are causing to this beautiful ecosystem, and to make sure our kids see the damage in person so they will always remember.
In many ways we were fortunate.We stayed on Fort Morgan Road, which by some quirk of fortune was one of the few beaches in Alabama not hit by oil. We also left the area the very day an even heavier oil started washing ashore. So while we did witness the damage being done by the worst oil spill in U.S. history, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
How much worse can it get? The oil is moving in giant waves along the coast, with the main spill remaining offshore and underwater. This means the oil can keep coming in day after day, limiting the ability to clean affected areas. And if a hurricane hits, all bets are off. The storm surge alone could devastate inland marshes with toxic petroleum-based chemicals, while the wind could aerosol the oil, letting hundreds of thousands of people breathe it in.
I can't begin to express how angry I am about this spill. When I say my family was fortunate, I don't simply mean that for the most part we were able to enjoy our vacation. We were fortunate because we were able to leave the Gulf and return to a home which isn't covered in oil.The people living on the Gulf can't simply pack their belongings and leave their lives behind until the cleanup is finished. The oil has already shut down a vast swath of the Gulf economy, and BP isn't anywhere near to compensating people for their lost jobs and opportunities.
There is no easy answer to the spill at this point. And while BP is responsible for the spill, don't pretend this same event couldn't have been caused by the other oil companies. They've all taken the same short cuts with producing oil, and they have all benefited from a decades-long belief that the only good government regulations are regulations which are either dead or dying. We are now paying the painful price for this short-sighted view.
I hope the government and individual lawsuits destroy BP as a warning to other companies which play with our shared lives. And the next time someone says government needs to stop over-regulating companies, punch that person in the face as you gently explain that regulations are needed when the risk of business-as-usual is what happened in the Gulf.
But most of all, I hope this disaster pushes people into finally understanding the damage which can result from the little choices we all make.
At my core I'm an optimist. I believe humans continually try to change for the better. So my fingers are crossed that we will work to prevent this from ever happening again. Otherwise, history will repeat itself, and a generation from now my kids will be bringing their families to the Gulf Coast to see a tragically updated version of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Note: Thanks to my great wife Jennifer for taking these photos.