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BY TED WILLIAMS
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I keep reading about lessons America supposedly learned from last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. History suggests they’ll be retained about as long as dates memorized by high-schoolers for June history finals. But I learned some lessons that will never exit this cluttered mind. Lessons that haven’t even been talked about except by me.
First, I learned that President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are not the men I thought them to be. Confronted by a furious nation, this was their battle cry: Once more into the breach dear friends, and to save our hides we’ll sacrifice our Minerals Management Service Director Liz Birnbaum, the environmentalist we chose for the job only last July.
I got to know Birnbaum when we worked for American Rivers — I as a board member, she as our general counsel. Immediately she impressed me with her toughness, intelligence and commitment to fish and wildlife. She impressed the Obama team as well — not just with her performance at American Rivers, but with her previous and equally heroic work as counsel for the National Wildlife Federation’s Water Resources Program and as counsel to the House Committee on Natural Resources. What’s more, as President Clinton’s associate solicitor for mineral resources, she’d had extensive experience in minerals management. She was the perfect choice to roust the MMS from Big Oil’s bed.
Immediately, Birnbaum set about doing just that. She helped draft safety-system regulations. She got the National Academy of Sciences to review inspection procedures. She started work on desperately needed regulations for cleaning abandoned drilling equipment. She put the environmental staff on a more equal footing with the leasing staff by bringing in a new science adviser — Alan Thornhill, director of the Society for Conservation Biology. She met with all regional staffers and informed them of her high expectations. She built trust. People began coming to her and telling her what needed to be fixed.
Birnbaum is a good soldier, classy enough to fall silently on her sword, even when pushed. But I have it from a high-ranking MMS source that when Salazar felt the heat he began distancing himself from her. First he ordered her to not attend the May 27, 2010, hearing of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, despite the fact that she was on the witness list and would look terrible if she didn’t show. If that was his intent, it worked. Salazar’s statement that Birnbaum resigned “on her own terms and on her own volition” was not true. He asked her to resign after she’d mentioned the possibility. With that, President Obama proclaimed to the nation that the pace of Birnbaum’s reforms during her tenure (all of 10 months) had been “too slow.”
The president spoke often of BP’s “greed” and “recklessness.” But he and the rest of the nation erred in blaming BP for the disaster. BP is just another oil company, equally greedy and reckless, but no more so than any other. Americans have only themselves to blame because they swallowed the industry’s lie that they can burn as much oil as they like and all will be fine on sea and land.
Another lesson I learned (or relearned) was that, especially when the public is fixated on a topic, our national media function like a vast sewer system in reverse. They seemed to go out of their way to dredge up spectacularly unqualified spokesmen, none of whom vented the honey truck quite like Plaquemines Parish, La., President Billy Nungesser. Scarcely did he pause to inhale during his five-month monologue. Typical of his pontifications (this circulated by the Associated Press) was that Admiral Thad Allen — the smart, tough, straight-talking incident commander, who has been dealing with oil spills for 40 years — should be fired because he “has failed at almost every step.”
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran out of news he concocted it by playing ventriloquist to propped-up guests. Cooper said (goosing the American Birding Association’s Drew Wheelan along with fiction about “experts” who supposedly possess the ability to pluck fowls from the firmament): “Right now they don’t have the expertise to go after birds that are in flight, which people can do who are experts. … Basically, you’re saying they’re just going after the birds who are completely covered in oil and unable to move, and these are the birds that are likeliest basically to die. … So birds that maybe have less oil on them and can fly, they’re not going after those birds because it’s too
much effort and too difficult.”
Wheelan: “Yeah, they just don’t have any expertise in that area.”
Cooper: “It seems there are a lot of volunteers and a lot of bird experts who would love to be down here and love to be helping.”
Wheelan: “Absolutely. … I know the Audubon Society has over 17,000 people that have signed up to volunteer on this effort, and so far they’ve not received a single phone call.”
During this and similar broadcasts I was inspecting the Louisiana coast and islands by boat. What impressed me most was howfew birds had been oiled. There were more than enough state and federal resource personnel to retrieve the lucky victims — i.e., those that couldn’t fly. No one, save Mary Poppins, could capture those that could still take to the air; and the last thing the stressed colonies needed was net-brandishing volunteers crashing through thick cover, flushing adults, exposing chicks to the fierce sun and running them into oil.
On June 10, 2010, the Associated Press quoted unnamed critics as calling bird washing “a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time.” Thirty-eight years ago, when I first started writing about oiled birds, I believed this — because it was true. Now it’s bunk. At one rehabilitation center, last June, I saw northern gannets being massaged with solvent, washed with detergents and rinsed with high-powered sprayers. A recent study of their nearly identical cousins, cape gannets off South Africa, revealed a one-year survival rate of 84 to 88 percent for birds that underwent identical rehabilitation. On our Pacific Coast, a study of western gulls found that rehabbed birds did just as well over the long haul as the unoiled control group. And the long-term survival rate for rehabbed brown pelicans is between 50 and 85 percent, probably closer to the top figure for Louisiana birds because most began feeding within seconds of release.
The disaster was plenty bad, just not as bad as reported; but I learned that many Americans can’t stand to hear any news about it that isn’t just plain awful. Among the facts they don’t want to know: All feds aren’t stupid, lazy and deceitful. Unlike Alaskan oil, Gulf oil was so volatile that nearly half evaporates instantly when it hit the surface. High temperatures caused much of the remaining oil to break down rapidly. Most oil that sank or drifted below the surface in plumes now cannot be found. While fish eggs and larvae took a major hit from even light sheens, most adult fish toughed it out or, as with tunas, mackerels and billfish, fled. And because commercial and even recreational fishing was shut down for weeks, next year’s spawn will be monumental.
When my first piece appeared in Audubon magazine, the birding blogosphere threw a hissy fit. Birdspert.org’s Ted Eubanks denounced it in a rambling harangue entitled “Slick Williams” that hopscotched between everything and everyone from “Earth Day” to “the Clean Air Act” to “the Clean Water Act” to “NEPA” to “ESA” to “the Great Lakes” to “the Hudson River” to “western wilderness” to “Edward Abbey” to “Woodward and Bernstein” to “Russell Mead” to “Teapartiers” to “Nixon” to “George Wills [sic].” Typical of other posts were: “Audubon is a sellout and Ted Williams is just another crony,” “Good bye to Audubon until they get someone who actually wants to make a difference for the environment writing for them” and “You have whithered [sic] to little more than a desk jockey with a laptop.”
No one knows how the oil will affect ecosystems in the long haul. But it is clear to anyone capable of observing reality and accepting truths that most bird, mammal, turtle and fish populations will recover in the not-too-distant future. After that, for those willing, the learning process will continue.♦
–Freelance writer Ted Williams specializes in conservation and environmental topics. He’s an editor-at-large for Audubon magazine, conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel and an OWAA member since 1975. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.