Three Mile Island (1979), Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), and Exxon Valdez (1989) are just a few of the many devastating environmental disasters that have afflicted our planet in just the last 35 years. Though they’re responsible for countless human and animal deaths, diseases, and birth deformities, not to mention the destruction they cause our environment, these disasters also afford us an opportunity.
They offer us a chance to figure out what we can do to prevent similar disasters in the future. Each crisis also teaches us what we can do to minimize the damaging effects once we are inevitably confronted with the next environmental disaster. Here, we take a look at two events, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the molasses spill in Hawaii. Both disasters occurred in U.S. waters and both resulted in a huge loss to their respective natural environments.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010 at approximately 9:45 p.m., CDT, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank off the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven crew members died in what would end up being called the worst natural disaster ever in the petroleum industry. Over the course of 87 days, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean until the gusher was finally capped on July 15, 2010, (though many speculate that the well still leaks). The oil spill was so massive that even into 2013 tar balls were washing up along the coastline. In fact, in June 2013, a tar mat (oil residue and wet sand) measuring 165 feet long and 65 feet wide was discovered on a Louisiana beach. Human and wildlife health issues continue to plague the United States southern coastal regions even today.
Lessons are still being learned from this tragedy, but the Oil Spill Commission that was put together by President Obama to determine what went wrong and what can be done to avoid a similar disaster in the future made some recommendations based on their findings. Included in their list of recommendations is the requirement that congress “significantly increase the liability cap and financial responsibility requirements for offshore facilities.” The committee also recommended that, just like other industries that are regulated, the offshore energy industry should be required to foot the bill associated with its oversight.
On the scientific front, the lessons learned from the spill highlight the collaboration between academia, local and federal government, and industry engineers and scientists. Marcia McNutt, PhD, and director of the USGS wrote in her findings that “A significant drawback in addressing many issues we confronted in Deepwater Horizon was the lack of peer-reviewed scientific publications from prior marine-well blowouts to help guide our actions; we will not make that mistake again by neglecting to publish for posterity the scientific lessons from this tragedy.”
Hawaii Molasses Spill
On September 9, 2013, a cargo ship’s pipeline leaked 233,000 gallons of molasses into the harbor waters off the Honolulu coast. The result was the almost immediate suffocation death of over 25,000 fish, and counting. The shipping company responsible for the disaster, a company called Matson, has declared that they will pay for everything related to the cleanup, but that will prove to be a very difficult task.
Molasses, unlike oil, floats to the bottom of water because it’s heavier. So, skimmers cannot be used to expedite the recovery of the molasses. The molasses will eventually wash away, but in the meantime, since it’s absorbing all of the oxygen, the animals that live in the harbor who need the oxygen to survive, can’t get it and are suffocating as a result. It’s not like the fish can call up a personal injury attorney in Honolulu. They need us to step up on their behalf and act, and that’s exactly what happened.
Prior to this incident, molasses wasn’t considered to be a dangerous substance, and no spill response plan was required. But, because of the high numbers of dead fish and the egregious environmental impact the molasses spill has had on the local environment, the government’s opinion has changed. In an almost immediate action, the Hawaii Department of Transportation began requiring all companies doing business in Hawaii’s ports to prepare and present spill response plans in an effort to reduce the environmental impact should anything like this happen again.
In both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the molasses spill in Hawaii, lessons were learned that will hopefully help prevent future similar environmental disasters. Since not every disaster can be predicted, though, it’s good to know that part of the takeaway from these events includes measures that can be taken to act jointly and swiftly in order to minimize the impact of a disaster when it does strike.