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Posts: 4072
Registered: Apr 2009

posted June 19, 2010 07:35 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for katatonic     Edit/Delete Message

'The grandaddy of all gushers'? Not this spill
Obama's claim that Gulf crisis is 'worst environmental disaster' spurs debate

updated 2:30 a.m. PT, Sat., June 19, 2010
From the Oval Office the other night, President Obama called the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” Senior people in the government have echoed that language.

The motive seems clear. The words signal sympathy for the people of the Gulf Coast, an acknowledgment of the magnitude of their struggle. And if this is really the worst environmental disaster, the wording seems to suggest, maybe people need to cut the government some slack for failing to get it under control right away.

But is the description accurate?

Scholars of environmental history, while expressing sympathy for the people of the gulf, say the assertion is debatable. They offer an intimidating list of disasters to consider: floods caused by human negligence, the destruction of forests across the entire continent and the near-extermination of the American bison.

“The White House is ignoring all the shades and complexities here to make a dramatic point,” said Donald E. Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas and a visiting scholar at Yale.

The professors also note the impossibility of ranking such a varied list of catastrophes. Perhaps the worst disaster, they say, is always the one people are living through now.

Still, for sheer disruption to human lives, several of them could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl.

“The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University.

Apocalyptic clouds
Across the High Plains, stretching from the Texas Panhandle to the Dakotas, poor farming practices in the early part of the 20th century stripped away the native grasses that held moisture and soil in place. A drought that began in 1930 exposed the folly.

Boiling clouds of dust whipped up by harsh winds buried homes and cars, destroyed crops, choked farm animals to death and sent children to the hospital with pneumonia. At first the crisis was ignored in Washington, but then the apocalyptic clouds began to blow all the way to New York, Buffalo and Chicago. A hearing in Congress on the disaster was interrupted by the arrival of a dust storm.

By the mid-1930s, people started to give up on the region in droves. The Dust Bowl refugees joined a larger stream of migrants displaced by agricultural mechanization, and by 1940 more than two million people had left the Great Plains States.

However, the Dust Bowl lasted a decade, and that raises an issue. What exactly should be defined as an environmental disaster? How long should an event take to play out, and how many people have to be harmed before it deserves that epithet?

Wall of water
Among sudden events, the Johnstown Flood might be a candidate for worst environmental disaster. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused a poorly maintained dam to burst in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending a wall of water 14 miles downriver to the town of Johnstown. About 2,200 people were killed in one of the worst tolls in the nation’s history.

At the time it happened, that event was understood as a failure of engineering and maintenance, and that is how it has come down in history. Perhaps a one-day flood is simply too short-term to count as an environmental disaster.

On the other hand, if events that played out over many decades are included, the field of candidates expands sharply.

Perhaps the destruction of the native forests of North America, which took hundreds of years, should be counted as the nation’s largest environmental calamity. The slaughtering of millions of bison on the Great Plains might qualify.

Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, nominates “the human overhaul of the Mississippi River Valley,” which destroyed many thousands of acres of wetlands and made the region more vulnerable to later events like Hurricane Katrina.

However, those activities were not seen as disasters at the time, at least by the people who carried them out. They were viewed as desirable alterations of the landscape. It is only in retrospect that people have come to understand what was lost, so maybe those do not belong on a disaster list.

Oil spills, too, seem to be judged more by their effect on people than on the environment. Consider the Lakeview Gusher, which was almost certainly a worse oil spill, by volume, than the one continuing in the gulf.

In the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar.

It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. “It’s the granddaddy of all gushers,” said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area.

The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.

The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill.

That sets it apart from the Deepwater Horizon leak. The environmental effects of the gulf spill remain largely unknown. But the number of lives disrupted is certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands; the paychecks lost in industries like fishing add up to millions; and the ultimate cost will be counted in billions.

Even with all that pain, can it yet be called the nation’s worst environmental disaster?

“My take,” said William W. Savage Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, “is that we’re not going to be able to tell until it’s over.”

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posted June 20, 2010 01:41 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dervish     Edit/Delete Message
The US government, especially Obama, has been pressured to act like they're losing their equanimity. You can see what I mean in this, IMO, brilliant editorial about the media:

I have mixed feelings about Obama. One of the few things I really like about him is his ability to keep a cool head and not exploit disasters for their political points, such as the dignified restraint and blunt honesty when talking publicly about the swine flu debacle while everyone else was getting crazy over it. It's a pity that he allowed himself to be bullied into being melodramatic this time, but I take comfort in the fact that it's an act rather than sincere. Personally, I prefer someone who can keep his head in a crisis (as he seems to do) rather than bluster or rend their garments (which comes off as fake to me at best, and at worst comes off as sincere which means approaching total panic mode which does NOT make me feel better, especially when they have access to all kinds of nasties, from nukes to conscience-disabled agents).

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posted June 20, 2010 10:25 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for katatonic     Edit/Delete Message
i agree dervish. like the way the video brings home the point...that the media wants theatre and drama not results...

which brings to mind for some reason a clip of glenn beck in tears over the death of the nation or somesuch a few months back.

there's a lefty who does the same thing on his show, to my mind ruining a lot of good points by overloading his monologues with hatred for limbaugh, the corporatist "pigs" and all the other perceived enemies.

are we such no-brains that given the facts we couldn't make up our own minds? or is someone trying to create a civil war just to make better ratings?

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Posts: 410
From: Gaia
Registered: Apr 2010

posted June 23, 2010 11:08 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for AbsintheDragonfly     Edit/Delete Message
Follow the money I say. What is the benefit for the media to make it seem like this is happening all the time:

Advertising dollars

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