Oil spill was preventable, scientist says

The worst oil spill in U.S. history could have been prevented had basic risk assessment and a strict permitting process been followed, said an environmental toxicologist who spoke to scientists and others gathered Tuesday at Southern Oregon University.

Wayne Landis, director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Western Washington University, said the catastrophe was "entirely predictable" because the government agencies responsible for risk assessment and permits are underfunded and undermanned. Landis spoke during the annual meeting of the Pacific division of the American Institute for the Advancement of Science.

"It was all completely preventable when you're drilling that far down," Landis said in an interview. "There were a lot of misunderstandings. BP got the permits because officials thought there would be no problem. There were no plans to take care of such an accident at 5,000 feet deep — and BP didn't respond when it happened."

Landis, who was doing presentations in Louisiana when the well blew, said politicians ultimately have to decide whether risk assessment is done before or after accidents, but either way, it's expensive.

The science of risk assessment, Landis explained, "calculates the odds that what you're doing (afterward) is going to help — and it assesses the odds (beforehand) that you might create a great deal of damage. It's not being used in the Gulf. They're at day 55 and still in first responder mode, with no control in sight."

Landis characterized the Gulf disaster as an example of "the Challenger syndrome," in which officials say "it'll never blow up."

"But experience shows accidents do happen," Landis said. "They made a decision based on the fact that nothing bad had happened in a while, so it might be OK. Then the (shuttle) Columbia broke apart. They didn't learn their lesson. Odds add up over time."

The Gulf spill is many times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and will take decades to clean up, with untold, domino-like repercussions on the environment, he said.

The oily porpoises and birds seen on TV are "only a small fraction" of the impact on marine life, he said, noting that a lot more damage will come from harm to algae and aquatic plants "which capture sunlight and create energy that runs the system" in oceans. These impacts will mean less fish, he said.

"The answer? Don't make the spill!" Landis said. "The Gulf was already heavily impacted before this spill, with toxins coming down the Mississippi. There was already a dead zone off the mouth of the Mississippi."

The spill, he said, will wipe out 25 square miles of wetlands a year in Gulf states, resulting in less protection against hurricanes and their storm surges, as well as crippling blows against fisheries and coral reefs and oil pollution carried to the Atlantic seaboard and Caribbean nations.

These effects will be compounded in coming years by climate change, he added.

The U.S. Coast Guard is tasked with spill response, but it was transferred under Homeland Security and "it didn't work very well," Landis said. "Their response was not effective."

It and other agencies with some responsibilities for spill response have been underfunded and understaffed for the past 15 years, and "even if they meant to do well, they didn't have the people and resources. ... If it were a terrorist state that did this, we would be at war.

"It's going to cost billions and billions in wages, restoration, long-term planning," Landis said. ... "We're going to have to be real smart about how we manage (cleanup). It will be long-term over many administrations."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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