Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The BP oil spill is not our worst offshore environmental disaster

I don’t want to diminish the problems with the oil spill, but we have lived through far worse and our waters and shoreline recovered. During World War II, Nazi U-boats sank scores of oil tankers off the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico campaign began precisely 68 years ago today, May 4, 1942. In a little over a month they had sunk oil cargoes of over 600,000 barrels (one barrel equals 42 gallons), and by December 1943 when they sank their last ship in the Gulf, nearly 900,000 barrels of oil and oil products had been left in Gulf waters. For comparison, if it takes BP 3 months to get the well under control, at the current estimated leakage rate of 5,000 barrels a day, 450,000 will have seeped into the Gulf. While a lot, it is just half of what was spilled during the war.

The difference between then and now is we were focused not on the environment, but on fighting a war that had reached our shores. For those of us who lived on the coast, we did step in “tar” on the beach. But it was more of a nuisance and nothing compared to the agony of those with silver or gold star flags on the front of their homes.

The tar releases continued after the war, no doubt from seepage from the sunken ships and from the collapse of tank walls that had rusted out. Yet as we look back on the late 1940s and early 50s, we consider them the pristine years. They really weren’t. We recovered without a lot of fuss, as we will from the BP mess.

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