The backlash from the BP Oil Spill has only begun. As more and more oil hits shore, more and more people will realize the depth of the disaster. It's beginning to happen.
Fred Grimm, of the Miami Herald, reports from Grand Isle, Louisiana:
Grand Isle, a mile wide, hardly eight miles long, offers a brutal model in miniature of what a giant oil spill brings to a tourism economy built around the beach and the sea. The town, with only 1,500 permanent residents, lives off the 300,000 visitors a year who come to fish and swim and play on the beach and bath in the Gulf of Mexico waters. None of that was evident Friday.
The tourist hotels are empty but for cleanup crews. All the local businesses, both large and small, will suffer for this. All the people that work for those businesses will suffer. All the businesses that do business with those directly impacted will suffer.
If Florida wants to regard Grand Isle as a laboratory to study the effects on tourism from that dark swill vomiting up from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, early indications look damn near fatal. Grand Isle's mayor closed the beach Friday afternoon but his order was not much more than an empty gesture. An obvious question hung over a mostly empty strand: Closed to whom?
The popular beach and wildlife refuge on Elmer's Island was being kept off-limits, even to the press. The Herald sent a reporter and a photographer, and they were turned away. Why?
But the mood all along the Louisiana coast was turning bitter this week, a month after the oil rig exploded 50 miles out in the Gulf, as the spill finally reached the coast. The ecological and economic damage was finally transformed from abstract speculation to miserable reality.
And it's going to get worse. An enormous mass of oil is just miles off Grand Isle's shore, and is heading its way. But Grand Isle is just a beginning. As the oil works its way into the Loop Current, Florida likely will be next. And even that will be but a beginning. Matthew Brown, of the Associated Press, explains:
The gooey oil washing into the maze of marshes along the Gulf Coast could prove impossible to remove, leaving a toxic stew lethal to fish and wildlife, government officials and independent scientists said.
Officials are considering some drastic and risky solutions: They could set the wetlands on fire or flood areas in hopes of floating out the oil.
They warn an aggressive cleanup could ruin the marshes and do more harm than good. The only viable option for many impacted areas is to do nothing and let nature break down the spill.
Fifty miles of Louisiana's coastline already have been hit, including a major pelican rookery. The Louisiana marshes served as nurseries for shrimp, crab and oysters. Will the local fishing industry survive? Even if it does, how long will it take for even moderate recovery, and how many jobs will be lost, both temporarily and permanently? Those marshes also served as a buffer for New Orleans, when hurricanes hit. This just keeps getting worse. And it will take many years for nature to break this mess down.
Among other ominous developments, BP is responding to the EPA's order that it seek an alternative to the dangerous chemical dispersant it had been using by saying it intends to continue with the one it has. Who is in charge, here? Gulf Islands National Seashore is imminently threatened not only by the oil, but by those chemicals. And the government official leading the response to the disaster says only BP has the expertise to plug the leak, and he trusts they are doing their best. Which raises the question of why we entrust entire ecosystems to the expertise of a corporation whose best is a continuing catastrophe.
The magnitude of this disaster is so overwhelmingly large that it's easy to overlook the ways in which it is very small. As in the human scale. The people on Grand Isle who will lose their businesses and their jobs. Those employed in the Louisiana fishing industry. Those employed in the industries that depend on the catch. Those living and working on the coast of Florida, and beyond. The people for whom this disaster could not be much larger. And all the fragile ecosystems that will be destroyed.
This is a teaching moment, for us all. It should be a learning moment. If someone would take this moment to teach. So that enough people would learn. So that we could, collectively, do what needs be done. On the large scale. On the small.