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The Lesson We Can Learn From BP

We never want to see our government encounter a disaster where they are so ill-equipped to handle a bad outcome. The task in front of us is to identify anything that could be the next "BP disaster" and warn against it.
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As the crisis of the BP oil spill subsides and BP and government employees and Gulf residents move into cleanup mode, it makes sense to reflect on what was learned from this crisis.

Remember how helpless we felt when we first heard that eleven oil rig workers were killed and then learned the unthinkable: An unstoppable oil spill had occurred, and vast amounts of oil were leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.

With Katrina, there were small things to do that helped us feel effective: We could gather clothes and toiletries to send to those who lost so much, we could volunteer with the Red Cross or other relief organizations or help with orphaned dogs and cats or send checks.

With the BP oil spill, the overriding emotion for most citizens was helplessness. What could we do? Only the best and brightest were being consulted on possible "fixes" for a deep-water oil spill that had never been considered to be a serious possibility. As for the cleanup, most of us lack the training, not to mention the temperament, to help clean frightened, oil-soaked wildlife.

The takeaway from this is that we never want to see our government or U.S.-based businesses encounter a disaster where they are all so ill-equipped to handle a bad outcome. The task in front of us is to identify anything that could be the next "BP disaster" and warn against it.

A Similar Possible Disaster: Our Drinking Water at Stake

Last week in Westchester County, New York, Republican state assemblyman Robert Castelli brought such an issue to the attention of his constituents. In cooperation with a grassroots organization, Westchester for Change, he arranged for a screening of a new film, Gasland, at the Harrison Public Library. Gasland is a documentary made by filmmaker Josh Fox that presents the dangers of "hydrofracking" (hydraulic fracturing), a process that can remove more natural gas from shale in less time than other methods. (The film received a special jury prize in the documentary category last winter at the Sundance Film Festival.)

Finding better ways to extract the natural gas we have seems like a good idea, but Fox's film tells us otherwise.

Hydrofracking involves mixing water with sand and toxic chemicals and then injecting the mixture at high pressure into shale in order to fracture the rock and release the gas. The process uses and pollutes huge amounts of water (one to five million gallons of water per well) and the water must be treated afterward before it goes back into public waterways.

The process is already being used in 34 states, and the filmmaker traveled to many of them and shared what he learned. In states like New Mexico and Colorado, hydrofracking is contaminating the drinking water. The film shows numerous cases of homeowners who sold drilling rights to their land only to find that after the drilling their water became unusable -- harming their own living circumstances and totally trashing future land values. Some households displayed black or brownish water from their taps, a few demonstrated that the water contained so much benzene that the homeowner was able to ignite the water as it came out of the tap. (Very dramatic, if it weren't so serious.) You can see clips from the movie on their website, or arrange for a screening of the film in your community; check the website for information.

The filmmaker's information was supported by additional documentation provided by assemblyman Castelli's office as well as the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

"Environmental issues should not become politicized," noted assemblyman Robert Castelli. "The environment should not be a partisan issue. We all suffer when we permit destruction of our land or pollution of our and water."

Where is Government Regulation?

This type of thing isn't supposed to happen in our country. We have the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) in place to protect American citizens from abuses by corporations.

Despite these safeguards, the oil and gas industries successfully lobbied Congress during the Bush administration for exemptions for hydrofracking. (As it happens, hydrofracking is a process used profitably by Halliburton where former vice president Dick Cheney was once CEO.) Hydrofracking was established as permissible with no need to comply with federal environmental safeguards. As a result, Americans must rely on state regulations.

One of the big areas awaiting exploration is the Marcellus Shale area, which extends over a large portion of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and into West Virginia. Some individuals are eager to lease drilling rights, and some states like New York see it as a possible income source. In addition, the drilling companies contend that that the mixture has such a small percentage of toxic chemicals that they should not be an issue, and they note that the drilling is so far below the water aquifers that there is actually no danger from hydrofracking.

One point on which there is agreement is on the use of water. The water used must be purified after it is used in the drilling process. The New York City watershed area, which would be affected by hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale, provides water to nearly half the population in New York and it makes up the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the nation. If hydrofracking is permitted, a very costly water treatment plant will be needed where none is required now.

Temporary Good News

In late July 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that they will conduct a study that will re-examine the impact of hydrofracking, and just last week (Aug. 3) the New York State Senate passed a moratorium on granting permits for hydrofracking until May 15, 2011. The bill passed with strong (48-9) bipartisan support; when the Assembly re-convenes on September 15 it must pass there.

Ironically, most areas don't know exactly what chemicals the companies add to the water in the process because drilling companies claim the mixture should be considered proprietary. States where hydrofracking has been taking place are beginning to require companies to disclose the chemicals being used in the process.

Citizen Involvement Needed

As the screening concluded, Castelli stressed that our government representatives work for us, for the people. Just as we expect our representatives to learn about an issue and weigh the pros and cons -- and there are always two sides to an issue -- we owe it to ourselves to do the same thing on whatever issue we choose and then express our opinion.

Whether hydrofracking, immigration, climate change, or unemployment is most on your mind, follow the news on the topic and reach an opinion. Then let your local, state, and federal representatives know how you feel. They really do listen. Castelli is a case in point. He has brought a cause to the people so that he can hear their responses.

Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I sometimes cite Westchester for Change, who helped organized the screening of Gasland. Approximately three years ago they formed to "make a difference," and what they are doing brings to mind a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead:

"Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Get involved.

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