I still remember standing at Casino Beach in the late spring of 2010 as the ugly sheets of oil washed ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It seemed incomprehensible that a rig accident 100 miles from Pensacola could shut down our beaches, our tourism industry and our sense that the Gulf of Mexico was so large, so resilient that even our worst efforts couldn’t tarnish it.
We were wrong, and the evidence was washing ashore in the gentle swells.
To look at the Gulf today along Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key, all seems well. The millions of gallons of oil and the toxic dispersants used in an effort to push the oil out of sight, and all the dead, deformed and injured birds, dolphins, whales, turtles and fish have vanished.
But out of sight, out of mind, isn’t good enough anymore. Because just as the sun-flecked surface of the Gulf hides the full extent of the spill’s damage, our oceans are covering up much worse.
The Deepwater Horizon spill is called an accident, but in truth it was the inevitable result of deliberate actions that prioritized profit and low oil prices over the health of the Gulf of Mexico. It was also the result of a much larger failure, the failure of all of us to respect the natural world that we are part of.
The wealth, power and technological sophistication of our world have imbued us with a massive hubris. Yes, we are dimly aware of the long-dead civilizations that were erased by environmental factors. Maybe the climate changed in ways they weren’t able to adapt to. Or maybe they came to depend on benign weather conditions that didn’t last, and when the summer rains and winter snows stopped and the springs and rivers dried up, so did their civilizations.
But not us. We’re too smart, too powerful, too advanced.
We are still using our oceans as our sewer. Our trash —millions of tons of plastic, fertilizers and chemicals from our farms and lawns, undertreated sewage and factory wastes — drains daily off the land and into the oceans. Scientists estimate that within 30 years, there will be more plastic, by weight, than fish in the ocean.
Last year, the University of Florida Sea Grant office reported that every sample of seafood collected from Pensacola-area markets in a University of West Florida study was contaminated with microplastics. Much of it comes from the remains of the plastics we all use and which break down into tiny particles that get consumed by sealife that mistakes it for food. The worst contamination was in shrimp.
Studies in Europe and Japan found microplastics in human excrement.
Last month an article in The New Yorker followed an explorer who accomplished his goal of diving to the deepest places in every ocean, where scientists are still discovering new forms of life. At the bottom of the Java Trench off Indonesia, the explorer looked out his tiny window to see a plastic bag float by. Almost every biological sample the expedition collected was contaminated with microplastics.
Meanwhile, back here on the Gulf of Mexico, most of the new regulations enacted to hedge against another Deepwater Horizon have been rolled back. Along Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key and across the 500 miles of Gulf shoreline soiled by the spill, we can only hope that underneath its placid surface, worse problems are not developing.
I had planned to end this commentary with soothing words so that you and I could sleep well tonight. Unfortunately, we’ve already been asleep too long.