< The Scale of the Spill


Friday, May 07, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you describe the scale of an ongoing disaster? If you were reporting this week on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the first thing you would have to do is convey the scope of the event. And it’s been a struggle because there are so many things to measure, starting with, but not limited to, size.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Here’s an image of the spill taken from space.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Gushing 42,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day creating a slick about the size of Rhode Island.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: This slick is the size of Delaware. There’s no other way to put it.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: A growing blob of oil, now the size of Jamaica, menaces five coastal states.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don't really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I'm not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

[BROOKE LAUGHS] There’s a – there’s a lot of space out there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But one bit of media misdirection you think that’s taking place is a focus on whether or not the oil spill will hit the coast.

JACKIE SAVITZ: Well, and I think the media means well in this case, but what it does is I think it leads people to think, okay, well, it’s not a problem until it hits the coast. The truth is that there is a broad diversity of marine life that live in the area right where the spill is that have been exposed to toxic contaminants now for almost two weeks – endangered species like sea turtles, marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins. So if we only think about what’s going to happen when it hits the coast, we really haven't characterized the devastation that’s happening in our ocean right now as we speak, and continuing to happen.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And even preventing it from hitting the coast requires taking some risk with the environment, right?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, in order to make that slick small enough so that you couldn't see it from space, you'd have to drop toxic chemicals on it to get it off the surface.

JACKIE SAVITZ: Exactly - the use of chemicals that they call dispersants. They're breaking up the oil so that it dissolves into the water, so maybe it doesn't wash up on the coast. It’s not going to create those ugly pictures of birds and globs of oil on the beach as often but it doesn't mean that we've solved the problem or the problem’s really gone away. It’s still there. Really, whether it’s a good idea or not depends on whether you’re a seabird or a fish.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.

JACKIE SAVITZ: My pleasure, thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz is a senior scientist with the conservation organization Oceana. Of course, there’s yet another dimension of the spill to consider, the political one. What’s the scale of that? How much of the blame for it falls at the feet of government? For commentators on the political right, Katrina is the ideal metric to apply to the government’s response to the spill.

MAN: Most people would assume that the federal government didn't get involved because they thought BP was going to take care of it, but it’s the same thing with Katrina. You know, Bush said he didn’t get involved -

MAN: Exactly.

MAN: - because he was waiting for Louisiana to call him in.

MAN: That’s a perfect analogy.

MAN: Look, this is unconscionable, that they had a plan in place. They would burn off the oil in an instant like this. The administration didn't do it. Criticism coming from the Sierra Club that Obama’s response to the oil spill was worse than Katrina.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: That damn oil slick! Obama’s Katrina!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hurricane reporter Mark Schleifstein covered Katrina for The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Seen from the Louisiana perspective, he says there’s not much of a comparison.

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: This is Katrina Light, at best. What happened during Katrina was that the disaster had known consequences. In fact, Bush was shown a video presentation by the director of the National Hurricane Center that showed that the entire city of New Orleans would be flooded if the thing went in as a Category 5. But despite that information in advance of Hurricane Katrina, there were not significant efforts made to assure that people would be able to be rescued immediately. The difference here is that this is a much slower kind of a disaster event, and the result of that was that there actually was time to deal with things as they moved along. I really don't understand how [LAUGHS] people could say the administration did not immediately respond to this incident. I - still don't see that there’s a real way of comparing the two. They're just not the same.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The only comparison that you see is that in both cases there was a failure by authorities to anticipate and prepare for a potential disaster.

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Right, and the problem here is that they had the lesson learned from Katrina. For instance, the Army Corps of Engineers is building its risk lessons from Katrina into everything that it now does as an agency. It was expected that those same risk lessons would be delivered to other agencies of the federal government. Obviously, in this case, they were not delivered to the Minerals Management Service. They did not really take seriously the potential for a catastrophic event occurring that far offshore.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if I could ask you to function as a media critic here for a moment, rather than as a reporter, what do you think the motive is then behind pundits and news organizations using phrases like “Obama’s Katrina?”

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well [LAUGHS], it - it’s easy to say that. I think it’s very clear that saying “Obama's Katrina” is certainly a marketing tool that works very well. I just don't think it works in this particular instance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Schleifstein is a reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune. And finally, reporters have to summon up language to convey the environmental impact. But how do you describe the scope of something that is still unknown? Some reporters opt for prose that matches the color of the spill – purple.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Meanwhile Gulf communities racing for an economic and environmental catastrophe…

MALE CORRESPONDENT: The devastation’s already occurring.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: I expect this will be the biggest oil spill in the world, by far.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If the leak takes months to plug, as some have predicted, this could be the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And given the rarity of such enormous spills, reporters reach back to a past calamity as a reference and a reminder of an accident that burned the image of rainbow-slicked shorelines and slimed seabirds into America’s consciousness, the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It could be worse than the Valdez 20 years ago, if - unless they can figure out how to stop this leakage.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: It threatens to eclipse the devastation caused by the Exxon Valdez.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: This BP spill, if it keeps up at the current rate, in 50 days it will be worse than the Exxon Valdez.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charles Wohlforth covered the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. He says that both the purple prose and the Valdez comparisons are too much, too soon.

CHARLES WOHLFORTH: I think that the media kind of got a little ahead of itself. I saw stories that were saying it would be worse than Exxon Valdez and calling it a catastrophe pretty early on. And the fact is we really don't know how bad it is yet. And one really dramatic difference between this spill and the Exxon Valdez is that in the Exxon Valdez you had over 11 million gallons dumped in six hours, just a few miles from shore. In this case, you have something around 200,000 gallons a day being dumped 50 miles away from shore. So in the Exxon Valdez you had an enormous amount of oil that was, within three days, completely coasting a inland sea, essentially. And here you have oil that’s pretty far offshore, and it gets significantly degraded before it gets to shore. And it doesn't sound like, at least as we're talking today - we know it’s bad but it’s just nowhere near on a scale of the Exxon Valdez, yet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wohlforth says that reporters covering Valdez back in ’89 did a pretty good job, given the obstacles posed by so unusual a story and so inaccessible a place.

CHARLES WOHLFORTH: So they were kind of at a loss on how to get out there and how to see it and how to evaluate what they were looking at. And they were covering a story that most of them had never covered before because major oil spills don't happen that often. So there was a certain amount of exaggeration or erroneous coverage. But overall they got it right. I mean, they - if you measure it by the impression that the public got, it was a huge environmental disaster, off the charts really. And people got that word and they understood it and they appreciated, at least briefly, the fact that once you have an oil spill this size that there’s really not much you can do about it and that the devastation is horrendous.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In terms of impact, the media did its job, in your view. And, in this case, do you think that the headline-grabbing nature of this coverage is doing the same job?

CHARLES WOHLFORTH: Well, one of the fears I have about the coverage is that if we dodge the bullet and if they are able to shut off the oil and the disaster isn't nearly as bad as Exxon Valdez, then it’s kind of a cry wolf situation. It’s - oh look at those environmentalists exaggerating everything again; you can't trust them. So there’s a real cost to saying it’s a catastrophe before it is a catastrophe. Even if it has very negative impacts that are very serious, if they’re not as bad as you said they were going to be, then people kind of tend to discount them, whereas if they were encountering them without having that expectation, they might take them much more seriously. So I think it’s important to be really careful about what has actually happened and what might happen, because it does have a huge political impact on how we're going to deal with the environmental issues in the future.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charles, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charles Wohlforth writes on the environment. His book, The Fate of Nature, comes out in June.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The fate of the region in the wake of the spill is unknown. All of us hate unknowns. But with the future as murky as the Gulf of Mexico, any commentator who claims to offer clarity right now is only muddying the waters.