Dr. Sylvia Earle
If the Gulf Coast oil spill could be set atop the Southeast with Chattanooga as the well, the slick would cover the corners of at least five states. Oil would stretch from Asheville, N.C., nearly to Bowling Green, Ky., and from Kingsport, Tenn., to within 25 miles of the Alabama-Mississippi state line near Tupelo.
But experts say even without an imaginary move from the ocean to land, the effects of the spill will be felt here and everywhere else in the nation -- maybe the world.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer and one-time chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said last week in Chattanooga that with the spill "we've given the planet a nudge."
"People think of the gulf as marshes, beaches, oil rigs and maybe a place where some good-tasting seafood comes from. But they really don't see this as a critical piece of our life-support system -- a place that generates oxygen, that takes up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," Dr. Earle said during a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium.
Brad Brown, of Signal Mountain, expressed his concern about the spill's effects even before he heard Dr. Earle's comments on Friday.
"I fear for all the effects on wildlife, and I fear for the effects on people -- and the economy," he said.
An explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 killed 11 crew members and began the largest environmental disaster in United States history.
Current estimates put the amount of oil being discharged from the broken well above 1.47 million gallons per day.
Since the blowout, as many as 111 million gallons have poured from the well into gulf waters. About 180 miles of shoreline has been oiled: 34 miles in Louisiana, 42 miles in Mississippi, 42 miles in Alabama and 61 miles in Florida.
Now with a tropical storm brewing again in the gulf, Dr. Earle and other experts fear a storm will spread the damage.
"The Gulf of Mexico is now like a war zone," she said. "There is an avalanche of oil spreading across the beautiful blue water. I hope it challenges us to think."
Disaster in context
Since 1989, the Exxon Valdez accident has been considered the nation's No. 1 industrial spill in terms of environmental damage. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil ran into waters off Alaska when the tanker ran aground. About 200 miles of shoreline were moderately to heavily oiled, and 1,100 miles of beach saw sheens or tarballs, according to that state's Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council website.
Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle watches the fish in a saltwater tank at the Tennessee Aquarium. She says the Gulf oil spill will affect the whole country.
Despite Exxon's $2.1 billion cleanup, monitoring in the past two decades has found that in places the oil remains nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill, according to information contained on the trustee council site.
In December 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston ash spill took the title of worst U.S. environmental accident after 5.4 million cubic yards -- 1.2 billion gallons -- of slushy, toxic-laden coal ash slid from a mountainous landfill when an earthen dam wall collapsed.
Some 50 years of electric power production waste spread into the Emory River and over 300 acres of residential farmland.
Although the oil spills at least to date are smaller, the consistency of oil compared to ash allows it to spread much farther -- and faster.
A new process being delpoyed in the Gulf spill is the use of dispersants -- chemical compounds used to scatter the oil in smaller droplets with the intent of lessening its effect on sea animals, birds and beaches.
But some experts, including Dr. Earle, say the dispersants are more toxic than the crude oil because they may alter the DNA of microorganisms that make the ocean work.
OIL SPILL CONNECTIONS
Gulf winds often provide Chattanooga's prevailing winds, and Florida wildfires several years ago nearly cost this region a clean air rating.
Gulf cleanup crews had conducted about 275 controlled burns on the water to remove an estimated 10 million gallons of oil from the open water.Amber McCorvie, spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, said the burning should not impact air quality locally.
"The bureau does not think burning of some of the oil at sea would have a noticeable impact on air quality in the Chattanooga area," Ms. McCorvie said. "As we understand it, only a small percentage of the oil can be disposed of in this way."
One local impact of the disaster may be the now-permanent loss of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Superintendent Shawn Benge, who for several months has been "borrowed" from the park to serve as interim deputy director of the National Park Service's nine-state Southeast Region.
While he was on loan the Gulf spill occurred and escalated, and he became a primary liason and leader for Gulf Coast parks spill-response planning.
Last week, he announced that his temporary job will become a permanent promotion on Aug. 16.
"I will provide leadership to the Gulf Coast cluster -- about 23 parks, and 2 on the Atlantic Coast, as well," Mr. Benge said.
"Do we want to take a chance with these (sea) organisms that help make our oxygen and take up carbon?" she said. "EPA would never allow the dispersants to be used on dry land."
The dispersant's makers and BP have claimed the compounds are safe, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is allowing the use of dispersants.
About 1.48 million gallons of dispersant have been applied to the spill: 977,000 gallons on the surface and 502,000 below the surface, most at the gush site, the government estimates.
Dr. Anna George, a biologist and director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and head of the aquarium's fishery in Cohutta, Ga., said no one knows much about life and systems a mile beneath the ocean's surface where the oil is gushing.
"It's difficult to predict what will cascade" from the damage there, she said.
"I'm particularly concerned about our (ocean fish) nursery areas in the wetlands and how (the oil and dispersant damage) spreads throughout the food chain and ultimately impacts humans and our fishing industries and tourism industries, and sport fishing," Dr. George said.
Hope and action
Dr. Earle called the spill a "big 2 X 4 wake up," but insists there is hope.
"It's not too late," she said. "We have the capacity to make decisions that will give us safe passage to the future."
She said people should demand chunks of the ocean be given complete protection from fishing, drilling or dumping.
She also suggests renewed ocean research, which now has a fraction of the funding once available.
Most importantly, Dr. Earle said, it's time to be realistic about "cheap" oil.
"What's expensive? Investment in wind or solar, or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? ... I love the fact that we know what we know because of fossil fuels, but it's really time that we think differently about how we do what we do."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...