Our resilient environment

Our resilient environment

September 30th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

Oil and chemical spills understandably cause alarm not only among environmentalists but among all Americans who enjoy nature and want to preserve it. So it goes without saying that steps should be taken to avoid spills in lakes, rivers or oceans, and to respond quickly when spills occur.

But we also have to marvel at the incredible resilience of our environment.

You may have read a recent item in the Times Free Press about a 50-pound mercury spill in the Hiwassee River from the Olin Chemical plant in Bradley County. The spill occurred when the plant's treatment lagoon overflowed after Tropical Storm Lee rapidly dumped 13 inches of rain in the area.

Mercury is dangerous, so obviously we do not want it in our water. But fortunately, it appears that the spill did not cause major problems.

As the article in the Times Free Press noted, Tennessee American Water "has yet to detect any signs of mercury" in the Tennessee River -- into which the Hiwassee drains -- though the company continued running tests just in case.

Tennessee American said the sheer volume of water in the river might have dispersed the mercury to levels too small to be detected. There are concerns about mercury building up over time in fish that are later eaten by humans, possibly causing health problems, but it is a relief that there appears to be no serious danger from the recent small spill.

A much larger spill took place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was caused by an explosion on an offshore drilling rig. The world watched in horror as oil flowed to the surface, harming marine life and the tourism and fishing industries.

Clearly that spill was terrible. But it is interesting to note the comparison between the amount of oil spilled and the total amount of water in the Gulf of Mexico. By some estimates, more than 200 million gallons of oil poured into the gulf during the spill. But the gulf contains more than 640 quadrillion gallons of water! Written out, that's 640,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water compared with 200,000,000 gallons of oil.

Put another way, there were roughly 3 billion gallons of water in the gulf for every one gallon of oil spilled.

Of course the oil spill did some damage before it dispersed or could be cleaned up. But within months after the spill was stopped, dozens of scientists surveyed by The Associated Press declared that the gulf had gotten back to being almost as healthy as it was before the spill.

That is not to say that we should treat the environment just any old way. If we want to enjoy it, we need to preserve it.

But it is encouraging and amazing how readily nature can spring back.