The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 06/11/10
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Since BP‘s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20th and sunk two days later on Earth Day, there‘s one critical story about the resultant crisis. One critical story about what that blown-up sunken rig has done that I believe continues to be underreported. It‘s the millions of gallons of oil already in the Gulf of Mexico and on the coast and BP and the U.S. government corresponding almost complete failure to clean up the water and protect the shore.
No matter how well BP diverts the flow of oil from the seabed to containment ships now, this is already a disaster. The oil already in the water, those huge underwater plumes, and the oil at the surface, it must be contained and held offshore and removed from the water. The need to do it and do it right is urgent and ongoing, and it hasn‘t been done yet.
In this hour, we continue to try to illuminate this critical element of the biggest story in the country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADM. THAD ALLEN, BP OIL SPILL NATL. INCIDENT COMMANDER: We had our first oil contact in the state of Mississippi in Mississippi Sound and some islands to the west. Louisiana‘s been impacted and now, the threat is shifting to Mississippi and Alabama.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That‘s Admiral Thad Allen heading up the government‘s response to the BP oil disaster, explaining what winds from the south and the west bring now. They bring this: oil on barrier islands, in Alabama, and in Mississippi.
They also bring reports of an oil slick visible in the water, nine miles off the coast of Florida and preparations to try to keep that oil from coming ashore in places like Pensacola. That‘s all in addition to the 125 miles of Louisiana coastline that‘s been hit by oil thus far. Some of that Louisiana coastline is beach, sandy beach.
But most of what‘s been hit—most of what‘s been hit by oil isn‘t beach. Most of it looks like this. Land like this. Land like this is life or death. Not only for the wildlife that lives there, and boy, howdy, do they have some wildlife, but land like this is life or death in a much bigger way. It means life or death for all the other land that‘s not like this around here.
Here‘s what I mean. When there‘s a hurricane coming on to shore from the sea, the storm pushes water ahead of it on to the shore. It‘s the storm surge. The storm surge is like a high tide from hell. It can be incredibly destructive.
When Hurricane Katrina hit this region five years ago, here‘s what a 20-foot storm surge did to Chalmette, Louisiana. Look at that. Now, to get a sense of the contrast, here‘s what a smaller, 15-foot storm surge did to Slidell, Louisiana. Still bad, not the same.
What makes the difference between these two outcomes? In large part:
wetlands—freaking wetlands. They say that every 2.7 square miles of wetlands that a storm passes over brings the storm surge for communities behind those wetlands down by one foot.
So the difference, the mathematical difference between a 20-foot storm surge and a 15-foot storm surge, between destruction and biblical destruction, turns out it‘s pretty easy, pretty horrifying math. If every 2.7 square miles of wetlands saves you from another foot of storm surge, then the difference between ending up like Chalmette and ending up like Slidell is roughly 13 ½ square miles of wetlands as protection.
And even before this oil disaster, Louisiana was losing 25 square miles of wetlands every year. Get this: During the time of this broadcast, this TV show airing tonight, an area of wetlands the size of two football fields will be lost into the sea and will be turned into open water. And every 2.7 square miles of lost wetlands puts the storm surge that hits the land where I am sitting right now up one more foot when the storms inevitably come.
This is not some hippie crusade to save the cute baby gators. This is the survival of a piece of our country. A big piece it turns out, a big important piece. We have been losing this life preserver of land at such a clip because of oil and gas drilling, because of shipping being prioritized, because of stupid development decisions. That was all true before the BP oil disaster.
Do you want to know what the BP oil disaster is going to do to the wetlands and the flashing neon that‘s going to put on the bull‘s eye that‘s already on this city?
MADDOW: Hey, so, this isn‘t fake. This isn‘t some Disney version of a swamp with fake swamp noises. This is Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve outside of New Orleans. And I‘m here with David Muth. He‘s the chief of planning and resource stewardship here.
Thanks very much for talking to us, David. We appreciate it.
DAVID MUTH, JEAN LAFITTE NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK AND PRESERVE: Thank you for coming out to the park.
MADDOW: So, get me oriented here, because I feel like I‘m off the edge of the world. Which direction is New Orleans and how far is it?
MUTH: New Orleans is just north of us; the French Quarter is about 15 miles away. But the subdivisions of the city of New Orleans are less than two miles from here.
MUTH: So, we are right on the edge of the hurricane protection system, the levees for the city.
MADDOW: And so, there‘s the levees are between us and New Orleans. As storms come up the Gulf of Mexico, this is what they pass over before they get to those levees?
MUTH: This is what they pass over. And, of course, they used to pass over a lot more of it than they do now. But because of coastal land loss, many, many thousands of acres of marsh that used to be between the city and the Gulf are gone. And so, there‘s less and less.
So, when storms do come in, Hurricane Ike, just two years ago, which didn‘t come within 200 miles of us, had water four feet deep on this—on this section right here. I came through here in a kayak where there‘s a boardwalk.
MADDOW: In terms of what‘s going on right now with the oil disaster in the Gulf, Barataria Bay is one of the places where oil has already been found, has already come ashore.
MADDOW: Obviously, there‘s—the distinction between sea and land and water and land is a little fuzzy, but I‘m getting the sense the more time I spend here that, through waterways and through wetlands, all of these areas are connected. Are you worried that you could get oil this far inland?
MUTH: We‘re guardedly optimistic that because we‘re far enough inland and because there are so many places where they can fight the oil between us and them that we won‘t see oil this far inland. As everyone has said a million times, this is an unprecedented event. We‘ve never had a well that just continues to gush oil uncontrollably. I have no idea how long it will take.
So, no one is making a—you know, a categorical statement that we‘ll never get oil. Our biggest concern is that as we enter hurricane season—as I just told you—when we have a storm in the Gulf, a storm—even if it doesn‘t come ashore, it can push enormous amounts of water into this estuary. And once that happens, then a lot of that oil has the potential to come much farther inland, even into a fresh water swamp like that than we might otherwise have thought possible.
MADDOW: And that‘s—I mean, that‘s really the point. That gets you to the point from two directions. On the one hand, this—places like this are vulnerable, the combination of that much oil and big storms. On the other hand, places like this exist for a reason. If you get that much water, that much impact of big storms here as you say, outside the hurricane defenses of New Orleans, this is a huge part of the hurricane defense of New Orleans, this is what protects the city.
MUTH: It is part of what protects the city. Absolutely. As I say, our boundary are the hurricane protection levees for the west bank, the suburbs of the city.
MADDOW: David Muth from the National Park Service and I are now joined by Dr. Larry McKinney, who is the executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi.
Dr. McKinney, thanks for being here.
LARRY MCKINNEY, TEXAS A&M CORPUS CHRISTI PROFESSOR: Great to be here.
MADDOW: In the big picture, what makes wetlands? How do—how do we get land like this?
MCKINNEY: Well, it‘s a combination of things. One is that the right type of oil, hydrate soils, and of course, the topography has to allow that water to accumulate, and then the particular types of plants that are here. But the big source is water. And what we have here is this is the Mississippi River feeding into this wetland and it really forms one of the great wetlands of the world because of that.
MADDOW: In terms of the overall—I guess, everything we‘ve got as a country in terms of wetlands in the lower 48, what proportion of the wetlands that we have as a country are here in Louisiana?
MCKINNEY: Forty percent of this country‘s continuous wetlands are here, located in this area. That‘s why they‘re so important. It is the bulk of our wetlands in the lower 48 states.
MADDOW: And how much are we losing? I know that we talk about—
David talking about where New Orleans started in terms of being on the natural levee. We think about the city obviously not physically moving towards shore—towards the shore, but the shore encroaching in towards the city. How much of these wetlands have we been losing and why?
MCKINNEY: Well, that‘s the tragedy of the thing. We‘re losing 25 to 30 square miles of wetlands a year here, which basically during the time we‘re talking, maybe an area the size of a football field may have disappeared. And where that‘s coming from is oil and gas extraction, which has seen the subsidence created. Then, of course, the canals that have been driven into the well sites are causing erosion. So, it‘s a combination erosion and subsidence is slowly eating these wetlands away.
MADDOW: David, can you explain how it is that wetlands like, this both the swampy wetlands that we are just standing, the marshy wetlands that we‘re looking over right now, how they insulate places like New Orleans from big storms. What is it they do that lessens the impact of storms?
MUTH: Well, there—a number of factors, one of them is simply, and it sounds strange, it‘s just friction. Even water and waves are affected by friction. So the farther that a storm has to push water across land, any kind of land—the more it‘s going to slow it down, the more it‘s going to take energy out of what‘s known as the storm surge.
And there are lots of different calculations about, you know, how many miles of marsh produce how many—how much less of a storm surge. But that‘s a very important factor, and that‘s one of the reasons that the land loss has been so critical, because the buffers that used to surround developed parts of south Louisiana, not just the city of New Orleans, but the communities to the south of us like Lafitte or Cocodrie or Houma or anywhere else that used to have miles and miles and miles of marsh between them and the Gulf, they don‘t have as much anymore.
And, therefore, storms that used to not be that threatening become threatening. And then the super-storms, like the Katrinas, become absolutely devastating.
MADDOW: And, Larry, do you have—do you have a rule of thumb in terms of how much—what a square mile of wetland offers you in terms of protection from a storm surge?
MCKINNEY: There‘s a number of ideas but one common wisdom is 2.7 miles, about three miles of wetlands will reduce storm surge by about a foot.
MADDOW: So, if we‘re losing 25 a year, we have been losing 25 a year. Every time you lose 2.7 miles of wetland, you‘re increasing the storm surge that‘s going to be borne by communities inside those wetlands.
MCKINNEY: Right. As you look out across these wetlands toward the coast, you look on maps, for example, you‘ll see open water. And so, more and more of that open water, as it occurs, that allows—that reduces that friction that we were talking about, that allows the storm surge to come right up through without being stopped by anything. That‘s where our concern is.
At one time, this whole area down here was pretty much a solid mass of wetlands. There were lots of little trails and those type things, all natural, but no more. As you look at the map, you can see what‘s happened.
MADDOW: Well, let‘s get out on the water if we can. I mean, to understand, I think the whole country‘s sort of starting to understand the importance of wetlands after Hurricane Katrina, started to learn about the causes of wetlands loss. Now, to be thinking about this oil disaster as a potentially catastrophic cause of wetlands loss, I think sort of a next step in understanding we haven‘t come to yet.
Let‘s see if we can help people visualize that by getting out on the water now.
MADDOW: What we saw when we got into that boat and went deep into the wetlands is incredible and that‘s coming up next. We‘ll be right back.
MADDOW: The BP oil disaster could ultimately be as much about the survival of the city of New Orleans as it is about the Gulf of Mexico itself and the communities right on the shore. To try to understand why, I went out into the canals of the Barataria preserve with two people who know all about we wetlands and what makes them so critically important—not just to wildlife and flora, but to people living in cities.
My guests are David Muth, chief of planning and resource stewardship for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, and Professor Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi.
If you are ever asked to play trivial pursuit against these two guys, you have two choices: you can run, or you can cheat so they only get questions about music or something, because you really do not want these guys to get questions about nature.
MADDOW: So, David, can you tell us where we are right now? You‘re saying this is—this is a very, very old canal.
MUTH: Yes. Right there is where—what‘s called Milodon (ph) canal, which was the name of the plantation on the river. This was a back canal. The plantations often dredged canals so that they could get out to natural waterways.
MADDOW: And, Larry, when you‘re looking at a landscape like this, you‘re looking at open marsh like this, if oil gets in here or oil gets into landscape like this, what‘s the effect?
MCKINNEY: Well, it depends on how much oil there is, of course, but if it gets into it, there‘s no—there‘s really nothing can you do about it, except believe and hope that it recovers. But once you try to get in to these types of thing and clean them up, you do more damage than leaving it alone.
So, that‘s why the strategy has to be to get that oil before it comes into the wetlands. Once it‘s in, you just have nothing but bad choices.
MADDOW: What are the best choices in terms of protecting lands like this from oil encroachment? Obviously, the way we‘ve seen the oil come ashore right now, it‘s been here, there, hit, miss, seeping, turning up in places you don‘t expect it. It‘s not real predictable flow.
MCKINNEY: No, and that‘s the problem. It‘s not going to be. And they try the best they can, they try to protect the most sensitive areas, but the oil is coming in under the water and under the booms and that type of thing—and as we have storms, it‘s going to wash over those booms. The best thing that could happen is to stop the oil flow, period, and try to let the marsh recover.
MADDOW: David, in terms of what Larry was just saying about cleaning oil out of a site like this, do you think there‘s any cleanup techniques that work? Do you just have to leave—is there anything you can imagine that would work if there were oil in a place like this?
MUTH: Often, the cleanup is more destructive than the oil. And if you just imagine the Exxon Valdez where they could take high-pressure water and blast oil off rocks and everything, you blast high pressure water here and you‘re going to literally tear the marsh apart.
MUTH: So, I agree. I don‘t think there‘s any—I can‘t conceive of any kind of cleanup that could happen here. And it‘s not just the marsh. As you can see here, we‘ve got, you know, we‘ve got aquatic vegetation below the surface. That‘s where the young fish are, that‘s where the young shrimp, the young crabs—the whole system would be fouled by oil.
MADDOW: And here‘s the—and here‘s I guess where it all comes together. There‘s some ways to try to hope that it doesn‘t get here, mostly you‘re just trying to shut off the oil flow. There‘s not that great a way to protect it. Once it gets in here, there‘s not that great a way to clean it.
And you—as you said, Larry, you do just have to leave it. But once these things have been oiled, if the vegetation suffocated, don‘t these wetlands disappear? Don‘t they just erode?
MCKINNEY: That‘s what‘s going to happen here. I mean, eventually, we‘ll hope this oil spill will end. We hope that it will.
MCKINNEY: And when the oil gets into these wetlands, it will kill the plants on the surface. Hopefully, it doesn‘t get to the roots. But when it does, and if it does that, then what happens is the whole system breaks down and basically it begins to eat itself.
And so, the wetlands will come back and it will produce a lot of fish and shrimp and things like that for a few years afterwards. But after that it‘s all downhill and it turns more and more into open water. And open water is not what you want.
MADDOW: I‘m sorry to slow you down, but the vegetation dies, the vegetation is what‘s holding the soil that‘s here together. As the vegetation dies off, it immediately becomes a great food source in the short term, but that—then essentially the soil erodes, you end up with open water. You‘ve lost everything the wetland offer.
MCKINNEY: That‘s right. I mean, these plants are everything here. They‘re a food source, they‘re habitat source, and they hold the whole system together. When they disappear, all of it goes. And as it breaks, though it releases huge amounts of nutrients, and these animals here are very—are capable of taking care—are taking used to those nutrients and really exploding in population.
So, we‘ll see a period after this is over, where we‘ll think it‘s been recovered. That it looks great. The shrimp will be back, the red fish will be here. But then, we‘ll notice a few years after that, it will slowly go downhill because it will be open water, it won‘t be the wetland plants that made this thing what it was.
MADDOW: In terms of this spot that we‘re in right now, David, and what the park service is doing in some of the other areas in the park service that have been oiled, what preparations do you make seeing this disaster sort of looming off some, all this property, some of which is park service property, how do you prepare?
MUTH: What the park service has been trying to do is first to get baseline data, to come in and take water samples and soil samples, and to get photographs so that we have something to compare with if there is damage. And so that when—when and if oil arrives, we can demonstrate what it is that the oil has done to the system in order to get recovery from the responsible party.
MADDOW: Larry, I know at the Harte Institute, you were able to make some estimates of what the magnitude of the potential damage here, about what this oil disaster might do in terms of losses. What kind of estimates were you coming up with?
MCKINNEY: Well, we used an estimate of a half million acres, and we thought that was absolutely worst case. If that were the case, we looked at the ecosystem services provided by these wetlands, which are the flood services and the infiltration plus commercial and recreational fishing. And basically, our number hit at $1.6 billion per year in losses.
MADDOW: Five hundred thousand acres wetlands lost associated with this spill. That was your—that was your early ballpark guess?
MCKINNEY: Early and worst-case scenario. We just tried to pick a number that some folks would give us, the worst thing that could happen is this, and, of course, as this thing goes on, I‘m not so sure that may be the worst case anymore.
MADDOW: For a national audience, trying to get our heads around what this means, communicating this to people who never been to Louisiana, haven‘t seen landscapes like this. I‘m never seen anything like this before today. How important is this for the country?
MCKINNEY: People may not realize it, but 40 percent of the entire United States drains right here and creates these wetlands. So everything we do upstream in Nebraska or Iowa or any of those states, that comes here to the Mississippi River. And so, we have to deal with it.
And one thing that happens here is because the system can‘t handle it anymore, we have 5,000 square mile dead zone that forms off the beach here, off the river here every year. So we‘ve got that. We have been extracting oil and gas out of these wetlands for many years. It‘s been a great service to us – 40 percent of our crude comes from the Gulf of Mexico, 20 percent from these wetlands here.
These very wetlands produce more seafood than the entire east coast of the United States. So, basically we‘re going to talk about—this is basically America‘s toilet, it‘s America‘s sushi bar and it‘s our gas station. So—
MADDOW: Never combine those three things.
MCKINNEY: But that‘s really what we are. That‘s what this is, this thing is the huge—the whole delta down here is a huge treatment plant for the central part of the United States.
MCKINNEY: And we unfortunately have not been treating it very well.
But it—but the point is, is that this is an amazingly resilient system. Because it can take all this punishment, it has been taking the punishment and still produced fish and shellfish in the quantities it did.
The concern is, that how many times can it get knocked down? You have Katrina, you have Ivan, you have Rita. Now, you have this oil spill coming in here—just keeps hammering this system.
And, frankly, you know, you can only be knocked down so many times before you can‘t get back up, and that‘s the big concern for all of us.
MADDOW: What could be done differently in terms of policy, in terms of engineering approaches to take better care of this whole delta, this whole wetlands ecosystem than we‘re already doing?
MCKINNEY: I think it comes down to two points, Rachel. One is: we all have to understand, the entire country has to understand what we have at stake here and be willing to step up and restore these wetlands and get rid of the channelization, where we can‘t get the water back into these wetlands, feeding those nutrients and sediment and rebuilding them again. We got to do that.
And the second is, we‘re going to continue to need oil and gas. We‘re going to have to deal with that. But we cannot do it as we have done. Clearly, there are many things we need to look at as far as making that as safe as possible, because what is at risk is what we‘re sitting in right now, and we can‘t afford that risk.
MADDOW: Yes, absolutely.
Well, Larry, David, thank you both so much. I really appreciate your time and your expertise, helping us understand. You‘ve both freaked me out and totally enlightened me, which is the best combination for a day in a swamp. Thanks, you guys.
MADDOW: You can‘t fully comprehend how bad the BP oil disaster is until you have seen the devastation for yourself. My attempt to communicate that personal experience to you—coming up next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We‘ve deployed over 3 million feet of total boom to stop the oil from coming on shore. And today, more than 100,000 feet of boom is being surged to Louisiana parishes that are facing the greatest risk from the oil.
ALLEN: In the last 48 hours, we‘ve actually brought 30 miles of boom into the region down there to be deployed.
OBAMA: Trying to get more boom, for example, into the places that are needed.
ALLEN: We continue to move boom into Alabama.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: All that talk of boom is supposed to inspire confidence. Every day on the Deepwater Horizon response Web site, BP brags about how much boom they‘ve deployed. On Wednesday, they deployed more than 2.7 million feet of containment boom. They said they had deployed more than 2.6 million feet of sorbent boom. On Thursday, they said they deployed more than 2.2 million feet of containment boom and no additional sorbent boom. That‘s 30,000 more feet of containment boom from the day before.
As if all these numbers give us some sense of progress, right? We really must be on the way to licking this thing with all those numbers, all those feet of boom, right?
Well, how much of that boom looks like what I saw on my trip to the Gulf? Un-tethered from its pickets and its anchors piled up on the shore doing absolutely nothing because nobody‘s around to maintain it.
(on camera): If you know absolutely nothing about how to use boom to protect shoreline from oil, from anything encroaching that you want to keep off that shoreline, if you know absolutely nothing about, it you probably still know enough to know that this isn‘t supposed to be what it looks like.
What we‘re seeing right here-we‘re in Caminada Bay, which is just sort of in the backwaters off Grand Isle, Louisiana. What you see here is the absorbent boom piled up on this little barrier island, on this little land here.
And you see these bamboo poles they‘re sticking up and this big line out here?
The bamboo poles all behind me stretched all out here. The bamboo poles-those are supposed to be the anchor holding that absorbent boom in place. It‘s not working all that well.
We‘re here with Dr. Mike Blum from Tulane. He‘s professor of coastal marsh ecology. Mike, thanks for coming out here with us.
MIKE BLUM, TULANE UNIVERSITY: You‘re welcome. Happy to be here.
MADDOW: Is this - this isn‘t right, right?
BLUM: No, it‘s not doing its job as deployed and as designed. You would hope it would be anchored in place. And even under inclement weather conditions, and we‘re not actually having all that bad weather today.
BLUM: A couple mile an hour winds. You can see that it gets pushed off the anchors and it gets pushed out on to the marshlands.
MADDOW: When we think about the different technology that‘s available, not to stop the blown-out well, not to even to prevent that blown-out well from blowing out, not even to try to get the oil out of the water, but just to try to keep the oil offshore, essentially what we‘re talking about is absorbent booms like this, the other-the other kind of booms that are essentially have a different name.
BLUM: We have booms that can -
MADDOW: Diversion booms?
BLUM: Divert the oil, contain the oil.
MADDOW: So, you either absorb the oil with these booms. You divert the oil with the other solid booms.
MADDOW: Or that‘s it? Is there anything else?
BLUM: That‘s about it, except we do have pom-poms, we have mats, absorbent mats that once oil has been received into the marsh, you want to absorb it. You want to take it out of that marsh. And just for technical terms, often referred to as pom-poms, absorbent mats.
MADDOW: OK. But that‘s once the-that once - that‘s once the oil has actually come on shore.
BLUM: That‘s right. That‘s right.
MADDOW: All right. So, my sense, just as a layman who doesn‘t know anything about this - is that we‘re not very good at keeping oil offshore once it‘s in the water.
BLUM: No. So, if you contrast the technological aspects of this, we have bamboo poles and absorbent mats relative to billion dollar investments in drilling technology, highly advanced drilling technology, that allows us to reach in to depths of over a mile offshore.
And certainly, there‘s been great investment and great need for that drilling technology, but there‘s an equal need for investment in response efforts.
MADDOW: And how much have response efforts gotten better over the last 30 years? As drilling has gotten deeper and deeper and deeper, and oil companies have gotten more and more and more profitable to the point where you can‘t even write fairy tales about it without sounding like too crazy, how much have - how much improvement has there been in the technology for when things go wrong?
BLUM: Most of the investment in terms of intellectual capacity and research was made around 1979 through the late ‘80s. And since about the late ‘80s, very little work has been done, very little research dollars have been invested in response efforts.
Even understanding remediation technologies, how do you go about
understanding what‘s available in the natural communities, what kind of
simple technologies, what kind of advanced technologies can be implemented
very little progress has been made over the last 25 years.
MADDOW: So, as an academic, as a professor working in this field, are there endowed, you know, professorships and graduate programs that are supported by the industry to try to get the academic side of this-the intellectual side of this, sort of intellectual fire power directed toward these things or no?
BLUM: No. No. Certainly, there are individual efforts and there‘s certainly individual interest in investing in research towards remediation and recovery. But by and far, it has been outpaced by the investment made in engineering and drilling technologies.
Talking about ecology for the moment, one of the issues, when you have a sheen like this, it prevents gas exchange. So, the oxygen gets trapped or it gets stripped out of the water and the soil as microbes degrade the oil. So, you‘ve got a surface coating, you don‘t get oxygen exchange, then you get microbes that are basically taking all the oxygen out of the water. It‘s like a big dead zone, essentially.
MADDOW: There‘s dead zones out here that preceded the spill in terms of runoff from the Mississippi, right?
BLUM: Exactly. So, on an annual basis, every summer, a big dead zone surfaces due to influx of fertilization, fertilizers from the Midwest, all the way up through the Ohio River Valley get deposited off the shore of Mississippi - vast dead zone, hundreds of square kilometers. So, something like that can potentially happen with the oil.
MADDOW: So, you get this real thin sheen on the top of the water, but then you get these globs. Captain who we‘re with here says that when it gets warm, it spreads out real thin. Overnight, it tends to clump up more. Sometimes out here in the morning, this is more of what you‘ll see than out here after the full day of heat on it.
What‘s that slogan? What‘s their logo, “Beyond Petroleum?” You almost see when you first see it in the water like this, you think it‘s a piece of trash, you know, or some sort of litter out here. Maybe even some sort of dead sea life. Then you notice it‘s got a gas station sheen around it.
That‘s the consistency of the stuff that‘s floating out here in blobs. You can see there‘s some vegetation here that it‘s globbed on to. That‘s what it‘s like.
You know, you see it on camera and you think, you want to touch it and sort of see what it‘s like. Once you see it in person and you smell it, the desire to touch it goes away. See, that doesn‘t come off. “Beyond Petroleum,” my ass.
MADDOW: While we were out on the water today, we went to a very small island at the mouth of Barataria Bay, a very small island that is swamped with oil. We really wanted to see it and we learned something from being there.
But I‘ve got to tell you, being there was one of the grossest things I have ever done in my life. The unbelievable footage we shot there and the scary things we learned about what‘s happening to islands like that, coming up next.
MADDOW: After a close encounter of the most disgusting kind with the oil globs polluting Caminada Bay, I thought I experienced vile in its definitive, physical manifestation. When Tulane professor Mike Blum and I got to nearby island that had been soaked in oil, I found that my prettiest definition of the word “vile” needed updating.
MADDOW: All right. So, we‘re at the mouth of Barataria Bay?
MADDOW: And obviously, there‘s a lot of oil. You have the same sort of globs that we saw out in the sea on the way - out in the bay on the way over here. This is what they look like on land. This is my favorite pen. Not anymore.
What I want to know is once oil does make landfall like this, what happens? Does oil move in marshland in a way that we don‘t really understand?
BLUM: Well, what we understand now is when oil gets deposited by wave action like we‘re seeing right now, it accumulates. It goes right to the soil, and it coats the soil. So you don‘t get gas exchange, you get basically an anoxic layer where nothing can breathe.
MADDOW: Anoxic, meaning no - blocking oxygen.
BLUM: No oxygen.
MADDOW: So this, obviously, is not very substantial, small island that we‘re on, with oil coating it, becomes less substantial, more subject to erosion. This island is in danger of going away because this oil is on it.
BLUM: Exactly. So, with the oil coating the surfaces of the soil and plants, if it is sufficient enough like it is right now, you can see it kills plants right where it comes into contact, by just suffocating the plants.
You lose the anchor the plants provide and you get rapid erosion of the islands. These are the islands that endangered species or imperiled species like the brown pelican use as roosts and recreates.
MADDOW: So, Mike, even to get here, we had to go past this sort of line of absorbent boom here. And some of it is clearly doing-stopping some oil. I mean, it‘s obviously soiled and it‘s playing some role.
But we didn‘t drive over boom to get here. There‘s obviously a big break in it and this stuff is not set up in a way that looks like it could be effective. Booming isn‘t worthless. It‘s just being done in a worthless way, right?
BLUM: Right. So the way that boom is being implemented, it‘s not being effective. It‘s not as efficient as the technology could provide. What we need are more people out in the ground implementing and maintaining the boom in place.
And there‘s certainly thousands of people potentially available to implement boom effectively. If they were trained and if they were deployed well, then we‘d have much more protection than what we have right now.
MADDOW: So big picture, as research and development in the oil industry have been devoted almost solely in the big picture toward drilling, toward more production, and not toward mitigation and cleanup efforts.
Mitigation and cleanup technology has stayed the same. It‘s not pointless, but it does require a lot of manpower and a lot of attention.
BLUM: That‘s right.
MADDOW: And whatever manpower is being devoted right now to the gulf region, it‘s clearly not enough to get the booming right.
BLUM: No. So booming, again, is a first line of defense. It could actually provide a second and a third line of defense if implemented well. One thing that is really worthwhile to point out is that there are thousands of people calling in to BP, indicating that there are technologies under development and potentially available for implementation.
The problem is that it takes years to evaluate effectiveness. And so, we have a history of booming. We know how it works and we know potentially how to implement it. These alternative technologies that could potentially be put in place - there hasn‘t been testing. There hasn‘t been any sort of evaluation process.
So even though you may have the best solution available, you have to go through proper channels. You have to go through a timeline to indicate that this thing-that technology is worthwhile for further investment.
MADDOW: And that most of the technology, most of the resources, most of the research done toward cleanup and containment tech happened in the late ‘70s, ‘80s, hasn‘t been the focus since then.
MADDOW: They‘ve been too busy counting their money.
BLUM: Well-so the investments that could be made by BP and other petroleum organizations for technologies like boom or alternative technologies, if you think about it in terms of product development-the timelines for product development can stretch from years to decades.
BLUM: And we certainly have had the time. We‘ve had plenty of lessons learned since the late 1970s when Ixtoc I exploded. That‘s a good indication there is a need. But from a commercial perspective, there hasn‘t been that drive or that investment for implementation.
MADDOW: So, thinking about research that hasn‘t been done, technology that hasn‘t been tested, better ideas that haven‘t been pursued, there‘s this whole issue of dispersant.
And essentially the argument was, well, we know dispersant is toxic, but better to put toxic dispersant on the oil so as to avoid concentrated clumps of oil to coming up on shore. The dispersant might make that less prevalent. And so, therefore, it‘s a lesser of two evils. What do you think about that?
BLUM: So, when dispersant was applied offshore, we clearly didn‘t know what the consequences were. Hadn‘t been actually experimented on, the conditions were unknown.
And what we know now, even from the little research that‘s been done on this, if have you a comparison, if you have alternatives of - no oil, obviously, the best - oil or dispersed oil. Dispersed oil has the potential for being more toxic and having a much more dramatic impact on shoreline conditions on marshes than just oil by itself.
It‘s amazingly concentrated. You‘d think that just by washing it off it would come off, but I‘m really - the dispersant is just a fancy soap.
MADDOW: So, the dispersant makes the oil worse?
BLUM: Potentially, potentially.
MADDOW: We‘re dealing with it ecologically.
BLUM: Exactly. So if you think about it, these clumps - it‘s certainly something that potentially is more manageable. You can see that they have the potential for being naturally broken down by tidal flux and by just physical action.
BLUM: Dispersed oil creates a sheen that penetrates the soil. And again, it removes the potential for oxygen exchange.
And so you‘re talking about a situation which you can‘t even really see what‘s going on. But more or less, there‘s no oxygen. And without oxygen, you lose plants, you lose animals, you lose fish. Everything that you want to sustain in a marsh is going to be potentially taken away.
MADDOW: I went to another island while I was down in Louisiana, an amazing place called Queen Bess Island where the BP oil disaster rendered the decades-long best laid environmental plans of the state of Louisiana obsolete.
Containment dome or no containment dome, there is already a crisis in the gulf that is going virtually unattended. We will see it firsthand when we come back.
MADDOW: I recently spent some time in the water by Grand Isle, Louisiana. I was not out for long. But by the time I got back to shore, I was surprised to find that I was really lightheaded and kind of nauseated from the fumes of being out on the water without much oil in it. Here‘s why I went out there amid all of that oil. And here‘s what I saw.
(on camera): The smell out here is so strong out here right now. I don‘t know anything about toxicity levels and air quality and this kind of stuff.
But if I were in a place on land where it smelled this strong, I would - my instinct would be to get away and get to fresh air. When you‘re out on this much open water and it isn‘t fresh air, it‘s claustrophobic and scary.
We‘re in Barataria Pass. Right there is Fort Livingston. That marks, essentially, the start of the Gulf. That‘s where we get to the Gulf. And right now you can see we‘re in a mess of oil.
All of these little globs, these little dark brown globs - smaller than the globs that we saw yesterday, but much more widespread. These aren‘t individual pieces. This is - we‘re in a whole lot of sheen and in an area where the oil is just coagulating, a lot of different pieces of it.
There‘s a lot of action out here, right now. You can see some of the heavy-duty Coast Guard boom out behind us. That‘s the boom that inspires more confidence than the other boom that we‘ve seen.
You see some efforts where there‘re teams trying to contain the oil on the surface and have somebody come pump it up. But it‘s a mess right here where we are.
The one thing we can‘t confer to you out where we are, because you can thank your cable company we don‘t have smell-o-vision yet, but it smells like a gas station on a very, very bad day.
I have a story to tell you about Queen Bess Island. Queen Bess Island is a barrier island. Louisiana, over the past century, has lost about forty percent of its barrier islands.
When I say “lost,” I mean they became open water. They sunk into the Gulf. they sunk into the sea. And, the reason that happened, mostly it‘s man-made. It‘s decisions we made about shipping, levees, canals.
And Queen Bess Island, by the 1980s - parts of it were sinking up to a foot over the course of a decade. Queen Bess Island in the 1950s had been 45 acres. It had shrunk down to 17 acres by 1989, and by about that time, people started to freak out.
And the reason people started to freak out is because Queen Bess
Island is where the Brown Pelicans were being born. Brown Pelican is the
state bird of Louisiana. Louisiana had the - what‘s the opposite of honor
in the 1960s of having its state bird essentially go extinct in this state. And they were trying to bring it back.
And Queen Bess Island is where the Brown Pelicans were finally nesting again and raising their young. And so, in 1989, when it became clear that water was over-washing Queen Bess Island, that this island might go away and it‘s sinking a foot per decade, when all the vegetation on the island is going away, and therefore making it erode more because the water was just washing over it, everybody freaked out.
And thanks to the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, that brought on a full-scale effort to save Queen Bess Island. They built a long - a dike, out of seashells, that went right off the side of the island in order to try to keep it from shrinking.
They built up on what used to be the natural ridge lines of the island. They piled up earth there and planted it, so that the island would have more of a foothold. They dug a huge amount of dredged material from this bay onto this island to try and save it. It was really a full-court press. And you know what? Pelicans came back.
And Pelicans have been nesting here. This recreate supports hundreds of pairs of pelicans and the Brown Pelican is back. It‘s no longer extinct. And this island is a big reason why. And it took a lot of effort to get it to be saved.
They put 30,000 tons of rock all around the perimeter of this island to try to save it, and thereby to save the Louisiana state‘s bird. Queen Bess Island has been a great success story. And here‘s Queen Bess Islands now…
I know this seems like I‘m being really grim, but being out here
this is really grim. You can see all the pelicans on island that seem to be doing their best with the boom out here.
But what we‘re floating through here is a gas station with the globs of oil and the sheen all over it. And see, the pelicans are trying to clean themselves up. You know, the pelicans clean themselves up. They‘re ingesting that oil.
So as soon as you see them ingesting that oil, it doesn‘t matter how well it works to try to clean themselves. They‘re dead from eating the oil.
MADDOW: No human being can go as deep under the ocean as the broken Deepwater horizon pipe on the seabed. Watching the BP oil disaster continue to unfold can create feelings of helplessness and impotence among all of us.
But regardless of that pipe at the seabed, the crisis that that pipe at the seabed has caused already, the tens of millions of gallons of oil it has dumped into the water is a crisis that should not make us feel helpless and impotent.
It should make us feel angry because containing the oil on the surface of the water and keeping it away from the shore and getting it out of the water is not an unattainable goal that no regular human being can help with.
What it takes is old technology, low technology, that can be applied way better than it has been applied. And no one has yet been able to explain to me why we can‘t seem to do this part of this disaster response right.
The BP oil disaster is not just on the gushing seabed. It is in the water and on the shore and on the wetlands already. And there is no new technology under the sun to make it easy to divert and clean up that oil.
But there is existing technology that we frankly are not bothering to use right. It is a disaster. It is a manmade disaster that needs focus and that needs to be fixed, period, now.
We will keep the focus on it here on this show at 9:00 p.m. Eastern every weeknight. We hope we will continue to see you then. Thanks for watching.
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