On the anniversary of Earth Day and the BP spill, coronavirus reveals a planet not so resilient
By KEVIN SPEAR | Orlando Sentinel | Published: April 21, 2020
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ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The first Earth Day was an uprising for humankind to do better than smother its coasts with crude-oil blowouts, poison wildlife with factory and farm chemicals, and irradiate the atmosphere by testing nuclear weapons.
Nearing the 50th anniversary on Wednesday, amid the death toll, economic mayhem and stay-at-home orders of the coronavirus outbreak, Earth Day may have never been so relevant for a planet more vulnerable than previously thought.
COVID-19 is a warning, environmentalists say, that even in times of soaring stocks, accelerating technology, plentiful consumer goods and growing cities, civilization is not all that resilient.
The world’s prime environmental fear is climate change and its potential to drown cities, disrupt food supplies, deliver new diseases and be far more disastrous than COVID-19.
University of Miami geography professor Harold Wanless, long a proponent of an urgent response to climate change, said the coronavirus outbreak may have been a needed revelation.
“It has demonstrated what I don’t think any of us thought could have happened,” Wanless said. “We are really capable of doing surprising things quickly. If we had talked about this sort of response on Jan. 15, it would have been, ‘No way would these things ever be happening.’”
The first Earth Day brought formidable federal laws protecting the nation’s air, water and wildlife, but Florida has become only more tormented by a widening array of environments troubles.
“Since the first Earth Day, Florida’s resident population has more than doubled, and our tourist visitation has grown six-fold,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.
In Central Florida more recently, Sanford’s airport has joined a worldwide legal battle against chemical makers, alleging that their toxic, firefighting foams threaten human health, ecosystems and water supplies. Orlando’s electric utility is being sued by east Orange County residents, who blame radioactive contamination of their communities on nearby power plants burning coal.
In South Florida, the city of Fort Lauderdale earlier this year was fined nearly $2 million for what state officials deemed as the largest outbreak of sewage spills in state history, a deluge that flowed largely into the city’s vast and prized canals.
The statewide damage from nutrient pollution, from mishandled sewage, fertilizer and storm water, has plagued the state for decades and yet has worsened in recent years in springs, rivers and coastal estuaries.
The funneling of polluted water from Florida’s huge Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, triggering eruptions of toxic, foul-smelling and wildlife-killing algae, remains an ongoing threat.
Unrecognized 50 years ago, the nation and planet now face the most profound environmental danger yet: rising global temperatures that, among mounting catastrophes, have spawned drought and wildfires in Western states and stronger hurricanes and rising seas along Florida’s coast.
“This upcoming 50th Earth Day anniversary is an opportunity to take stock of where we stand when it comes to the battle to live sustainably on this planet,” said Michael Mann, a prominent climatologist and geophysicist at Pennsylvania State University.
“COVID-19 and the loss of life that has resulted from it is a tragedy,” Mann said. “But the pandemic has also been a teaching moment, an opportunity to take away some important lessons. One of those lessons is that it is possible to consume fewer resources and still lead our lives.”
In Florida, opposition to offshore drilling has been perhaps the most unifying environmental cause for Floridians, allying the most progressive activists with the most conservative politicians and with all beach lovers.
For many, the essence of Earth Day on April 22 became inseparable from the specter of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 a decade ago.
The inaugural Earth Day owed some of its momentum to the nation’s revulsion over the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. Crude oil massacred marine life in Southern California coastal waters.
The BP disaster, from a blowout unleashed by the drilling vessel Deepwater Horizon, lasted five months and dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana.
More than killing mammals, fish and birds, the submerged oil, as advanced research techniques found, severely altered phytoplankton, the basic organisms that convert sunlight to biomass that feeds all of the food web, said Samantha Joye, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia.
“This lasted much, much longer than the signature of visible oil,” Joye said.
Prey fish were wiped out, corals were damaged and thousands of square miles of seabed were coated with a dirty blizzard of “oil snow,” Joye said.
Florida, particularly dependent on tourism and vulnerable to economic and environmental disruption, finally became acquainted with another devastating foe it had long feared. It took little more than a month for the BP slick of congealing crude to find the state’s vulnerability.
Morning beachgoers at Pensacola Beach came across orange-brown blobs of oil, from dime-sized to lumpier, slimier chunks the size and shape of fried eggs. Within weeks, Western Panhandle beaches were deserted, crushing the region’s economy.
“I call it the ‘quafecta’ that started with Hurricane Ivan that destroyed 85% of Pensacola Beach, followed by the real estate bubble popping, followed by the worldwide economic crisis,” said Julian MacQueen, founder and chairman of Innisfree Hotels, which owns Hamptons, Hiltons and other hotels from Panama City to east Alabama beaches. “Just when you thought it was safe again, BP hit.”
Now he’s considering a label for five disasters. The coronavirus has again emptied the Panhandle’s famed beaches.
“We are used to the hurricanes,” MacQueen said. “We have a plan and we have insurance. The big gut punch now is that there is no business-interruption insurance.”
John Amos, president of SkyTruth, a nonprofit environmental, watchdog group that specializes in satellite imagery, said Florida should be wary of a blowout more destructive than BP’s.
“Deepwater Horizon is not the worst-case scenario for an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” Amos said.
The BP spill resulted from human errors and violations of drilling procedures.
But the Gulf of Mexico seafloor is a minefield of potentially catastrophic mud slides that could bowl over rigs containing multiple wells with oil flowing to pipelines, Amos said.
Worsening the risk is that most drilling has migrated into very deep waters of the Gulf, where technology would be hard-pressed to control a blowout, he said.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at Scientific American co-founder of the web-based Weather Underground, said there is a common thread to the disasters and crises hitting Florida and the U.S., and that thread is worth paying attention to.
“Our lamentable lack of preparedness for and response to the pandemic bears similarity to what happened with the BP oil spill and the recent spate of intense hurricanes that have hit the U.S,” Masters said.
“Our reactive efforts ended up being far more expensive than if we had proactively prepared,” Masters said of responses to the spill, storms and the coronavirus outbreak. “Accelerating climate change will cause far more damage to society than the COVID-19 pandemic will end up causing, and we need to learn from its lessons and take strong science-based government action.”
The effort will come with a price, environmentalists say, but potentially with a critically needed payoff.
“For a long time now, Florida’s been about growth above everything. Climate change means its future is going to be about retraction,” said Bill McKibben, a prominent U.S. writer and voice on climate change. “But that can be done gracefully, yielding a state that’s hardier, more resilient and still a place of great beauty.”
Audubon’s Wraithmell hopes that Floridians are up to the task.
At the time of the BP spill, “my daughter was 2 and I remember lying awake at night, wondering if I could ever stand to watch her swim in the Gulf again,” Wraithmell said. “It amazes me how many people have forgotten the stark horror of this disaster. Maybe it’s because Florida is such a growth state, with newcomers who don’t remember. Or maybe there have just been so many hurricanes, algal blooms and epidemics since then to make the memory of it fade.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.
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