Who’s Responsible for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

I recently heard a story on BBC about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.  It consisted of a long monologue by one of the survivors of the explosion.  I was driving at the time, and emotionally taken over by what I heard.  In the first place, the man who spoke was speaking with my accent–not just any Southern accent, because accents differ from region to region, but my own voice patterns from Louisiana.  He used expressions that I haven’t heard for a long time, like, “We commenced to move toward . . . .”  He said the flames from the explosion were four stories high.  Several times he said, “It was like looking into hell.”  He described the panic as men went for the lifeboats and as some jumped into the sea, to avoid being burned alive.  Eleven of his work mates died that day, their bodies never found. 

The explosion occurred on April 20, over a month ago, and vast amounts of oil continue to spew out of the well, shutting down fishing over 46,000 square miles of ocean and coating fragile wetlands and marshes with globs of oil.  An environmentalist from Portland is going down to help save some of the birds that have been coated with oil. 

How could such an explosion happen?  Who is to blame?

I will not try to navigate the technical reasons for the explosion, but let’s look at the political, for that is where the real blame lies.

I give as evidence the following observations:

–the Minerals Management Service is a U.S. government agency thought by many to be among the most dysfunctional agencies that exist.  Some employees (literally) were in bed with big oil representatives, took lavish presents, and even let some companies fill out their own inspection reports.  Question: Why was an agency with such significant responsibilities allowed to degenerate to this point?

In 2005 the Energy Policy Act was passed by Congress.  The chair of the committee was Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a friend of big oil.  The Act provided for billions of dollars in tax and royalty relief, to stimulate drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore sites.  At the time, oil company profits were setting records.  Ever since the Reagan presidency, the government has been aggressively issuing offshore drilling permits and has given the oil industry tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks.  Question: Why does the oil industry need government subsidies?

In 2007 the national laboratory headed by scientist Steven Chu received most of a $500 million grant from BP to develop alternative energy sources through a new entity called Energy Biosciences Institute.  Dr. Chu received the grant from Steven E. Koonin, a physicist quite close to Chu.  Now Dr. Chu serves as Obama’s energy secretary, and Dr. Koonin followed Dr. Chu to Washington and became the under secretary of energy for science. The White House seems helpless in the light of the oil spill and issued a statement Tuesday that the Energy Department “doesn’t have jurisdiction over the oil spill.”  Question:  Can anyone doubt that oil corporations because of their cozy relationships with government have inordinate influence in government policy? 

As for BP itself, let’s take a look at the record.  On March 23, 2005, explosions and fires at a Texas City refinery run by BP caused 15 deaths and 180 injuries.  Investigators called it “one of the worst industrial disasters in recent U.S. history.”  The board found “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation.”  Further, in 2007 BP agreed to pay around $373 million in fines and restitution  for the Texas explosion, for leaks of crude oil in Alaska, and for fraud for conspiring to corner the market on the price of propane gas.  Question:  Given BP’s abominable record, why did our government not only give this company permission to drill at such dangerous levels and also give them a waiver, so they could avoid giving a detailed report on the effect of their operations on the immediate environment?

Investigators have noted that there were red flags indicating the possibility of an impending blowout 24 hours before the rig explosion occurred.  There were several pressure readings indicating that gas was leaking into the well, a very serious indicator of trouble.  And there were other critical decisions, like replacing heavy mud in the pipe with seawater, a move which increased the risk of explosion.  Question:  Is anyone surprised, given BP’s record, that the company pushed ahead, despite obvious risks?

So how cheap are the lives of the men who do the dirty and dangerous work of getting our oil out of the ground?  What price our fisheries and wetlands?  How much do we care about the living creatures that are destroyed?  The health hazards?  The beaches? 

To the President and to Congress:  There will always be greedy, careless people in this world, and some of them will gain a good deal of power.  It is your job as our elected officials to protect us citizens and our fragile earth from the likes of them.  In regard to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you have failed us, failed us drastically.  Have you learned from this tragedy, or will there be more of the same?


Is Death Immoral?

Arakawa, designer and conceptual artist, is dead at the age of 73.  Arakawa created buildings the purpose of which was to stop aging and even to cheat Death.  The fact that her husband died has made his widow, Madeline Gins, only more determined in her efforts to prove that “aging can be outlawed.”  (NY Times, 5/20, p. A20)  “This mortality thing is bad news,” Ms. Gins said.

Arakawa’s buildings are meant to keep those who use them in a constant tentative relationship with the space they are in: the floors are slanted and some have obstacles around which one must step; windows seem misplaced; many colors fight one another for dominance; light switches are not where one would expect; doors seem to be missing.  The “staying young” part comes in when the user of the building is forced to be ever alert for the unexpected, just to avoid serious physical injury, and therefore becomes ever more agile and flexible.

Steven Holl, the Manhattan architect, says that the couple’s work emerges from Japanese philosophy.  “It may take years for people to fully understand it,” he said. 

Personally, I think the work can be understood as metaphor, as a playful expression of the wish humans have to escape mortality.  I can understand the work as art, as an exhibit to experience and to comment upon.  Taking one’s self out of an expected environment and being surprised by newness is always a learning experience.  So it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  The problem with Arakawa and Ms. Gie is that they wanted to live there, and they wanted others to live there–literally.

Human beings are limited in all kinds of ways.  We don’t have furry skin to protect us from the cold.  We can’t run fast like a cheetah.  We have to eat regularly, or we perish.  And in fact even if we eat regularly and well, we will one day perish.  This inevitable movement towards death is undoubtedly the most formidable and fearsome of all our limitations.  “It’s immoral that people have to die,” says Ms. Gins.  It’s sad when people die, but it’s not immoral.  It’s just reality.  As the Buddhists say, “We are of the nature to get sick.  We are of the nature to die.” 

And as for our houses, while we are on this earth, we need a sense of place.  We need to know that when we come into our home, we can reach the light switch and banish the dark.  When need to know that when we step, the floor will be steady under us.  So much is tentative, so much is uncertain in our world.  During our time here, may we feel safe.  May we be at peace in the place we call home. 


When I Got Saved

I’ve been working hard on my memoir these days.  Here’s a story about when I got saved during a revival at the Southern Baptist Church in my home town of Homer, Louisiana:

“Are you washed in the blood,

                                     In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

                                     Are your garments spotless,

                                     Are they white as snow,

                                     Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”


            The revival at the First Baptist Church was winding to a close, with Angel Martinez preaching.  That evening he was wearing his usual outfit–a white suit and a pastel tie–which set off his dark good looks.  He used to be a Catholic, people say, but converted to the Southern Baptist faith. 


            I kept very still, watching him cut his hand through the air to emphasize a point, compelling people with his fierce dark eyes to heed his words.  “Don’t you know that Jesus loves you?  Don’t you know that he hung on the cross because of your sins?  That’s right–yours and mine.   We put him there.  Don’t you know that he wants you right now, tonight, to say “no” to sin and say “yes” to him?  Won’t you do it now?  Won’t you just step out of your seat and come forward?”  I stared at him, in awe.  I thought that he was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen.


            I felt that Angel was looking directly at me.  This was the last night of the revival, and I knew that the time has come for me to walk the aisle and be saved.  The trouble is that I didn’t feel much like a sinner.  Oh, I knew I was not perfect, but I tried to be.  I tried to never do bad stuff.  And then there was this thing about Jesus paying the price.  I was clear that I was responsible for whatever sins I did commit and that nobody else could get me off the hook, not even Jesus.


            “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me.”  As the choir sings the familiar words over and over again, pleading for lost sinners to come forward, I felt invisible arms pulling at me.  Angel Martinez had come down from the pulpit; he was  holding the microphone on a long cord in one hand, the other hand is raised high into the air.  “Don’t wait another minute!  Say ‘yes’ to Jesus tonight!  Won’t you come on now, as the choir sings, come on down the aisle.”  My sweaty hands tightened on the hymnal.  It is as though the whole congregation was singing to me alone:  “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary, come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home.”


            I was praying, as I did each night, that I would be able to find “God’s will” for my life.   That prayer is the scariest, the most dangerous to pray, though, because no telling what God has in mind.  I might be called to go to Africa as a missionary, to save the heathen, and end up dying of some strange disease whose name I couldn’t even pronounce.  I might never be able to get married, because somehow God and sex didn’t mix at all.  Big Papa had made it clear that liking boys fell into the category of “bad stuff.”  Even though I tried extra hard to be good, I felt that God was angry with me most all the time.  God undoubtedly knew my secret thoughts about wanting happiness for myself, about wanting love.  That longing separated me from Him, I was sure.


            Her feet move almost without her bidding out into the aisle, and she finds herself walking down to the front of the church, where the regular minister, Brother Skelton, is waiting to receive sinners.  Angel keeps on preaching, ever more urgently.  He wipes the perspiration off his dark forehead with a large white handkerchief.  He twists, he points, his eyes search the room.  He keeps asking people to come on down the aisle.  “Bless you, Sister, bless you.  Yes, the Holy Spirit is working here tonight!  Jesus is calling!  Won’t you answer Him now?  Don’t wait until it’s too late.”  The music continues its pleading, “Jesus is tenderly calling today. . . .”


            As Brother Skelton clasps her hand and bends forward to hear, she whispers, “I want to join the church.”  She feels very small. 


            “Do you believe that Jesus is your savior?”


            “Yes, sort of,” she answers.


            “What’s that?” he asks, cupping his hand over his ear and leaning closer.  She can see his tiny dark eyes behind his thick, coke-bottle glasses.


            “Yes,” she says, feeling more than a little guilty.  She doesn’t really understand what it means for Jesus to save her, in spite of having heard two sermons on Sunday and one at Wednesday night prayer meeting, for over a year now.  But she likes what she knows of Jesus.  He would, she thinks, understand that she is as saved as she can be, at the moment.


            The following Sunday night she is baptized, along with the others who were saved during the revival.  Most are children younger than herself.  They all wait in a line in their long white gowns. 


            When her turn comes, Brother Skelton lifts his chin and looks at her and stretches out one arm to help her into the baptismal fount.  Without her glasses, she can hardly see where she is going.  She moves tentatively down the steps and into the water, wanting to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. 


            “Marilyn Jane has come asking to be baptized and asking for membership in this church.  We rejoice in her decision to follow Jesus.”   As she stands there looking down, with her hands folded like some awkward angel, the minister puts one hand on her head and raises his other hand in the air.  Then he whispers in her ear, “Don’t be afraid.  You won’t fall.”


            “Marilyn Jane Fulmer, my sister, because of your profession of faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, I now baptize you . . . .”  Stiff and uncertain, but held by the preacher’s arm, she let herself lean backwards and go under the water and then be raised to her feet once more.  “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Dead to sin and raised to walk in newness of life.  Amen.”


            She is embarrassed.  The robe is sticking to her skin.  Probably everybody in church can see her underwear, she thinks.  Her hair is dripping wet, water is running into her eyes.  She sloshes out of the fount, feeling like Mama-dog after a bath, only more naked.


            You are supposed to feel different after you are baptized, but she doesn’t at all.  “Raised to walk in newness of life.”  She doesn’t feel new.  She is still the same person, still sad, still feeling lost.  But at least now she’s not different from her friends.  And now she doesn’t have to feel guilty every time the invitation is given at the end of the church service.




Chemicals and Cancer

Last week one of my dearest friends called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer and would have surgery on Tuesday, May 4.  Last night I got word from her husband that the surgery was successful, that “a large tumor was removed.”  The lab reports will not be back for several days, so it’s wait and see. 

So when I read Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s NY Times, I read with even more interest and care than I would have ordinarily.  The title is “New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer,” and it is on p. A30, should you want to read the whole article.  I thought I would share with you the most salient features of the piece.  After all, who among us has not been touched by cancer–if not directly in our own life, surely in the lives of our friends and families. In fact, one of the startling things that Kristof says is that “some 41percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.”

Kristof has had a sneak preview of the current report of the President’s Cancer Panel, which is not some fringe scare group, but a panel of distinguished cancer experts established in 1971 to study our country’s cancer program and report directly to the President.

One of the most startling conclusions of the report is that 300 chemical contaminants have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns.  The Panel puts it this way: “To a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’”  They point out that only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals being used in the U.S. have been tested to see if they are safe.  And they add, “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”  (Italics mine.)

The Cancer Panel calls for much more rigorous regulation of chemicals.  And how is the food industry responding?  They are already fighting legislation in the Senate (backed by California’s Dianne Feinstein) to ban bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly found in plastic food and drink containers.  The data of BPA studies is inconclusive, but the Panel’s position is that we should be prudent rather than approving suspected chemicals before absolute proof of toxicity is found.  Also in the works is the Safe Chemicals Act, supported by Senator Frank Lautenberg, which may garner additional support once this new cancer report is published.

One of the authors of the report told Kristof, “We wanted to let people know that we’re concerned, and that they should be concerned.”  Kristoff tells us that “some cancers are becoming more common, particularly in children,” and “the proliferation of chemicals in water, foods, air and household products is widely suspected as a factor.”

No, all chemicals are not harmful, says Kristof, but to help people decide what to do when they are uncertain, the report makes some suggestions:

–Take particular care when pregnant or when children are small in choosing foods, toys, and garden products.  Information about products can be found at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com or www.healthystuff.org

–If your job exposes you to chemicals, remove shoes when entering your house and wash work clothes separately.

–Filter drinking water.

–Store water in glass or stainless steel containers, or in plastics that don’t contain BPA.

–Give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and growth hormones.  Avoid meats that are cooked well-done.

–Check radon levels in your home.

Some of you who read this article will see the recommendations as “just one more thing to worry about,” and you will be all too ready to trust the corporate world and their products.  Please don’t.  Think Toyota.  Think British Petroleum.  I’m not saying all corporations are evil by any means, but they are not persons, they are entities that have a bottom line, and that bottom line is to make money for stock holders.  Do not trust your children’s health to them.  Please.