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Offshore omen

Amy Hewes Jan 25, 2018 4:00 AM

What accounts for our inability to learn from the past? Why do we thoughtlessly invest in short-term projects that imperil ecosystems, species, and the planet?

Is it lack of imagination? Systemic inertia? Simple greed?

The most recent shortsighted, dangerous, and greedy plan by the Trump administration is to allow drilling by oil and gas companies in 90 percent of the nation's offshore waters, including all areas of California's coast that have been protected since 1984.

According the San Francisco Chronicle, the plan "could open up several spots that oil companies have long coveted, including waters off La Jolla in San Diego County, Malibu near Los Angeles, and Cambria in San Luis Obispo County" (Jan. 5).

Cambria.

We'll get back to Cambria; meanwhile, let's talk about imagination and history.

In 1989, writer Holly Hughes watched horrified as footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill played on the news. The ruptured supertanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude, which spread across 1,300 miles of pristine Alaskan shoreline.

Having spent several seasons running tenders for the Alaskan herring fishery and skippering charter boats in Prince William Sound, Hughes knew the waters. "I couldn't watch," she said. "I had to go." She signed on as captain of a medic boat.

The scene at the beach was "surreal" she recalled.

"A small city of volunteers in rain gear was literally trying to clean the shore with fire hoses, which only sent the oil back into the ocean. In between responding to medical calls, we scooped up oiled seabirds in a net and ran them to the rescue center in Seward.

"The birds would try to clean themselves, which resulted in them ingesting the oil. Many animals died of hypothermia because once their feathers or fur are coated, they lose their insulation.

"I remember seeing the eye of a loon peering through a sheen of Alaskan crude. It was heartbreaking; I'll never let go of those images."

The Exxon Valdez spill resulted in the death of an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles, approximately 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. The fishing industry never fully recovered because of long-term, possibly permanent damage to habitat and species.

Now, almost 30 years later, pools of oil remain just inches below beach sands.

Images of the Exxon Valdez spill were indeed haunting but not unfamiliar to Californians. In January 1969, a Union Oil well off Summerland blew out, releasing an estimated total of 4.2 gallons of oil that covered 800 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The event was among the largest environmental disasters in U.S history.

I don't have the space to detail more recent spills, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest marine oil spill in Earth's history. Or, closer to home, the ruptured pipeline near Rufugio State Beach that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude in 2015.

Truth is, the Trump administration is so in cahoots with oil companies and tycoons that they willfully ignore the history of oil-and-water disasters. And their greed is such that they not only relish the vision of oil derricks lined shoulder-to-shoulder, they also reversed safety measures implemented to prevent another Deepwater Horizon disaster. Remember, 11 men died during that BP platform explosion.

Back to Cambria. Let's imagine what the future holds if Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and their oil cronies hold sway.

Implications for our local fishing industry are grim. Fisherman's wife Lori French said: "Our sons and nephews are third generation commercial fishermen on the Central Coast, and we're opposed to anything that harms the oceans or restricts our fishing areas."

Likewise, Jeremiah O'Brien, a director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Organization and owner of The Aguero fishing vessel, said:

"Our job is to feed the people, but we're losing significant portions of territory. In 2015-16, we contributed $16 million in earnings to the local economy, but if offshore windmills and oil derricks are built, we might as well go home because there's wouldn't be enough room on the ocean to fish."

O'Brien noted that any spill triggers a dramatic drop in the market because consumers immediately fear tainted seafood, while long-term ecological damage affects all fisheries.

Cal Poly oceanography professor Ryan Walter also explained that if a spill occurred off of Cambria, there's no predicting with certainty where oil would land.

"The ocean doesn't flow downstream like a river; rather, surface and underwater ocean currents are constantly changing in both space and time," he said.

Which means we can only respond to oil spills after the fact, after beaches are mutilated and sea life turns up dead. But we can imagine oil coating Moonstone Beach. We can imagine the songs of dead, dying, and extinct birds, as does Hughes in her moving book Passings.

The name of O'Brien's boat means "omen" in English. Let us, then, take these omens, science, and history to heart: Our oceans should be off-limits to short-sighted looting and greed. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.