New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue is lined with oak trees whose broad branches drip Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads from the pre-Lenten parades, and behind the oaks are beautiful old houses with turrets, porches, balconies, bay windows, gables, dormers and lush gardens. There are no refineries for miles, hardly even gas stations on the stretch I was on in mid-June, and the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on 20 April and the oil welling up a mile below it were dozens of miles away as the bird flies. So there was no explanation for the sudden powerful smell of gasoline that filled my car for several blocks or for the strange metallic taste in my mouth when I parked at the Sierra Club offices uptown, except that since the BP spill such incidents have been common. As of mid-July, the spill is supposed to be plugged at last, except that the plug is temporary at best, and the millions of gallons of oil are out there in the ocean, on the coast – and in the air.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency has an unhelpful handout for the BP era that says:
These effects should go away when levels go down or when a person leaves the area. The low levels that have been found are not expected to cause long-term harm … If you smell a ‘gas station’ like odour … it may be volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The key toxic VOCs in most oils are benzene toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
When I went out on the sea from Grand Isle, which is hardly more than a great sandbar at the end of the watery land south of the city, 109 miles from it by car, the taste was much stronger, and one of my companions on the boat had run into far worse. Drew Wheelan, a birdwatcher from the American Birding Association, told us that he had walked into a patch of fumes so intense his body seemed to react automatically and fling him away. ‘I hit a cloud so concentrated,’ he wrote on his blog, ‘that 20 hours later my mouth and tongue still feel as though they’ve been burned by a hot liquid.’
A pregnant friend wondered if she should have left New Orleans altogether, and another friend warned his pregnant girlfriend to stay indoors on the more pungent days. The smells were just part of the ominous, uncertain atmosphere of the Gulf in the wake of the BP spill. The whole region had become something like the Western Front, a place where you might run into pockets of poison gas, except that this wasn’t a battlefront: it’s home, for pregnant women, for children, for old people who’ve spent their entire lives here, for people who love the place passionately, for people who don’t know any place else on earth and don’t want to go anywhere, and for people who can’t, at least economically. And for countless birds, fish, crustaceans, cetaceans and other ocean life. The spill has hit them all hard.
If ‘spill’ is the right word for this oil that didn’t pour down but welled up like magma from the bowels of the earth. It’s also called the Macondo blowout, and maybe ‘blowout’ is a better word.
The blowout is about global capital, and about policy, and about the Bush-era corruption that turned the Minerals Management Service into a crony-ridden camp that didn’t do its job, and about Big Oil, and about a host of other things. But it is also about the destruction we’ve all seen in the images, which are horrible in a deep and primordial way. I went out on boats twice and saw an oiled pelican through binoculars and some faint oily traces on wetlands grass and couldn’t quite make out the oiled terns in the distance. And I saw what everyone else could see too, the photographs and footage from those who went to Ground Zero of this catastrophe.
Mary Douglas said that dirt is matter out of place, and petroleum is out of place everywhere above ground. We design our lives around not seeing it even when we pump it into our cars and burn it, and when we do encounter it, it’s repulsive stuff with a noxious smell, a capacity to cause conflagrations, and a deadly impact. Nature kindly put a huge amount of the earth’s carbon underground, and we have for the past 200 years been putting it back into the atmosphere faster and faster, even though we now know that this is a project for which words like ‘destructive’ are utterly inadequate.
There’s a YouTube video shot by an oil-rig diver in which huge brown globs of oil float underwater like colossal clots of phlegm. From the surface the chunky brown stuff looks like vomit. ‘Just globs of death out there,’ one diver, Al Walker, says in a Southern accent. ‘Oil so thick it blocks out almost all the light below,’ says another diver. An AP photograph by Dave Martin shows one of the gentle little waves of the Gulf Coast in close-up, a wave on Orange Beach that’s brownish gold with spots of orange and black oil on it, water acting just like water and looking just like paint thinner or gasoline.
And then there’s the aerial footage taken by John Wathen, or Hurricane Creekkeeper, that’s gone viral on YouTube, Facebook, other facets of the internet, and the media, including CNN. It shows great plumes of smoke rising from the sea, as the oil is burned off the surface. The flames are invisible but the columns of smoke rise up and float away: burning water, like the famous incident in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire from having so much industrial contaminant. That was one river in an industrial region: the flat calm blue ocean burning is apocalyptic, a world turned upsidedown, rules broken, taboos violated, something as unnatural as nuclear fission and fallout, something nightmarishly wrong, and it extends for hundreds of miles, on water and under it, on shore and in the air.
In the Sierra Club offices, Darryl Malek-Wiley, the club’s local environmental justice organiser, showed us a map of the Gulf, chequerboarded with gas leases, and peppered, as though the map had been hit with buckshot, with oil platforms, 4000 of them. A news story a week later mentioned the 27,000 old oil wells also out there in the territory the maps show, some probably leaking, but no one is monitoring them. Darryl, a big white-haired guy with a Southern accent and a slight Santa affect, showed me another map, an aerial photograph of a portion of the Louisiana coast, on which you could see all the channels the oil and gas industry has cut through the wetlands, creating straight routes through which water can move fast and hard, cutting the channels wider and eroding this coast still further. ‘Nature meanders but time is money,’ a bayou-dweller told me. About a football field of coastline erodes away every 45 minutes, and a third map of Darryl’s showed how much land has been lost in the past several decades, since the petroleum industry came to the Gulf, an area about the size of Delaware, or 2500 square miles.
Oil and gas channels are responsible for nearly half of this erosion of land that is for the most part sediment laid down by the Mississippi over the aeons before it was tamed. When you look at the remnant land on a map, it looks like tattered lace, a frail smear of soil pitted and pocketed and veined by fresh and salt water. From the flat ground you can’t see much of this texture, but water is everywhere and anything can flood. Most structures rebuilt since 2005 are on stilts a dozen feet or more high, ready for the next surge, flood or sea-level rise, if not for the continuing erosion that will leave a lot of these structures literally out at sea. Sometimes travelling through this country you see drowned old structures whose underpinnings the sea has already reclaimed.
Another source of coastal erosion is the channelisation of the Mississippi, which no longer delivers sediment in the quantities it did when it was building up the delta. The place had a lot of problems before BP, really. Shrimping was being undermined by cheap, ecologically horrendous shrimp farms in Asia and Central America, and the Mississippi was delivering its own form of death to the ocean: nitrogen from synthetic fertilisers in the corn belt of the Midwest washes into the river and out to the delta, where it feeds algae blooms that die, decay, and take much of the oxygen out of the seawater. The dead zone is about 8500 square miles. About a third of the corn is supposed to be for ethanol, the not very green alternative to petroleum, so you can see the Gulf being throttled by a pair of energy-economy hands. Inland are the refineries and chemical plants that have given a swathe of the region the nickname Cancer Alley.
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