The impact of the Gulf Coast disaster reaches Oregon

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By now, everyone has seen the images or, worse yet, video. Birds that flap their sludge-covered wings trying to get liftoff. Oil-slicked endangered sea turtles that are fighting for their lives from the chemical dispersant that is killing them. Some even being set on fire in the efforts to slow the damage. It wasn’t long ago when the nation as a whole had no idea what a “top kill” or “dome containment” was or who Tony Hayward is.

For those not trudging on tar ball-covered beaches, the enormity of the situation is hard to grasp. Consider a milk jug. Now try to imagine 80 million milk jugs. That ever-increasing number is how many gallons of oil have been spilled into the Gulf Coast. Being thousands of miles away from the disaster means that Oregonians are far removed from the impact on the environment or even the economy. Even the size of the impact is hard to imagine.

If the oil spill had occurred in Salem, it would reach Seaside and Centralia, Washington to the north and Kennewick, Washington in the northeast and just barely miss reaching Bend to the east. To the southwest, it would expand to Reedsport and east from there to Drain.

Realistically, Salemites wouldn’t be a victim of an oil disaster. But reaction to the current oil disaster and consequences of debate on offshore drilling can reach Salem.

BP Boycott

Environmental activists have taken BP to task for their role in the oil spill. It wasn’t long after the Deepwater Horizon explosion before accusations against BP started.

Representative Joe Barton found himself the center of controversy when he compared the $20 billion fund that BP negotiated with the White House to aid cleanup as a ‘slush fund’ and a ‘shakedown.’ He later clarified the statement to say that he believes BP should “pay for the consequences of their decisions and actions in this incident.”

Environment Oregon staged a protest at a gas station in Portland back in May. The organization doesn’t plan to organize any boycotts, but, according to Policy Advocate Brock Howell of Environment Oregon, a grassroots movement has sprung up.

He said, “There isn’t an organization actively organizing boycotts. It seems to be a very much grassroots effort in Oregon, but there is a national movement.”

Those grassroots activists have gone to the internet to bring publicity to a movement to boycott BP gas stations. For example, Public Citizens initiated a BP boycott campaign on their website asking signers to pledge to boycott BP for at least three months. So far the petition has over 20,000 signatures. Their Facebook group also boasts over 10,000 fans.

“I’ve heard of a number of boycotts, especially in the Willamette Valley, that are planned to occur. The important thing of the boycott is that they’re raising awareness and targeting BP. They should be held responsible. The anger should be directed at BP,” said Howell.

Hussein Mustafa, owner of an AM/PM in South Salem, doesn’t understand why someone would boycott his gas station over the BP accident.

“I love the environment. I know what happened is wrong, but it’s a mistake and they [BP] are paying for it,” he said. “I don’t think a boycott would hurt BP. It would hurt me as a local owner and taxpayer.”

Howell said that the intent of boycotts aren’t to hurt local business owners, but to bring media attention to BP’s liability.

He said, “These gas stations operate on very thin margins. Most of their profits come from soda more than the gas itself. They rely on the sale of oil for people to go in and get food.”

If boycotted, Mustafa hopes that his customers that come from across the region will sustain his business.

“I don’t think they would [boycott]. We love them and they love us,” he said of his regular customers.

Some say that BP is not the problem, but instead a symptom of America’s lack of safety standards. Is BP any more guilty than Exxon or other oil companies? Howell thinks so.

“What happened on their oil rig hasn’t happened on American waters in over 30 years. Maybe other oil companies and managers of oil rigs have committed similar disregards to safety on their oil rigs as well, but they have not had this problem happen,” he said.

He added: “Apparently, Brazil has higher safety standards than America. We need to fix something here.”

Oregon in the recovery

Stephen Brandt, an Oregon State University researcher, will head to the Gulf of Mexico as part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) rapid response team. Brandt will study the impact of the oil spill on fish and other marine life.

He was part of a team that conducted seven research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico since 2003. Data that was collected during that time includes temperature, salinity, oxygen, phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish, and analyzing the effects of human activity on marine fish ecology.

“We’ll be studying the possible effects of how the oil spill might be affecting fish abundance in the area, possible growth effects and the effect on the food web. We’ve been doing this research for five years so we can compare the results [to previous findings],” said Brandt.

The team also plans to make its historical data available to other Gulf researchers via the NSF’s Biological and Chemical Oceanography Database.

“We’re proposing to conduct the new cruise in September because that’s the same time of year when we conducted our previous studies,” he said.

“That will allow us to compare the new data with comparable periods from past years, which should give us a good picture of how the spill is affecting the marine environment.”

The NSF will provide $200,000 for the seven-day research cruise. The goal is to conduct high-resolution mapping of hydrography, oxygen, plankton and fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico and also in the region east of the Mississippi where more oil from the spill may be heading.

“The crew will look at the most immediate impacts. We won’t know the impact on the ecosystem as a whole for quite a while,” he added. Brandt plans to study the mid-water specifically to see if there’s a change in the abundance and distribution of animals there.

“It should be exciting to see what’s going on. It’s good to have the opportunity to help out the area,” he said.

Research is not the only area where Oregonians are aiding the Gulf Coast.

Many area salons and pet grooming locations are partnering with an organization called Matter of Trust to supply hair for oil booms that are being used to collect oil.

The Academy of Hair Design has donated three garbage bags full of hair to the recovery efforts.

“We got involved because one of our students saw on the news that another salon was doing it in another state and wanted to know if we would do it too,” said Leslie Snook, head instructor at the Academy of Hair Design.

“We’ve had a lot of support. A gentleman brought a garbage bag full of dog hair,” she said.

Pets can contribute directly at participating grooming locations as well. Diana’s Pet Salon in Keizer is one location in the area that is gathering pet hair clippings for the organization.

The hair booms are created in San Francisco and New Orleans and then used to soak up oil spills, not only in major oil spill crises, but on a regular basis for the thousands of oil spills that occur every year. Once the organization’s warehouses are full, participating locations are asked to keep one box full for emergency situations. A mailing list is setup to orchestrate the arrival of hair from across the nation.

According to Matter of Trust, over 10 miles of booms have been stuffed. They currently have enough materials to make another 15 miles booms. All of which was collected in just a month from across the country.

Drilling on the Oregon coast

Governor Kulongoski signed a bill earlier this year, sponsored by Representative Ben Cannon (D-Portland), that would ban offshore drilling on the state’s territorial sea, which is a three-mile boundary off of the Oregon coast, for ten years. Four years ago, Oregon, Washington, and California partnered in the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health, which is a “historical regional ocean pact to protect the health of the West Coast’s ocean and coastal ecosystems.”

When President Obama approved expansion of offshore drilling, the West Coast was spared.

The debate on the 10-year moratorium for Oregon’s offshore drilling is over, but according to Cannon’s office, the debate on expanding or lifting the ban remains relevant. Despite the disaster in the Gulf Coast, many politicians still support offshore drilling on Oregon’s coast.

“The big picture is that the state is in need of more resources to fund education, health care and keep the prisons open. We need to keep our options open to any sort of possibility to help fund [these programs],” said State Senator David Nelson (R-Pendleton) who voted against the 10-year moratorium.

Nelson points to Montana as an example of a state using its natural resources to increase revenue. He said that they signed a contract with a large coal company and made 78 million dollars.

The Gulf Coast disaster hasn’t changed Nelson’s mind on his vote.

“They’re not quite sure of the size of those fields but why should we stop any options if it would help the people of Oregon? Potentially, there are large fields there. There hasn’t been a significant exploration. I understand [offshore drilling] is a very controversial matter, but cutting programs is a very difficult thing to do. We are losing opportunities and that goes back to my vote,” Nelson said.

“Oregonians clearly support environmental policy. They’re overwhelmingly against offshore drilling, especially on the Oregon Coast,” said Howell.

According to a Fox News poll on June 9, 48 percent of Americans oppose offshore drilling for oil and gas in the United States. In 2008, the same poll showed only 23 percent of Americans opposed it. With election season coming up, offshore drilling is sure to be a hot topic.

In the Governor’s race, Republican candidate Chris Dudley has signaled keeping “options open” for energy independence. When speaking on KGW’s Straight Talk program, Dudley said that he would not agree to a permanent ban on offshore drilling as proposed by multiple representatives at the state and federal levels.

According to Spokesperson Brittany Brammell, Dudley remains open to all options. “Chris is open to diversifying our energy production through various alternatives. However, at this time, he does not believe drilling off Oregon’s coast is a viable option, nor has he offered a proposal to do so.”

Dudley’s Democratic opponent John Kitzhaber supports a permanent ban on offshore drilling.

Kitzhaber said, “I have been an advocate for clean energy investment for a long time and as you can see from my policy papers, investing in energy efficiency and clean energy, and weaning ourselves off our addiction to oil is a central part of my agenda.”

Howell believes that the BP oil spill is a metaphor for whether the country will continue its dependence on oil or move toward alternative energies.

He said, “Candidates [who support this] are gonna have a much better chance [to get elected] than someone who wants to be stuck in the ways of the past.”

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