Career environmentalists anguish over gulf oil disaster

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Saturday, May 29, 2010; C01

Just a few minutes into his comments about the damage from the gulf oil leak to the House Energy Committee on Thursday, Louisiana congressman Charlie Melancon was overcome. "Our culture is threatened, our coastal economy is threatened, and everything that I know and love is at risk," he said. His voice broke. He sighed deeply and paused to gather himself. "Even though this marsh lies along coastal Louisiana, these are America's wetlands," he continued, before he had to stop and abruptly leave the room.

Right after the spill, Jeremy Symons, a senior vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, toured the gulf and saw dolphins playing in the boat's wake. Now he's haunted by that image as he hears reports of dead dolphins washing ashore.

At his press conference Thursday, President Obama talked about how his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, had knocked on the bathroom door as he was shaving to ask, "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"

The oil leak is a slow-motion tragedy, and the sorrow and fears that have been building with it now seem to be spilling over. Washington is full of activists, environmentalists and thinkers dedicated to the planet, and with oil still spewing and every effort to stop it a failure, there's a gallon-by-gallon awareness: Heartbreak, disbelief and powerlessness are giving way to fury. But there's also a clear resolve to fight.

Regan Nelson, a senior oceans advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, lobbies Congress. She had been working on clean energy and climate, but since the explosion, she said, "I put away all the work I was doing on fisheries issues, ocean acidification issues, to focus exclusively on the gulf oil disaster." She spent 10 days driving the Gulf Coast, trying to assess damage to both wildlife and ways of life.

She wrote about it on her blog:

Today as I sat in a boat in the Gulf, surrounded on all sides by oil-tainted seas, it's hard to say what hit me the hardest. Was it the graceful and enigmatic dolphins surfacing through the slick? Or Captain O'Neill pointing out the spots where he fishes for speckled trout, redfish, flounder, crab and shrimp, and hearing the desperation in his voice. Was it seeing first-hand the soup of oil droplets, dispersed but thick as Louisiana bean soup, as far down in the water column as one could see? Or was it the overwhelming odor of petroleum that left me feeling slightly nauseous? It's hard to say. But the cumulative impact was heartbreak. Heartbreak because standing there on the boat, all I could feel was helplessness.

"Heartbreak," Nelson says, has "turned into anger. How could we have allowed this to occur?" She cited the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil-spill disaster, which, by some estimates, took four years and $2.2 billion for Exxon to clean up, with some effects permanent. She monitors the live feed of BP's "top kill" efforts to plug the oil, and puts in 10-plus-hour days on the newly formed "swat team" of nearly two dozen NRDC staffers now devoted to the disaster.

Her anger sustains her through the long days. "It has really spoken to the activist in me," she said. "People have these watershed moments in life where your mission in life becomes crystallized and this was one of those crystallizing moments. . . . This is why I chose to become an environmentalist."

What's fueled the uncertainty is the singular nature of this oil leak, said Morgan Gopnik, a former vice president for the Ocean Conservancy. When a tanker splits in half, she said, vast amounts of oil spill at once. "There are terrible, immediate effects. It washes up on shore. This is oil pumping out from a mile down, mixing with water, being pulled around by all the currents, breaking up into little tiny droplets. We don't have any experience with this sort of spill. We have no idea what the long-term consequences are going to be."

Darron Collins of the World Wildlife Fund on the Reports from the Gulf blog:

Last week, I talked a lot about the overwhelming sense of anxiety that seemed to blanket the Gulf from Dauphin Island, Alabama, to Venice, Louisiana. The tenor has shifted dramatically over the weekend. Although it's an obvious generalization, people aren't worried anymore. They're angry.

Leslie Aun, a vice president with the World Wildlife Fund, said that in the immediate aftermath of the spill, worried staffers exchanged a "flurry of e-mails. WWF is comprised of hundreds of people -- biologists and scientists and people deeply concerned -- who have spent their entire career thinking about ways to save the planet and preserve ecosystems." As the spill got worse, "the halls and the virtual halls of the WWF became very somber, distressed, worried and bummed out," she said. But only for a time.

Environmentalists have always had to fight to be heard, and this isn't the time "to sit and be sad," said Aun. "If there's ever a moment where people will be horrified or risen to the dangers of [drilling], this is the moment. We will do our very best to make sure it doesn't pass."

Officials at the National Wildlife Federation said record numbers of people have visited their Web site looking for ways to help, and they have collected $250,000 through online, mobile and e-mail appeals. (Some Washington organizations have been directing people wanting to donate to local cleanup organizations along the Gulf Coast.)

Symons said the spill is at the top of the minds of everybody in the National Wildlife Federation, no matter their job. "We've dropped everything, family plans, work plans to spend time down there to be the voice of wildlife. . . . It's like seeing your kids in harm's way. It's hard to focus on anything but making sure we're doing everything we can."

The National Wildlife Federation has been taking reporters to places where wildlife is affected, said Symons. He posted a video from his trip on YouTube. He was on Capital Hill Wednesday when a woman who works on environmental issues told him how powerful his video from the gulf had been. The video shows Symons 15 miles from the Biloxi wetlands, hitting a wave of oil on the water. "We had seen oil sheen, we had seen dispersed oil. This was the first time we had run into heavy oil sitting on the water."

Symons scooped a glob into his hands. "I tried to imagine how it would be for wildlife trying to scrape it off. It just covered my hands more and more completely. It just completely coated my skin with a greasy heavy oil, and at that moment, you realize what you never see on TV: the fate of wildlife that encounters this mess."

The work, he says, is galvanizing, a pushback against the feelings of helplessness and the inexorable bigness of the disaster. But the emotion of it all still catches him. Every day, he said, his kids ask: " 'Have they fixed the hole? Have they stopped it?' And there's nothing to say, day after day after day after day."

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