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Historians debate designation of 'worst environmental disaster' in U.S.

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A little mathematical context to the spill size can put the environmental catastrophe in perspective. Viewing it through some lenses, as BP CEO Tony Hayward points out, it isn't that huge.

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Ylan Q. Mui
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The oil spill in the gulf of Mexico is the "worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," according to President Obama. Those were bold words in a country whose past is littered with oil spills, explosions, toxic dumps, extinctions and at least one river on fire.

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So, was he right?

Historians, predictably, say that depends on what he meant by "worst" and "disaster." The Dust Bowl of the 1930s caused more social upheaval. The Exxon Valdez spill had a higher wildlife death toll. The pesticide DDT affected a wider swath of the country.

But just asking the question reveals a depressing truth about the current catastrophe. It has a great deal in common with the others: private interests that took risks in search of a payoff; a government that wasn't trying hard enough to stop them.

The Deepwater Horizon rig sank on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. That was a special irony: It happened on a day that promised that Americans had learned from their mistakes.

"It does just raise the question of, 'How much have we really learned?' " said Andy Kirk, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Tuesday is the 63rd day since the April 20 explosion of the drilling rig, which killed 11 workers.

Since then, according to government estimates, the well may have released more than 2.1 million barrels (90 million gallons) of oil -- eight times the Valdez spill in 1989 -- and maybe much more. As of Monday, oil was affecting 174 miles of the Gulf Coast, more than double the number from last week.

BP officials said Monday that they were capturing 23,000 barrels (966,000 gallons) a day, as much as 65 percent of the flow, using a "cap" that fits over the well. But the "relief wells" that could finally plug the thing are weeks from completion.

On Monday, White House officials declined to explain Obama's rationale for deciding this disaster is worse than the others.

In interviews, however, some historians and environmentalists said they could build a compelling case that it is.

"It's on the scale of an ecosystem, and it's on the scale of an economy, that the impacts will be felt," said Mike Daulton of the National Audubon Society. He said that no other one-time event -- no single spill, explosion or dumping case -- could match the reach of the spill's impact, from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. "This is on the front doorstep of America."


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