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

By David A. Fahrenthold and Ylan Q. Mui
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A06

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.

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."

But American history brims with other, more long-term catastrophes: From the perspective of a bison or a (now-extinct) passenger pigeon, the whole thing might look like one long disaster.

In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, for instance, a drought was made worse by human mistakes. Farmers had plowed up grassland to take advantage of high grain prices, but when prices dropped, the fields were abandoned, with no roots to hold soil in place.

Vast dust storms, big enough to reach Washington, were the result, along with wide-scale migration from the devastated region.

"I think the Dust Bowl is a far more catastrophic example for -- not the environment -- but for the people involved, and for the whole culture of the American Southwest," said Oliver A. Houck, a law professor who studies environmental history at Tulane University in New Orleans. "The Southwest has never recovered from the Dust Bowl and never will."

Another candidate for worst environmental disaster is the use of DDT, a pesticide that thinned eggshells and was blamed for the decline of such birds as bald eagles and brown pelicans. The Valdez spill, although smaller in volume, happened close to a shoreline packed with wildlife: 35,000 dead birds were found afterward, compared with the 957 reported so far in the gulf.

In the 1960s, the modern environmental movement was sparked partly by two events that -- set against this grim history -- barely look like disasters at all. An oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, was less than one-twentieth the size of the current one. And the fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, 41 years ago Tuesday, was spectacular but contained to one stretch of one river.

In the years that followed, the United States passed rules to protect clean air, clean water and endangered species. It helped solve the hole in the ozone layer. It created the modern era of environmental impact statements, hybrid cars and recycled toilet paper.

Which is why the current spill is such a depressing lesson for historians.

It shows that people -- at least those who were running the well and overseeing its safety -- might be repeating the mistake of underestimating risks to the environment.

"Our default mode in looking at the world is: 'How can we make money from it?' And so that was the lure of the farmers who helped create the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl. It's true of BP," said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. "If you think that way, you're going to be willfully blind to the costs that you don't pay," he said, until there's a disaster.

At the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, economist John Felmy disputed the idea that his industry hadn't learned from history. Felmy said oil companies spend billions of dollars to protect the environment, and oil spills have been on the decline for years.

"Think about the people who have driven their entire lives without a car accident and then have one," Felmy said, likening those drivers to the oil industry. He said it is too soon to pass judgment on the industry for the gulf spill: "Before we make any major, sweeping conclusions, let's really understand what happened."

The debate over this disaster's lessons, and its place in history, gets less theoretical as you get closer to the gulf. How bad is it? In New Orleans this week, the answer was: bad enough.

"They say if you buy high, sell high. It doesn't work," said Nga Vu, who owns a restaurant called Capt. Sal's Seafood & Chicken. She said that she's had to pay more for local shrimp, as sections of the gulf have been closed to fishing. But customers aren't coming to pay her higher prices.

"They say this could last forever," Vu said, in a restaurant that was nearly empty. "I think this is real bad."

Mui reported from New Orleans.

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