Making the world a better place: History’s environmental disasters and missteps

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”

—Charles Darwin

For this article, I interviewed two State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry professors about the Exxon Valdez spill, and the current issues and regulations that have been put in place because of this historical disaster. They also stated their opinions on the excess of fossil fuels American society is do dependent on in present day, even after people saw how much damage the extraction and shipment of oil can cause.

First for a little backstory into the oil spill problem: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound was the worst American Oil Disaster up to that point in history in 1989. Many mistakes were made and outrage by the American people was evident, such as the captain of the oil-carrying vessel handing control of the ship to his first mate who had no idea how to operate it. By learning about more recent oil spills and environmental disasters, people have learned more about the science behind how fossil fuels and the machinery taking it out of the ground and transporting it, affect the environment and surrounding economy. Education on these issues and why they happen in the first place is the first step into prevention.

The size and damage of the spill was trumped more than two decades later by the BP spill in the Gulf Coast. Many of you who read this blog were not born when the Exxon Valdez Spill happened, but it was an important and depressing stepping stone to create better environmental safety regulations to protect American wildlife.

The interviewees for this post are Jill Weiss, and Sharon Moran, both professors from the Environmental Studies Department of SUNY-ESF, and they have both dealt with this oil spill both in and outside of the classroom, which is why I thought they would be good people to interview. They both had very different backgrounds surrounding the issue of oil spills, but they both believe that we have the power today to prevent and regulate the problem.

Laws such as the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 streamlined and strengthened EPA's ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills. A trust fund financed by a tax on oil is available to clean up spills when the responsible party is incapable or unwilling to do so. The OPA requires oil storage facilities and vessels to submit to the Federal government plans detailing how they will respond to large discharges. EPA has published regulations for aboveground storage facilities. The OPA also requires the development of Area Contingency Plans to prepare and plan for oil spill response on a regional scale.

Regarding the interviews, the first person I interviewed was Weiss. She explained that she was a student in an art college when she first heard about the disaster and has used her experience to talk about oil spills in her lectures and how to prevent them with today’s technology. She also mentioned larger oil spills such as the BP Oil Spill that occurred almost a decade ago and told me that the cleanup was still ongoing. From her lectures and interview, she told me that public outreach was stronger than she expected, even before the internet existed. Currently she teaches a class about NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the guidelines our federal government abides by to keep the environment from sustaining irreparable damage. She strongly believes the people of today have the power to control the amount of spillage, but “since America is so dependent on fossil fuels, many people are timid about changes to the way they go about their daily lives and the amount of oil they use.”

Moran teaches classes mainly about environmental policy and American government, including her view on harsher penalties for the people that are the primarily responsible for oil spills, and stricter regulations on the oil barges. She also talked about how much our society depends on fossil fuels, and if we are this dependent, “nothing will change.” She talks about how oil spills can cause permanent damage to an aquatic ecosystem if the regulations and polices regarding the transportation and exportation of oil are not followed. “The science that researches and writes up damage reports is vital in getting the public involved and in getting the party responsible to pay for their missteps. We have the technology today to clean up oil spills and influence the people around us with the factual research, but first, communication is needed to bring different stakeholders together and find out why these oil spills keep happening even with the more advanced technology of today.”

People like you, who read articles like this, can change the world, and spread the word to others on how much damage oil spills can really do, beyond what we hear from the mainstream media. The discovery of fossil fuels helped with the advancement of our society but has also become a hindrance for our future and present environment and life in general.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.