Oil on Troubled Water

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PHOTO: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Saying “I told you so” isn’t polite, but
maybe being polite doesn’t enjoy such a high priority right
now.

Nearly 20 years ago, Friends of the Earth published a book
titled Cry Crisis! Rehearsal in Alaska by Harvey
Manning, a Seattle freelance writer. It was an impassioned
plea that the proposed trans-Alaska pipeline be rerouted to
follow the Alaska Highway through Canada and, ideally, that
the oil be transported by rail rather than by pipe and
tanker. The pipeline was delayed by several years as
litigation proceeded. In the end, Vice President Spiro
Agnew broke a tie vote in the Senate to approve the
pipeline and its environmental impact statement and to bar
further court challenges.

Cry Crisis! included worried ruminations about all
manner of perils the pipeline would pose, both to the
tundra and to wildlife (even if it operated as intended)
and to all manner of resources if something should go
wrong. It predicted pollution of the North Slope, which has
occurred. It predicted leaks along the line itself, which
also have occurred.

And it predicted catastrophe if there should be a serious
mishap at the terminal at Valdez or in Prince William
Sound. On March 24, that worst of nightmares came true when
the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

Let’s go ahead and say it: We told you so. There’s not a
great deal of satisfaction in that remark. But there is a
renewed plea that warnings like these not go unheeded and
ignored. People warned that nuclear power plants like those
at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl could malfunction,
causing terrible damage. At TMI we may have dodged the
proverbial bullet; in the Ukraine and environs they weren’t
so lucky.

Environmentalists are telling Congress and the
administration that exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge is not worth the risk, which has
now been tragically demonstrated at the end of the pipeline
that new Arctic petroleum would flow through. They’re
saying that drilling off both coasts of the United States
is likewise too risky, the benefits too small. They’re
insisting that liquidating nearly all the old-growth
forests in the Pacific Northwest will lead to ecological
calamity, including the extinction of the spotted owl and
other species.

And yes–let’s not shy away from the tough
ones–they’re saying that citizens of the United
States and the rest of the world must swiftly and
dramatically alter the way they live their lives. The
automobile culture must give way to its successor. Energy
conservation must become the first priority in any energy
policy.

None of this will be easy, but the growing panoply of
warnings–ozone hole, medical-wasted beaches, drought,
fire, oil-soaked birds and otters–should shift considerable
momentum to the side bent on survival.

“We told you so” doesn’t revivify the hundreds of mammals
and thousands of birds that have perished with Exxon’s oil
in their lungs and on their feathers. It may, with luck,
forestall disasters now being sketched on drawing boards
all over the world.

Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Erosion Endangers Whooping Cranes

As if whooping cranes hadn’t weathered enough adversity
already, the big birds are now seeing the shore of their
wintering ground on the Texas coast slowly retreat, a
victim of erosion caused mostly by boat traffic on the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway, which slices 12 miles through the
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Nearly extinct in the early 1940s, the whoopers have clawed
their way back to the point where now about 200 exist, in
three distinct flocks.

One is at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where
whooper eggs pilfered from the wild are hatched, and the
young reared, by captive-bred sandhill cranes. A second
sandhill-reared flock migrates between Grays Lake, Idaho,
and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New
Mexico. The whoopers in this flock have yet to breed.

The main flock, numbering 131 by the latest count, spends
its summers in the Yukon Territory and its winters at the
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where the latest
trouble has flared up.

A few years ago, biologists Johnny French and Pedro Ramirez
of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Corpus Christi
noticed that the Intracoastal seemed to be getting wider.
They established that the refuge was being eaten away at an
average rate of three feet per year. French wrote to the
Corps of Engineers, which dredges the Intracoastal every
few years, demanding that the agency reinitiate
consultation with the FWS under the Endangered Species Act,
a procedure that could lead to new measures to protect the
birds from losing their habitat to erosion.

The Corps refused French’s request and another by Rogelio
Perez, French’s boss.

Then, last January, staff attorney Lori Potter of the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, writing on behalf of the
National Audubon Society and the Coastal Bend Audubon
Society, informed the Corps that it was violating the
Endangered Species Act and that she would file suit unless
the agency reinitiated consultation with Fish and Wildlife.

On March 17, Col. John Tudela of the Corps’ Galveston
office replied that the Corps had relented. A new
biological assessment will be prepared, and consultation
will be reinitiated if it seems warranted.

Final resolution of the problem almost certainly will rest
with Congress. The ideal solution, according to FWS
biologists, would be to move the Intracoastal out of the
refuge altogether, which would be expensive. Another
possibility is to stabilize the banks of the waterway with
riprap or some kind of matting. Simply controlling the
volume and speed of ship traffic might be enough to stop
the erosion. Time will tell. The whoopers are too precious
to gamble with.


For more information, contact Earthjustice (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense
Fund).