This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 5/20/03
Page A12, Opinion; Copyright 2003 by Beth David

Sadness turns to anger about oily coast

When thousands of gallons of No. 6 oil first fouled beaches from Westport to Wareham, sadness pushed out the other emotions.

Now it's anger's turn.

On West Island, the cleanup efforts have been intense. Every day since the April 27 spill, scores of yellow-, then blue-clad experts have swarmed the beaches, picking up oil-soaked "snares" and seaweed and throwing them into plastic bags to be incinerated. The numbers have dwindled now. Smaller teams, clad in white, dot the beaches sporadically.

Still, they are a welcome sight, these able-bodied men and women from around the country.
They smile reassuringly and say "Don't worry ma'am, we'll get your beach back the way it was." And they mean it.

But they don't know the way it was.

The blackened rocks that they wipe are supposed to be a hundred variations of light beige. I played on those rocks as a child, and sat on them to watch many a tide since. Now I cannot touch them.

These energetic workers have been relentless so far. They painstakingly move the stones, one by one, to clean them. I am impressed.

The task goes beyond monumental. Anyone who has walked these shores knows that we are talking about thousands and thousands of rocks stretching along miles of coastline. They can't haul the rocks away. Without them, many of these shores would erode completely. They can't leave the rocks alone, because they are black with slime.

And cleaning them has proved challenging. According to David Barry of Gallagher Marine, workers are testing different methods to get the goop off the rocks. They tried steam cleaning, but that didn't work as hoped. So, for now, they simply wipe them off until they find a better way.

The problem lies in the nature of No. 6 oil. Mr. Barry said it's like asphalt. "You have to fight for every bit that you have to clean," he said
And each technique must be weighed against the environmental risks.
"The cure might be worse than the disease," he concedes.

And it all has to be done one rock at a time. I look out at the piles and piles of smeared stones on Long Island. It looks like the surface of an unknown planet.

"This will take forever," I think. "This is pure hubris to think it can even be done!" But those of us who love this place hold our collective breath and hope that it will work, that a new and magical rock-cleaning marvel will drop from the technological sky. And we will once again sit and breathe refreshing sea air instead of oil fumes.

Then reality sets in.

Then anger.

But where to focus the anger? At Bouchard Transportation? At the tug captain? At the barge workers who heard the "groan," as Captain Landry of the U.S. Coast Guard called it? At our country's stubborn reliance on oil? Or at a system that makes it more profitable for Bouchard to sink millions of dollars into the cleanup, instead of spending that money to prevent the spill in the first place?

If Bouchard could not claim every cleanup-related dollar as a legitimate business expense, if taking a loss were not a perverted right of passage for large companies, if someone in that company faced jail time because of this mess, then this catastrophe would never have happened.

Of this I am sure.

To the barge companies, the waterways are simply travel routes. To us, they mean so much more.

Lebanese folklore touts the sea as the greatest healer on earth. Relatives with an array of ailments struggle toward these waters just to dip their toes in cool salt water.

But this summer, we will all wear shoes, even on the sandy beaches, because there is oil just beneath the surface. Littlenecks, long believed to be an aphrodisiac when eaten raw, will be avoided. Parents will worry about illnesses their children may contract from this muck, maybe years from now.

Repercussions for the shellfish industry are innumerable.
And all the while, my little patch of paradise smells like the New Jersey Turnpike.
Only those of us who love this place can appreciate what happened here.

Bouchard should pay. A payment large enough to convince every company everywhere that it is more economically sound to be environmentally responsible than to be reckless.

Because that's what this was: reckless.


Beth David is a freelance writer living in Fairhaven.