Last Friday, Katy Hall, professor of marine policy for the Williams-Mystic Program, delivered a lecture titled “Disaster-Driven Ocean Policy: Deepwater Horizon Spill Not Big Enough.” The lecture was the first of a series of events in the Ocean Symposium, a seven-part lecture series and the brainchild of Claire Ting, associate professor of biology.
“I’m going to talk about what is bugging me. It is what everybody should be talking about. What has happened since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Nothing. Nothing at all has happened,” Hall said in her opening remarks.
Hall and her students travel to the Gulf biannually to observe the progress that has been made. The last time the group visited, the short-term effects of the oil spill were obvious: oil stains along the beaches and the marshes. However, the long-term effects are beginning to appear as well. Fishermen frequently report shrimp with deformities such as growing tumors and missing eyes.
Hall then shifted the topic of discussion to past ecological disasters that have resulted in major reforms in marine policy. She spoke about the Cuyahoga river fires of 1969 as well as the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. “When disasters are photogenic, they affect people and reform results. When people see rivers catching fire, they say, ‘That’s not good. We should make sure this doesn’t happen again,’” she said. As a direct result of the river fires, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed.
Hall restated over and over again that environmental policy is driven by disasters. Photogenic disasters are more likely to bother people, whose ensuing response to the crisis ensures the development of a protective mechanism to prevent future occurrences of similar disasters.
Hall also compared the Exxon Valdez oil spill with the Deepwater Horizon spill. After nearly 10.9 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the Prince William Sound, within eight months a new law was enacted to prevent similar disasters. However, nearly two years after this event, 120 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the gulf due to the BP Horizon spill. In the aftermath of this more recent disaster, “no meaningful legal change has occurred,” Hall said.
Hall was openly frustrated with the lack of technological change that has occurred during the 21 years that separate the two major disasters. She showed the audience pictures of workers using Shop-Vacs and rakes to clean up the spill.
“Why don’t we have something better?” she asked. The lack of technological advancement was a failure that could have been prevented. “We should have imagined every disaster possible during the 21 years separating the spills, but there has been no technological advancement.”
There is currently a lack of funding hindering the development of more efficient processes for preventing disasters. “You know you’re in trouble when Kevin Costner is at the front of the innovation process,” Hall said in an attempt to highlight the issue.
She then went on to comment on the government’s failure regarding citizens living in the Gulf area. She recounted stories about children who have complained of consistent headaches due to the fumes that resulted from the burning oil. Moreover, she explained how the seafood industry is still struggling immensely due to the devastating spill. Hall reiterated that policies developed in an attempt to alleviate the effects of the disaster have failed because little has been done to directly help those most affected by the spill.
Hall rounded out her lecture by listing over 18 acts geared towards environmental concerns, including the Gulf Restoration Act and the Safer Drilling Act, that were introduced in Congress but did not pass.
“It’s in your hands. You have to take the fun out of Congress and their dysfunctionalness. We have to stand up for our friends and peers. We must demand more,” Hall said.