Posted by: Green Knight | March 27, 2012

Ways to Date Eras

It slipped my mind that Saturday was the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. I’d only been a state environmental inspector for 9 months, but I contacted Alaska’s agency head to offer moral support. That cleanup was a bit of a joke, and showed how tough it is to really remediate in harsh environments like the Arctic. Hell, the Amoco Cadiz broke in three and had a major spill off Brittany eleven years earlier, and there were still heavier petroleum fractions in the bottom sediment that couldn’t be cleaned up.

There are all sorts of ways to measure time aside from the clock. Geological, like Precambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician, or, more recently, ice ages vs. interstadial periods. Biological, like invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals. Technological, like Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Cultural/political, like tribal to feudal to mercantile, or different dynasties in ancient Egypt. Before the Beatles and afterwards. You get the idea.

One way I divide time up is in terms of new ways humans have come up with environmental insults, from asbestos hazards to miners in ancient Greece to lead poisoning in ancient Rome to mercury poisoning of miners and hatmakers in Victorian times, to chlorine and mustard gas in WWI to silica at Hawk’s Nest tunnel in West Virginia, to Minamata Bay to Bhopal to Times Beach and beyond. I’m reading a book on the history of DDT and another on Agent Orange right now. But an interesting timeline to look at is one listing the history of releases of petroleum. If you go to Wikipedia and enter “Oil spill,” and scroll down to section 5, “Largest oil spills,” you can get an idea of the distribution worldwide. Of the top 19 releases listed, Exxon Valdez isn’t even on there, which surprised me a bit. For a different list, see also “List of oil spills,” which is linked from that page. I haven’t taken the time to do a comparison yet, but I bet that as the technology has developed to make extracting and shipping more of it a reality, the spills have gotten bigger. Some of the factors are also geological: the biggest spill from a single source, even bigger than Deepwater Horizon, was a 1910 blowout in and inland well in Kern County, California, where the artesian pressure in the deposit was much more than expected.

“Drill, baby, drill.”

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