Six lessons from the BP oil spill
What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.
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Still, more than technologies will be needed to prevent future disasters. More important may be a change in corporate attitudes. If the leadership of a company isn't dedicated to safety, says Martha Bidez, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, all the gee-whiz devices in the world won't matter.Skip to next paragraph
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She cites the mining company Rio Tinto Alcan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (after the Columbia and Challenger disasters) as two large organizations that have "very impressive" programs to prevent accidents.
5 Tap the power of the people
The moment Gulfport, Miss., resident Megan Jordan feared has arrived. The viscous onslaught of crude is no longer an abstract horror belonging to Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The first globules of oil have slipped through the Mississippi Sound and washed ashore in nearby Ocean Springs. For Ms. Jordan and her neighbors, this isn't just any beach – it's the keeper of memories, the provenance of dreams. The destruction is hard to bear.
Their passion, properly channeled, could become a crucial element in future oil spill defense. Experts say that by tapping into local knowledge – and love – communities could formulate emergency plans to bolster what residents have criticized as a slow, inadequate government and corporate response.
It's a lesson California learned in 2007, when a container ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, releasing 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay. Volunteers, desperate to help, rushed to the water's edge, creating chaos. "They had people running down to the beach, picking up oil with their hands and in T-shirts and towels," says Kurt Hansen, project manager for oil spill research at the US Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Conn.
But in a potentially toxic environment, federal laws prohibit – and often thwart – even the best of intentions. In order to participate in cleanup efforts, federal rules require at least a 40-hour hazardous waste course. Mr. Hansen says response times could be significantly lowered if communities could draw upon a ready pool of trained volunteers.
In Alaska, a network of local fishermen and others was formed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. They participate in frequent preparedness drills, and officials say they feel far better equipped to handle an incident if one should occur again.
Along the Gulf Coast, volunteers have rushed to beaches, buckets and booms in hand, with mixed results. Some have simply added to the chaos of the cleanup effort. Others are doing some good. One local environmental group, Mobile Baykeeper, has received nearly 10,000 phone calls from people across the country wanting to volunteer.