Knee-jerk reactions over oil spill
July 19, 2010
A recent letter regarding oil spills paints too grim a picture. Just like any hostess who sees red wine spilled on her white carpet in the dining room, we have gone ballistic. Now that the mess is getting cleaned up we should let the passion subside.
The EPA publishes a list of toxic substances. The top three are, in this order: arsenic, lead and mercury. Petroleum is well down the list. However, even highly toxic substances have levels of concentration below which they no longer present a health threat. The maximum permissible level for mercury is 2 parts per billion.
Using the numbers quoted by the writer, total spills over the last 20 years add up to roughly 20 million gallons. Assume all were spilled just this year. Using grade-school math plus Google we learn that the concentration of petroleum in just one cubic mile of ocean water is 1.1×10 to the twelfth power. With approximately 600,000 cubic miles of ocean in the gulf, printing all the zeroes would likely cause the editor to reject this letter for being too long.
Yes, the spill is spotty and more concentrated in areas, and yes, the beaches have tar balls, and yes, the reckless and cowboy-like attitude to safety strategies was, depending on your viewpoint, either unacceptably corrupt or a noble failure of risk.
The current debate raging over the energy issue is veering toward a faith-based crusade rather than fact-based rational thought. The potential harm embedded in this should, in my view, become the major concern for the future welfare of our country.
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