Tuesday, June 8, 2010

50 Days Later

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that 50 days ago a British Petroleum offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the waters. Since then, we have watched in horror as the oil crept towards our shores, ruining livelihoods and destroying wildlife. How does something like this happen?

It begins before the spill, in an astonishing tale of corporate greed and government deregulation. British Petroleum, like just about any company, has one priority: profits. However, the methods they use to maximize profits are borderline criminal. Take, for example, their Alaska program. A 2004 report determined that BP has "a pattern of the company intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns" and that "managers shaved maintenance costs by using aging equipment for as long as possible." This use of old equipment without any sort of oversight, within or without the company, led to the Prudhoe Bay pipeline spill in 2000. A pipe was kept in use for so long without maintenance or replacement that it corroded to the point of complete failure, eventually spilling over 200,000 gallons into the bay.

Then, in 2005, a BP oil refinery in Texas exploded, killing 15 people. Naturally this caused a public relations fiasco, which led a BP spokesperson to promise an update in safety systems. A year later, BP was fined $87 million due to unimproved safety in the same plant. The Environmental Protection Agency attempted to bring criminal charges upon BP executives implicit in this mess, but they were denied by the Justice Department, part of a pattern of lax oversight likely influenced by the millions of dollars BP has spent on lobbying. Any actions that EPA agents have attempted to take since that time have been stopped by federal prosecutors.

This brings us to the Deepwater Horizon leak we are currently dealing with. Recently released records show that the Mineral Management Service authorized dozens of offshore drilling projects without obtaining environmental impact permits. The MMS has, apparently, been caving in to the lobbyists rather than doing its job, despite both external and internal pressure. The report quotes an anonymous scientist who stated “You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact.” All of this was allowed to go on, while BP engineers reported that on Deepwater Horizon "sensors and their shutoff systems were not operating," and a "backstop mechanism that should have prevented the engines from running wild apparently failed—and so did the air-intake valves that were supposed to close if gas entered the engine room." A mechanic also testified that "the engine room wasn't equipped with a gas alarm system that could have shut off the power." These could have been fixed, but that would have been detrimental to BP's bottom line. So: kaboom.

What happens when a company increases profit by decreasing safety? What happens when, despite a horrific record of environmental and human destruction, the government sides with the oil corporation instead of those that it is supposed to protect? What happens when we are so addicted to oil that despite of all the warning signs, we look the other way?

That is what happens.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Remembering sacrifice

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy: D-Day. Instead of trying to write something new to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to share something I wrote a couple of years ago, because I don't think I can do any better now than I did then.

For spring break junior year, I got to go to London, Paris, and Normandy on a trip through the Indiana University journalism school. You may or may not know that Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, was a student at IU, or that the j-school is named for him. Because of that, there's a yearly course on his life that includes a trip to trace his route through the European theater during World War II. I wrote this just after we visited Omaha Beach, the beachhead that saw probably the most ferocious fighting.

I know that this doesn't necessarily have a direct connection with politics, but I think that it is important for young people like us to make sure that things like this are not forgotten. I'm not in the military, but both of my grandfathers were career military men - one in the Army, one in the Navy - and I have friends who serve. It's important that no matter how we feel about the individual conflicts that our country enters into, we remember that our nation's soldiers are doing their damnedest to serve the United States and her people, and they deserve our gratitude and respect. I don't intend to glorify war - just the opposite. Memorial Day just passed, but this is a reminder of exactly what our soldiers have to go through, and just how brutal war always is. Don't forget it.

Watching Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers doesn’t fully communicate the true gravity of setting foot on the beaches of Normandy, but the experience definitely helps a guy to properly process the experience when it happens.

I’ve seen the movies, so I know in an incredibly watered-down way what it was like. I recognize the Czech hedgehogs. I know the names of the places the troops landed, died in, and liberated. And so when I stood on Pointe du Hoc, and on Omaha Beach, I had some understanding of what it was all about. I could see the German guns atop the cliffs, pumping anti-aircraft shells into the clouds as Americans dropped into the countryside by parachute. I could see the landing ships riding up through the surging tide, depositing their passengers in the middle of a hellish landscape, scarred by shells and machine gun rounds. I could hear the crashes, booms, cracks, and screams. Though I wasn’t there when it happened, when I stood on that beach I felt like it was happening around me.

It’s been almost 65 years since Allied forces began the great push for the freedom of Europe by invading Nazi-occupied France, and for many people, especially young people, the importance of that invasion may be starting to fade. The numbers of living veterans of World War II are dropping as time passes, and in today’s climate of government mistrust – especially in terms of war-making – it’s hard to comprehend what a war with popular support might be like.

But if you know anything at all about the war, standing on the beaches where it all happened cures all of that pretty quick. Because there’s nothing quite like standing in a place where people died for your sake to put things in perspective. People like Robert Seyler and Jimmie Monteith, people who answered their country’s call and rose to her defense. People like Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who had to submit a written petition to make the landing, and stormed the beach with only his cane and a pistol and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the Normandy beachhead. People who died serving their country, and serving each other.

The thing that makes it the most relatable is that most of the people who were landing on these beaches, and were fighting for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, weren’t particularly different from me and the rest of our group. They were young, almost exactly the age we are now. Most of them had never left the country, and this was the first time they’d seen England or France – heck, for some of them it was the first time they’d left the counties in which they were born. They were scared and homesick, much like some of us were, but probably for better reasons.

And that, I think, is the reason why when we walked that beach, we were silent, for the most part. I can speak only for myself, but I know that I was replaying the events of June 6, 1944, in my head and in my eyes, and imagining what it was like for the boys landing on the beach and dropping from the skies that day. Because I knew that but for the grace of my date of birth was I safe. If I’d been born January 11, 1923 rather than January 11, 1988, I would have been here that day, and so would many of my friends. So when my feet touched the sands of Omaha Beach, I thought of those who died here, and I mourned them. And I did my best to stand alongside them. We all did.