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Home / Articles / Views / Danish Plan /  Biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history? Hogwash!
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Thursday, August 12,2010

Biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history? Hogwash!

By Paul Danish

In the course of reporting that BP had finally stopped the flow of oil in its Macondo well, a CNN reporter casually referred to the blowout as “the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.” Obama said the same thing a couple of months ago.

They are both full of biomass up to their eyeballs.

The Macondo blowout may be many things, but one thing it is not is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — not even close. Dozens — hundreds — of environmental disasters have done both far more and far longer lasting damage to the country’s environment than the Macondo blowout or any other oil spill.

We see the results of some of the biggest of these every day and do not find them scary, but that doesn’t change the fact that the violence they have done to the environment dwarfs anything the Macondo spill has done.

Man-caused environmental disasters worse than the Macondo blowout? How about the construction of the Interstate Highway System for starters?

Construction of the Interstates paved over as much land as the entire state of Rhode Island. And unlike the tar balls that are being scooped off Louisiana beaches almost as fast as they come ashore, the millions of tons of asphalt and concrete in the 46,876 miles of Interstate highways are replaced as they degrade.

Impact on wildlife? There are probably more critters killed in a day on the Interstates than have been killed by Macondo oil since the spill began. Habitat fragmentation? Interstate highways have done that all over the country.

Of course, when it comes to covering the American environment with concrete and tar, the Interstate system — with 212,782 lane miles of pavement, plus additional thousands of lane miles of on- and off-ramps, is pretty small ’taters compared to the country’s total of 8.3 million lane miles of paved public highways, roads and streets. Now there’s serious tar on the ground.

But why single out roads? If you prefer a more compact environmental disaster, how about New York City — 304.8 square miles of paved-over eastern woodland paradise (3,352.6 square miles if you want to count its ’burbs).

On Manhattan — the “New York Island” in Woody Guthrie’s song — a 33-square-mile ecosystem that had survived unchanged for millenia has been obliterated by four centuries of grinding, all-consuming, never-ending urbanization.

Supplying water for New York’s 8.4 million people (18.2 million if you count the ’burbs) requires a system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that push the city’s devastating environmental impacts deep into upstate New York.

Keeping the lights on in the city that never sleeps involves an ongoing program of decapitating mountains in West Virginia and dumping the rubble into the state’s drainages.

Of course, the environmental disaster that is New York City is repeated more than a hundred times over in the nation’s other major metropolitan areas. To see this in all its radiant glory, consult the satellite pictures of North America taken at night.

But for a genuine A-list environmental disaster, forget about the country’s Interstate highways and metropolitan areas and look at its farms and fields. Half a million square miles of woodland and prairie ecosystem have been ploughed up and planted in single crops, destroying, or at least fragmenting, the habitat of thousands of species. More than 345,000 square miles of that is planted in just three crops — corn (87.8 million acres), wheat (54.3 million acres) and soybeans (78.9 million acres). That’s monoagriculture on a breath-taking scale.

When it comes to environmental disaster of transcontinental proportions, nothing compares with the old amber waves of grain.

There are plenty of other disasters that put the Macondo well blowout to shame. What makes these three stand out, however, is the fact that they are ongoing disasters. The road network is routinely repaved and extended. Cities are rebuilt and (in most cases) expanded. Next spring the country’s monoculture crops will be replanted. The inconvenient truth here is that the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history are the ones we can’t live without. Nature can’t recover from these disasters until we stop re-inflicting them.

And we’re not going to.

In contrast, less than a month after the Macondo well was capped, a government panel charged with monitoring the spill concluded that three quarters of the oil had been recovered or degraded. This is consistent with what happened in the aftermath of most of the rest of the world’s major oil spills. Chances are most of the rest of it will be gone by the end of hurricane season.

BP is going to pay big-time for the corners it cut, the lies it told, the damage it did, and the mess it made — as well it should.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, when it comes to disasters, the effects of oil spills, even big ones, are pretty transient.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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