[editor’s note: BAX co-founder and co-director, Marie Travers, wrote this essay for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, a remarkable network of organizations established to proved the best achievable care for oiled wildlife. This essay was written initially to time with Earth Day, which every day is. Bird Ally X is proud to be member of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.]
Working toward the best achievable care of the Earth through green response(ability).
I was recently asked to co-chair the newly formed Green Response Working Group and I seriously could not be more excited. I’ve been thinking about greening [oil spill] response probably since I started doing response, and am grateful for the opportunity to finally act on it. Having the ability to be able to do something nice for the planet is one of the few things giving me hope these days. In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to fill you in on what the Green Response Working Group has been up to, and share some thoughts about what I think it means to be an oil spill responder.
Here in California most of us know that Earth Day was inspired in part by the massive blowout of an offshore oil platform six miles off the California coast in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969. Over 3,600 seabirds and countless marine mammals and fish were killed as three to four million gallons of crude oil was released, blackening 35 miles of shoreline and covering 800 square miles of ocean. Almost fifty years later, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill remains the largest oil spill in California and the third largest oil spill in US history, behind the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez. The disaster received global attention, and the powerful images of the mess and the oiled animals forced lot of people to think about their role in protecting the environment.
One of those people was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator who toured the spill site. Mr. Nelson decided to organize a national “teach-in” about the environment that he hoped would move the growing concerns of the general public onto the political agenda to encourage change. The first Earth Day was wildly successful, with 20 million Americans participating according to the Earth Day Network. The movement created public support for the Environmental Protection Agency and was part of the impetus for the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act. In 1990, 200 million people participated in Earth Day activities worldwide.
Forty-seven years later, Earth Day is more important and more relevant than ever, with so many of the protections we once knew being dismantled in the name of greed, and science being called into question. Earth Day is also a reminder that one person with a great idea can change the world, like Gaylord Nelson did.
I have been an oiled wildlife responder for the last 16 years and have had the opportunity to work at spills in many places, often in makeshift facilities far removed from the luxury of anything that remotely resembles a Primary Care Center or even a rehabilitation center. Some highlights include a former soy factory with a really slippery floor, and an iron ore pellet making facility where a train ran through the building several times a day 20 feet from where we were working. Everywhere I go, I am always reminded of how very lucky I am to live in California where the OWCN exists, where there is infrastructure for giving animals the best achievable care and passionate people trained to make it happen, and where there are laws mandating the clean up of oiled wildlife. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in a place where there is such an exceptional response system. Really. There is nothing like it in the world.
While every spill is different, one thing is true of all of the spills I’ve worked; There is a massive “secondary spill” created by all of the waste generated by the cleanup. According to The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPH), the amount of waste created just solely by the manual removal of oil from the environment is estimated to be about 10 times the volume of oil spilled. That means that a spill the size of the recent Refugio spill would generate around a million pounds of waste. Those numbers don’t even include the enormous amount of waste generated during the cleaning and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife, but I image the ratio is the same, or maybe even more. Anyone who has worked a spill lately has seen the barrels full of empty Dawn bottles, mountains of waste from food, water bottles, packaging, gloves and PPE. I don’t even want to talk about the water. All of it amounts to incredible amount of waste when there are a lot of patients and responders.
That’s where the Green Response Working Group comes in! One of several working groups created during the OWCN Wildlife Summit last fall, the Green Response Working Group has been working hard for the last few months, looking into what we can do to help curb the waste stream created during a response and help OWCN “walk the walk” of environmental stewardship while responding to spills in California.
We’ve been looking at where and how waste is generated, what kinds of behaviors and products we can change to promote green response(ability), and what small steps we can all take to create a greener spill response culture that is in line with our desire to protect the environment and it’s wild animals.
Here are a few of the things we’re working on:
- reducing unnecessary and avoidable waste
- protecting natural resources, like water
- using more natural, biodegradable products that are less likely to have a negative effect on our environment
- using fewer single-use items like plastic water bottles and utensils
- recycling and composting
- creating a list of green products used during spill response (to share with the network and other response organizations)
Our goal is to gradually introduce a greener approach to spill response by researching options and opportunities beforehand so that it’s easy to make eco-friendly choices on the fly during a spill when there is little time for decision making.
By setting an example of responsibility in action, we hope the OWCN will inspire and educate not just other spill response organizations, but all of the member organizations and the individuals in those organizations, as well.
While the Green Response Working Group is an awesome first step, the truth is that now, every day needs to be Earth Day. In order to provide the best achievable care for the Earth, we need to move away from the idea that it’s just one day of the year and think about our individual impacts on the environment every day. I feel it’s sort of a given that as spill responders we care a great deal about protecting the environment, if for no other reason than it is home to the animals that we love. I also think that knowing what we know about oil spills – their prevalence and horrible effects – holds us to a higher level of responsibility. While many people live their lives removed from nature, and need a yearly reminder of Earth Day, those of us that do spill response are intimately aware of what’s going on, and have the unique opportunity to do something about it. We should be setting an example for our friends and family, and trying to walk the walk. We have the opportunity, and I think, the obligation, to make a difference even when we’re not busy cleaning oiled birds.
My relationship with plastic has changed dramatically since I started working with wildlife. In addition to working with thousands of oiled animals, I’ve also seen countless birds entangled in plastic of some sort, especially fishing line and plastic bags. I’ve seen necropsies of birds with plastic in their stomachs. Over time I realized my plastic purchasing behaviors were harming the birds I was trying to save. Something inside me changed and now I can’t even look at a piece of plastic without remembering that it will be around forever and might end up in the belly of a majestic Laysan albatross or a tiny Red-necked phalarope someday. It informs a lot of decisions about how I live and drives my friends and family crazy. Plastic waste fills me with rage. Spills are horrible, but the spill that we are creating with plastic is chronic, and far more damaging, contributing to the slow suffocation of the Earth.
This is why it makes my heart ache to see the amount of single-use plastic we use during spills in the name of helping rehabilitate oiled wildlife. It feels to me as though we’re undoing or negating our good work by participating in an activity that promotes oil production and pollution, and contributes to killing millions of animals every year. Plastic is made from oil, and by purchasing it, we are supporting not only the oil industry but the creation of more plastic that will never go away. We may also be inadvertently contributing to the increased possibility of another oil spill by helping to drive the demand for plastic. Did you know that the manufacturing and transport of water bottles in America uses more than 30 million barrels of oil every year and produces as much carbon dioxide as 2 million cars? Or that every 27 hours Americans (just Americans!) use enough bottled water to circle the entire equator with plastic bottles stacked end to end, and that in a month, those bottles would stretch all the way to the moon and back? If that doesn’t make you want to quit plastic, maybe knowing that 90% of seabirds today have toxic plastic in their bellies will. Our actions when it comes to plastics really do matter.
During a spill we are swept into a culture of moving quickly and using the supplies closest at hand so we can be efficient and help more animals. I think it is these times that matter the most, when we can make our actions count and know that we’re doing every. thing. we. can. to do the least harm possible to the environment. I’m so excited that OWCN is taking steps to make that happen. I think we can all do better knowing what we know. A good first step, if you haven’t taken it already, is to REFUSE SINGLE USE PLASTIC.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
– Maya Angelou
A few weeks ago I was three hours into my four hour drive to Quincy to attend the OWCN spill drill when I was called to a spill in Edmonton. I turned around and was on-site in Edmonton 18 hours later. Luckily, the spill had no impact on wildlife. Across from our hotel parking lot was this amazing mural that really spoke to a lot of the feelings I was having at the time and made me think of the Green Response Working Group, and how happy I am that it was born. By greening up our act not only as an organization, but as individuals, we can help others to do the same and try to encourage that green patch to grow. Happy Earth Day.