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Archive for June, 2011

A newborn sea turtle makes its journey across the beach and into the waves.

By Stefanie Herweck

Early last Saturday morning a crowd gathered on a South Padre Island beach to witness a distinctly Texan miracle of life. One hundred twenty-one sea turtles, born only an hour and a half before, were released on the beach by volunteers from Sea Turtle, Inc.

The organization carefully relocates nests of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles on South Padre beaches to a safe area, monitors the nests, and then releases the babies when they hatch, in order to ensure that the endangered turtles make it across the busy beach to the water.

Once deposited on the sand the newborn turtles instinctively turned toward the water illuminated by the sunrise. When the first tiny turtle dragged itself across the sand and was swallowed by a wave, the crowd erupted in jubilant cheers and applause. In a few minutes he was joined by the rest of his nestmates, as they swam out to spend the next years of their lives floating on the tangled Gulf seaweed.

When mature they will leave the protection of the seaweed and forage the shallows of the entire northern Gulf of Mexico. The females who survive to mate will return to South Padre Island’s beaches to lay their eggs.  The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nest exclusively along the South Texas coast and in the adjoining Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

But continued life in the Gulf is uncertain for this critically endangered species. Although the practices responsible for their initial decline—a market for turtle eggs and unsafe net fishing—have been outlawed, last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster dealt the species another blow.

Eleven rig workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon exploded.  An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil poured into the sea, more than twenty times the amount spilled when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.  Great underwater plumes of oil were reported, and 320 miles of Louisiana shoreline were fouled.

Deepwater Horizon fire (Coast Guard photo)

Sea turtles and the other marine life that the Gulf supports were devastated.  Six months after the spill the bodies of 6,104 birds and 609 sea turtles had been collected.  More than 200 dead dolphins were found in the Gulf, and a study published in the journal Conservation Letters estimated that the actual number of sea mammals that died may be more than 50 times higher than the number of recovered carcasses.

It is still unclear what long-term impact the spill will have on the Kemp’s Ridley, but nesting was down 40% in 2010 on South Padre, and biologists speculate that this decrease was due to the spill.

White House energy advisor Carol Browner described the Deepwater Horizon blowout as the “worst environmental disaster in our history.”  Unfortunately for the turtles, for other Gulf wildlife, and for our Gulf coastal communities, it is a disaster that could very well be repeated.

Immediately after the spill the Obama administration instituted a moratorium on new deep water drilling permits, so that federal regulators could determine the cause of the tragedy and develop new procedures to keep it from happening again.

But under pressure from oil industry lobbyists the moratorium was lifted in October, and this past March the government approved Shell Oil’s plan to drill new deep water wells after determining that “an accidental spill event is not very likely to occur.”

However, using the oil industry’s own system for ranking the risk of deepwater drilling operations, environmentalists at Earthjustice found that the risk of a catastrophic failure of the proposed wells was 1 in 43.

“No reasonable person would take a 1-in-43 chance of their house burning down, so why in heaven’s name would the federal government take a 1-in-43 chance of having another massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?” Earthjustice attorney David Guest said.

Since March, the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) has approved a total of 91 permits for deep water drilling operations, including 8 permits for new wells.

The BOEMRE website touts the “enhanced safety and environmental requirements” that make these new permits possible.  But the list of BOEMRE requirements does not sound like a serious response to “the worst environmental disaster in our history.”  The new safety steps merely require the bureau to deploy “multiple-person inspection teams” to ensure accountability, and require offshore operators to implement “safety and environmental programs.”

The centerpiece of these new requirements directs oil companies to develop a worst case “blowout scenario” in which they must estimate the “flow rate, total volume, and maximum duration of the potential blowout.” There is nothing in the new regulations, however, that requires corporations to change their oil spill response plans in any way.

By far, the most disturbing omission in these so-called “enhanced” safety measures is that corporations can continue to drill using unreliable technology that’s prone to failure.

The official forensic analysis commissioned by the Department of Interior found that the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion was a fundamental design flaw of a component of the well called the blowout preventer.  The blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon was not broken; it simply failed to withstand the pressure and was unable to cut off the flow.  Industry experts have stated that “blow out preventers are not reliable enough.”

The newly permitted wells will use the exact same unreliable blowout preventers. There has been no redesign.  Despite the government’s eagerness to assure us that deep water drilling is safe, the technology simply doesn’t exist to make it so.

Hands Across the Sand 2010

Intent on protecting coastal communities from the potentially devastating impacts of another disastrous blow out, last week Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and others filed a legal challenge against the federal government for approving Shell Oil’s deep water drilling permits.

At the grassroots level, residents of South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley will join coastal communities all over the nation  who are participating in Hands Across the Sand events on June 25th.  Neighbors who are concerned about the sea turtles and other marine wildlife, as well as our fisheries and coastal economies, will join hands on the beach to draw attention to the threat posed by offshore drilling and to advocate for the development of clean energy sources.

The Rio Grande Valley’s Hands Across the Sand will take place on Saturday, June 25 at 11:00 AM at South Padre Island Beach Access #21, between Cora and Carolyn Streets.  For more information see www.handsacrossthesand.com or the Hands Across the Sand South Padre Island event page on Facebook.  Print out or forward the Hands Across the Sand Poster.

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On June 25, people will be joining hands along the beaches of the world to send a message that we don’t want to risk our coastal economies, oceans, marine wildlife, estuaries and fisheries for the sake of more offshore drilling. Hands Across the Sand is a positive, grassroots movement that seeks to move the planet away from dirty, dangerous energy sources toward a clean energy future.  Learn more at http://www.handsacrossthesand.com

Residents of the Rio Grande Valley will be joining hands Saturday, June 25th at South Padre Island Beach Access #21 (Good Hope Circle).  We’ll meet there at 11:00 am.

Our local event is co-sponsored by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, Healthy Communities of Brownsville, Keep SPI Beautiful, Rio Grande Delta Audubon, the South Texas Chapter of the Surfriders Foundation, and the Valley Nature Center.

We need your help to get the word out.  Please forward this post, share the event on Facebook, or download and print the poster: Hands Across the Sand Poster

We hope to see you there!

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