Where Gulf Spill Might Place on the Roll of Disasters





From the Oval Office the other night, President Obama called the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” Senior people in the government have echoed that language....

But is the description accurate?

Scholars of environmental history, while expressing sympathy for the people of the gulf, say the assertion is debatable. They offer an intimidating list of disasters to consider: floods caused by human negligence, the destruction of forests across the entire continent and the near-extermination of the American bison.

“The White House is ignoring all the shades and complexities here to make a dramatic point,” said Donald E. Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas and a visiting scholar at Yale.

The professors also note the impossibility of ranking such a varied list of catastrophes. Perhaps the worst disaster, they say, is always the one people are living through now.


Still, for sheer disruption to human lives, several of them could think of no environmental problem in American history quite equaling the calamity known as the Dust Bowl.

“The Dust Bowl is arguably one of the worst ecological blunders in world history,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University....

Oil spills, too, seem to be judged more by their effect on people than on the environment. Consider the Lakeview Gusher, which was almost certainly a worse oil spill, by volume, than the one continuing in the gulf.

In the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar.

It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. “It’s the granddaddy of all gushers,” said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area....

The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill.

That sets it apart from the Deepwater Horizon leak. The environmental effects of the gulf spill remain largely unknown. But the number of lives disrupted is certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands; the paychecks lost in industries like fishing add up to millions; and the ultimate cost will be counted in billions.

Even with all that pain, can it yet be called the nation’s worst environmental disaster?

“My take,” said William W. Savage Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, “is that we’re not going to be able to tell until it’s over.”



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