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Book Review: A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowoutby Carl Safina
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by Richard Mier, Martinsburg | 2013

A good way to mark the third anniversary of the BP Gulf oil disaster would be to read Carl Safina’s A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout. Safina is a gifted storyteller and conservationist with the technical chops (PhD, founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute) and passion to do this right. He also writes in an engaging personal style veering frequently into lyricism inspired by his love of the natural world. He is often funny. 
 
This story is told in real time with him on the ground, in the air, and on the water as events unravel, almost from the very beginning. His snarky comments early on reflect the just anger of a committed and concerned environmentalist while chaos and oil spread, excuses abound and not much gets accomplished. The numbers, though you’ve seen’em before, continue to stagger: 18,360 feet from sea surface to well bottom, 60,000 barrels of oil a day for 86 days, 20 times the volume from the Exxon Valdez, up to 70,000 gallons of dispersants used daily, 11 dead from the explosion, at least several others from suicide.
 
These numbers you can get anywhere. And while I’m sure the technical mishaps, mistakes in judgment, corporate greed, and bureaucratic dithering can be obtained from most of the other 30-odd books about the disaster, Safina does a fine job with this as well. What he does best, however, is to make this a story about people grievously affected as well as an environment assaulted. He puts this whole mess within a bigger and more important mess which has been the degradation of the Gulf of Mexico occurring over a span of many years, resulting in the annual “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta most recently measuring upwards of 8,000 square miles. “Gettingthe oil,” he writes, “has destroyed far more of the Mississippi River Delta’s world-class wetlands than the blowout ever will.”
 
His pique ebbs into thoughtfulness toward the end. It’s easiest to blame BP, Transocean and Halliburton but more useful to realize that “we are all victims, all perpetrators.” Better to recognize that “the real fire-breathing dragon, real dangerous demon, lurking on the surface all along, can be located in the mirror.” Like all of us, at first he worried that “the blowout would ruin the Gulf’s marshes and beaches and fisheries and wildlife for years to come.” By the time he gets to page 272 he worries, “What if it doesn’t?” What if we decide that “the worst blowout ever is simply not so bad?”

Safina himself describes this book as a chronicle of pain and hope. It tells the story but also asks the question: what are we doing risking our future as well as our present, drilling for oil 18,000 feet below the surface of the ocean? An important question and a thoughtful and compelling book.

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