Ken Plum: Lessons from tragedies
Column by Ken Plum
There was undoubtedly a feeling of elation among the 2,228 passengers and crew members as they boarded the Titanic ocean liner for her maiden voyage April 10, 1912. There was no way to know that by April 15 only 705 of them would survive her sinking. After all, the Titanic had been described as a first class ocean liner that was the largest luxury liner on the open seas with a special construction of water-tight compartments that made her invincible and in the word of an official of White Star Line that owned her, “unsinkable.” Ironically, his comment was made the day after the Titanic sank.
Nearly a hundred years later a tragedy unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico as the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded and burned leaving thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf. Just 11 days before the incident the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service gave the petroleum company BP a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act requirements because it deemed that an accidental oil spill would be “unlikely.” Experts do not agree on the amount of oil that is continuing to leak, but some think the amount may be as much as 40,000 barrels a day. Its impact on the depths of the ocean and the coast line in the Gulf as well as the results of the oil being dispersed by the loop currents that could take it to the Florida Keys and northward to Cape Hatteras can only be imagined with horror and grave concern. Even with all the redundancies and fail-safe devices involved in the oil drilling process the environmental tragedy was not avoided.
We learned a great deal from the Titanic in ship design, use of materials, and ship operation. We have been able to avert other disasters like it. With Deepwater Horizon we must examine seriously whether we want to put some of our most fragile natural resources at risk. A “drill baby drill” mentality could lead to serious mistakes. The Commonwealth of Virginia through Governor McDonnell has become the chief proponent of oil drilling off the East Coast and specifically the coast of Virginia. The idea has been sold to many voters as a way we can raise money through royalties to fund our transportation system. I voted against the bill in the 2010 session of the General Assembly calling for offshore drilling.
Last week our own U.S. Defense Department issued a report that shows that “exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas off almost three-quarters of the Virginia shoreline where the government has proposed those activities is incompatible with military operations and training.” Drilling would interfere with a long list of military activities and operations along the coast and particularly at Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base and a key factor in maintaining economic stability in Virginia.
There are too many unknowns to go forward with this idea.
We need to learn from disasters. The harbor at Norfolk is also a safe port for some of the greatest of luxury liners. There may be a modest amount of oil off the coast of Virginia, but let’s not do anything that could repeat the events in the Gulf of Mexico in oil exploration along Virginia’s coast.
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