On the front page of the NY Times today, begins a gut-wrenching story about the workers’ experiences as the BP oil rig “Horizon” exploded and went up in flames. Men ran to lifeboats, panicked, thought about their prized possession that was in their room and now headed to the bottom of the sea, grasped at their front pocket to see if a child’s picture was still there, and watched co-workers/friends/homemates’ black silhouettes jumping to their certain death from the burning flames.
Not unlike the horrifying stories of survivors from 9/11, but these stories haven’t seemed to make it into the minds of folks who may or may not be thinking about the oil spill…including mine, until today.
I have nearly cried over the environmental devastation of the oil spill (“oil spill” sounds so small really, like a “spill” of milk – far from the fiery explosion that killed people and brought on an unstoppable tidal wave of oil gushing from the ocean floor and already shutting down tourist towns along the Gulf of Mexico because folks are canceling their travel plans there, and already killing animals and draining the pockets of fishing fleets, and every other small business connected to industries related to the gulf. Nearly everything).
So, yes, I have been following some stories and have been left perplexed and wondering why there wouldn’t be multiple ways of stopping oil from gushing out of the ocean floor.
But I thought so little about the workers and life on an oil rig.
The younger brother who has lived most of his past five years at sea on the Horizon; The father who misses birthdays and soccer games and dance recitals but holds onto the pictures in his pocket and provides his family with a home and life; The boyfriend who might have taken this job because he couldn’t find anything else and knew that it paid better than any other job he could get anyway, even if he spends so many hours away at a time wondering if his girl still loves him and is being faithful.
It’s a kind of sacrifice that most of us cannot imagine and don’t even consider until a disaster happens. Most of us pump gasoline into our cars and we complain about the prices or the damage that is done to the earth in order to get oil and refine it to make gasoline or the billions of dollars we send overseas each year to purchase oil.
But when we pump our gas do we think about the workers who are on the front lines making a decent living to risk their lives finding oil? Do we think about the human toll (as well as the ecological toll) that it takes just to “find” and then retrieve the oil?
Do we think about how those workers are treated if something goes wrong? Their working conditions in their day to day lives? The sacrifices they make to provide the raw materials we need to live energy-driven lives?
I think about workers a lot – but until today I had not thought much about folks working in oil.
Following the harrowing nightmare of being engulfed in flames and assuming they would be killed, the oil workers were prohibited from calling home while BP folks got their ducks in a row. When they reached land, workers were immediately sat at tables with piles of forms in front of them to fill out and everyone was given a cup to pee in. Drug tests. Time to find the reason of the explosion, and from a corporate perspective, it must have been one of these workers who did something wrong.
Locating the problem in an individual rather than in a corporation or institution or policy or governance is worse than problematic – but it’s what corporations and institutions, and governments tend to do.
But in this case, as in most cases (the levees breaking after Hurricane Katrina comes to mind), the mostly powerless individual people who work and live through devastating events are not at fault for doing their job and trying to live their life. Instead, when we dig enough, we often find the fault lies in decisions made by powerful people higher up on the food chain – just like reports that BP did not follow federal regulator recommendations to install additional mechanisms that could stop oil from gushing…