Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Deepwater Horizon

I have little of value to add to the discussion of the environmental devastation happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now. But I find myself thinking about one little human aspect of this tragedy I have not heard discussed by anyone among the countless talking heads, hired guns, prognosticators, shills and apologists.

There is a cadre—their number now reduced by eleven—who stood briefly on the threshold of a professional and personal milestone, an achievement that cannot be diminished by what so immediately and horrifically followed. This team of people successfully drilled a hole into the earth over two miles deep, from a drilling platform floating on the ocean's surface a mile above (a total of 18,000 feet from drilling deck to the bottom of the hole) —a drilling platform held in its place only by the constantly adjusted nudges of its computer-controlled thrusters.

They succeeded. Safely. They reached the oil-bearing formation that was their target, and they prepared it for its eventual entry into production, somewhere in the near future. But then, this man...

...decided caution was a luxury BP could no longer afford, time was of the essence, and it was too expensive to delay any further. He decided—over the objections of the professionals who had, for seven long years, run the Nostromo  Deepwater Horizon without a lost time accident—to remove the drilling mud that kept the enormous pressures in that oil-bearing formation in check, and replace it with the much less dense seawater.

The chain of command who personally decided it was more cost-effective in the long run to destroy the Gulf of Mexico than it was to run the Deepwater Horizon as the professionals said it should be run would likely fit comfortably in a Ford Aerostar without so much as their thighs grazing. And you can bet not a one of them will face any personal or professional consequences as a result of their benighted cost-benefit analysis. They may face a few uncomfortable moments under the spotlights of a congressional hearing room, but their lavish emoluments will have ensured that whatever bark, it will not be followed by any bite. In a few short years, they will once again find themselves, conscienceless and blameless, atop their professions.

Yet the survivors of the Deepwater apocalypse, those traumatized and brutalized wage-slaves (yes, the same roughnecks, riggers, cooks and clerks who were held incommunicado aboard ship for fifty hours until they signed releases denying injuries or knowledge of the events leading up to the disaster) will always carry with them the legacy of that awful night. Will they be willing or able to work in their profession again? Will they be cursed by their association with this disaster? Are they marked? Will they ever be able to speak with pride of their accomplishment, of their immense achievement, without an uncomfortable silence falling across the room? Will they become demonized for the havoc unleashed by their hubris? Will anyone want to listen to their stories? Will they be believed? Will they tell their children, or their grandchildren, where those scars came from?

We do not know who the "Carter Burke" is in this case. But he surely exists in flesh-and-blood, and his real name is known to some. And yes, he is the one man who made THE one decision that, against the better judgement of his peers, resulted in this catastrophe. In a just world, that man would be found out and made to wear this event around his neck, his albatross, for all the world to see for every waking moment of the rest of his miserable life.

Addendum: The reference to the Nostromo is not quite right; it's a bit of a conflation. The crew of the Nostromo, with the exception of Ripley, were all dead. It was the Sulaco that carried the Colonial Marines and Carter Burke to their doom. But you get the point.