Friday, January 21, 2011

Dirtying the Heartland, and no one cares

The worth of land as a resource is a measure used to value rural lands and the people living in them. People living in rural areas create their identities often centered upon the "wealth" of the land they live on. That wealth can stem from many valued things beyond just the actual physical resources mined from the land. The value of a rural area can also be the beauty derived from the view of the land or it can be derived from a number of other attachments to rural areas. If the health of the land is so important to rural populations lives and livelihoods, why then do rural oil spills in the US receive far less media attention and clean up efforts than oil spills that happen in urban areas? I would like to compare two oil spills, both from 2007, and their respective responses from the media and towards environmental clean up.

On July 1, 2007 a flood related oil spill leaked over 70,000 gallons of oil into the rural lands around Coffeyville, KS, just north of the Oklahoma border. Later that same year in November a ship leaked 53,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. I was in both areas for both oil spills and saw first hand the incredibly varied responses to such similar disasters.

Coffeyville is north of where I was raised in Oklahoma and south of where my best friend lives in Kansas. I drive through Coffeyville usually a handful of times every year. When I drove through Coffeyville in 2007, I saw something I had never seen before, have not seen since and hope to never see again. It was like a giant had walked through the land painting a foot thick smear of oil across everything at about 12 feet up, and then had sprinkled oil all over the ground for miles around. I arrived days after the water had receded from the flood and just after FEMA had taken over the small town. The media was not present, and as I learned when I called my friends on the West coast, no national media coverage was reporting this massive oil spill. I thought that as time passed more people would come to know about this accident. I was wrong.

The media coverage given to the Kansas oil spill remains limited even to this day. When you google search it, few hits come up and most are not national media sources. Compare this to the similar oil spill in the bay in 2007, and it is the opposite. The search returns tons of hits, many from national news sources. The oil spill from SF even got its own Wiki page! The immediate response was similar as well. In Kansas, only local, and some state wide news, was reporting the oil spill. Later that year when the Bay oil spill happened, I could not find any national media that wasn't reporting on the disaster.

The clean up effort further supports that the oil spill in Kansas was considered less important socially and environmentally. To this day there is an active count of every bird harmed by the Bay area oil spill. The only animals referenced in the news concerning the Kansas spill were a handful of rescued dogs. There were no lack of injured or killed wildlife in Kansas but for some reason they were valued less than their urban SF ocean-side counterparts.

The legal response mirrors the greater value placed on the disaster in SF. Although both accidents were possibly caused by employee negligence or error, the Federal government responded almost immediately to the Bay area spill while limiting its engagement with accountability for the Kansas leak (which was the bigger leak!). To this day, private recourse remains the primary path to recovery for those harmed by the Kansas disaster.

If America values its idealized rural lands so much, then why do disasters like the one in Kansas go relatively unnoticed to most of the country? Could it be because rural lands are not valued for what they are intrinsically but for how they can be used? Once a rural land is used up, burned out or other wise ruined, say by an oil spill, we can just move onto the next idealized rural land and use it up to the extent of its resourcefulness.

No comments: