The state's environmental protectors dismiss impending tar balls from the oil spill.
Last week, while vacationing with my in-laws in Long Beach Island, I had the sense that something bad was coming. This feeling was brought on by recent comments made by Bob Martin, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. In June testimony to Trenton’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee, Martin said: “In the worst-case scenario, remnants of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill would hit New Jersey in October or November.” Were this scenario—involving loop currents and severe weather—to take hold, “We would not see the kinds of muck we see in the Gulf right now. It will be tar balls and that’s it.”
This discomfiting reassurance was followed by another: “The oil will not affect New Jersey this summer.” No word, I suppose, on next summer.
If Martin intended to allay fears that the spill might creep up the coast, he did a pretty poor job. As often happens when telling people not to worry about a thing they hadn’t thought of, his statements had the opposite result. (One commenter on NJ.com, which covered the testimony says: “This will effect [sic] everyone!! ... I am sure he will eat his words.” Another: “WTF does this golf playing Wall Street turkey know about geology, petroleum mining, ocean currents, weather patterns or whatever??”)
Worse than Martin’s stirring of the rabble, though, was his general blitheness. His “just tar balls” demeanor has become the unfortunate norm among those appointed to protect our air and water. From former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson—who battled greenhouse gas regulation—to Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Hanger—who might as well be drilling the Marcellus himself—our environmental advocates do not tend to actually advocate for the environment. As Martin prevaricated, Alan Blumberg, of the Stevens Institute of Technology, was warning that “tar balls still would be ‘disastrous’ for fish and birds that would try to consume them.”
Bob Martin did not create the spill, but he is a symptom of its origin. Despite his title, his resume is heavy on energy consultation, light on ecological expertise. According to the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, his agency’s current reorganization plan “is a special-interest wish-list that not only undermines environmental protections, but pushes the developer and polluter agendas.”
Bush’s administration teemed with Bob Martins; to a lesser degree, so does Obama’s. It’s the price we must pay, perhaps, for depending on environmental degradation to push our economy forward. But if our sole concern is economic, what about the toll that BP’s “remnants” would take on New Jersey’s coastal towns? Martin may remember that in the late ’80s—when the words “syringe” and “Jersey shore” became synonymous—tourists grew leery of beaches that were nowhere near waste sites; the reaction was disproportionate to the danger. In 1988, The New York Times ran a report that might echo in the near future:
“The waste never reached [Long Beach Island], 40 miles from the beaches that closed for several days in July… State officials said that tests showed that the water here was the cleanest it had been in years. But the crowds didn’t care… business owners here on the island face losses of 15 percent to 40 percent this year.”
In other words, we don’t need to be waist-deep in sludge to stay away. A few clumps of crude—washing up in Cape May or Seaside, Belmar or Avalon—would have an outsized effect.
Last month, Obama christened the BP spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” But the pain has not yet spread; the hardship has been limited to those along the Gulf. In the rest of the country, we see the dying birds and read of vanished industry. We grimace and feel terrible—but then we move on, changing the channel or turning the page. Some of us, failing to make the connection, even go on to fill our cars with BP’s gas.
Yet there is the chance, however remote, that New Jersey will have its own cleanup to attend to. The damage would be microscopic compared to what has happened in and around the Gulf—but there would be damage. And, as happened in 1988, perceptions of the shore would be colored. Not a catastrophe, maybe, but bad enough to matter. And if that happens, it will become that much harder to say, with a dismissive wave of the hand, that it was just a bunch of tar balls. ■