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T he lifeblood of Alaska's economy - oil - is also a poisonous substance. A tiny drop of crude oil on a bird's egg can kill the embryo beneath the shell.
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A Prudhoe Bay worker recently discovered the largest crude oil spill in the history of petroleum development on Alaska's North Slope. More than 260,000 gallons of oil had leaked through a quarter-inch hole in a corroded pipe. The molasses-thick crude covered two acres of frozen wetlands, oozing beneath the snow toward the edge of a lake. BP's leak detection system failed, and it was an oil field worker's nose that happened to catch the scent of petroleum.
Ironically, while hundreds of oil spill-response workers have been busy cleaning up the mess in sub-zero temperatures, Congress is once again poised to consider a misguided proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On March 16, the U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution which sets the stage for opening the arctic refuge coastal plain to oil drilling. Proposed development would be located about 60 miles east of the spill, in a pristine wilderness that is closed to such activity. The coastal plain is a sensitive birthplace for caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and many species of migratory birds that fly incredible distances to nest and raise their young.
When President Theodore Roosevelt established America's first wildlife refuge in 1903, he was thinking about birds and the conservation of nesting habitat on Pelican Island in Florida. As a hunter, angler and naturalist, Teddy established 51 wildlife refuges - an incredible legacy for America's wildlife and citizens. He would never have imagined industrial parks or oil spill accidents in any wildlife refuge. Such activity violates the original intent of protecting and conserving lands and waters for wildlife.
Oil and wildlife don't mix. If a polar bear is contaminated with oil, the bear will immediately begin to clean itself by licking its fur and ingesting the oil. The consequences would be fatal. If bird feathers become soaked in oil, the birds lose the protective properties of their feathers and they can quickly die from hypothermia or poisoning. We know this too well by the tragic loss of bird life from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, where hundreds of thousands of birds were killed.
Opponents have argued that these catastrophic events rarely happen, and that oil spill response crews are well-trained to clean up the vast majority of oil spilled. Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation is optimistic that 90 percent of the oil will be recovered from the recent spill. That still leaves another 26,000 gallons that may contaminate ponds, lakes or streams, or remain gooped on the tundra. While workers will continue restoration efforts, Alaskans need to ask, should such industrial activity and the risk of similar spills be allowed in our only arctic refuge?
This major spill is not an isolated incident. Each year more than 500 spills of crude and other toxic substances occur on the North Slope. A new report for the Alaska Forum of Environmental Responsibility by Dr. Richard Fineberg raises serious concerns about oil field operations and future risks. Fineberg suggests that BP does not operate the nation's largest petroleum production complex in a safe and sound manner. His analysis reveals a history that includes substandard corrosion inspections and an unreliable leak detection system, factors that likely caused this major spill. (For the complete report, visit www.alaskawild.org).
We do have other alternatives to drilling in this environmentally sensitive wildlife refuge. We can reduce our fossil fuel consumption, drive more fuel efficient cars and develop alternative energy sources. Other promising regions are already open for development with billions of barrels of discovered oil yet to be produced. This includes 14 million acres of North Slope lands that the State of Alaska regularly leases to industry.
Somewhere we have to draw the line. The boundaries around the arctic refuge were originally drawn for the purpose of protecting wildlife, natural habitats and an extraordinary arctic wilderness, not for enclosing oil fields. If Congress allows oil development and toxic spills in the arctic refuge, we might as well tell our children to dip their Easter eggs in crude, and kiss Teddy's vision goodbye.
Alaska author Debbie S. Miller has explored the arctic refuge for 30 years.