Who’s the finger of blame really pointing at?

Published 9:25 am Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Setting the trap was easy. Dad tied a piece of bait — usually the fleshy part of a chicken wing — right in the center of a set of concentric wire rings attached to each other with strong cord netting. We lowered the net down into a bayou with water clear and shallow enough that we could see the crabs as they sidled across the bottom. When a crab got busy with the bait, we pulled the net up, using tongs to toss the crab into a bucket and then dropping the net back down again.

It was over 30 years ago, but I still think those were the best crabs I’ve ever eaten — brought up from the bottom of the bayou in our net, boiled whole with gumbo spices and cracked open and eaten with pliers and fingers. Messy, but delicious.

That was when we lived in Galveston, Texas, transplanted Yankees living deep in the Confederacy, feasting on seafood we caught ourselves, and real Texas barbecue. The beach was close enough to walk to from our house on the corner of Broadway and Avenue J, but we kids usually rode our bikes. We built sand castles, collected sea shells and sand dollars, and ran in and out of the water, chasing and chased by the waves. Walking on that beach or chasing those waves also often meant scraping tar balls off the bottoms of our feet. It was just something we got used to.

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I liked sitting on the sea wall or the end of a fishing pier, watching the container ships go by, headed for the harbor or up the shipping channel to Houston. Tankers cruised by, too, headed to or from Texas City, where the refineries were. And there were oil platforms, scattered across the horizon. That’s where most of the tar balls came from.

The current mess, with millions of gallons of oil spewing from a broken well-head at the bottom of the sea, is taking place a few hundred miles to the east of where we used to live. But the terrain isn’t all that different, so it’s the bayous and beaches of Galveston Island that I’ve been seeing in my head as I hear about the spreading slicks and the oil-soaked sea birds. It’s the crabbing we did as a family that I think about, wondering how people will get by who live where that oil is washing ashore.

It’s a disaster caused by humans, this oil spill. Nature didn’t dig down through the rock at the bottom of the gulf. Nature didn’t provide generous subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies like politicians in Washington did, or grant waivers and exceptions to safety regulations like government officials in their offices on the mainland did. Nature didn’t cut slippery slopes through procedures to save money, as it appears BP managers out on the Deepwater Horizon did.

Since this is a human-caused disaster, it’s been insulting to listen to and read the excuses and the sugarcoating of the consequences to all the forms of life in the gulf, humans, birds, crabs and others. One financial expert talked about how BP should go ahead and pay its shareholders their dividends, because the financial stability of stockholders is more important than the survival of entire communities along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Disgusting.

Another expert claimed that the Gulf Coast would easily recover in five to 10 years. Not all that urgent a crisis, he said. Unreal! Could Albert Lea survive five years without any crops being harvested in the fields around town? Could it survive if all the cattle and hog operations were unable to function? Could it survive a decade of those sorts of conditions? A legal expert writing for the paper suggested that BP initiate bankruptcy proceedings, thus relieving themselves of the costs of this disaster. Is there no shame in these people?

It’s not an act of God, this broken, spewing wellhead. It’s a human accident. Humans need to take responsibility for what’s happened, and not just the ones running BP.

Maybe if John Anderson had become president back in 1980, or Jimmy Carter had been re-elected, we would be accustomed to paying the full price for our petroleum addiction, instead of being seduced by the siren song of cheap gas politics. This summer, the people, flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico are paying for our cheap gas. Eventually, maybe the rest of us will shoulder our share of the responsibility for their suffering.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.