Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Bottled water debate: Don’t forget those without clean water

August 5, 2010

One thing that’s frequently missing from the bottled water debate is the admission that some people do need bottled water. All the arguments against bottled water are completely true and valid — anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of bottled water is just tap water; generally, it isn’t healthier than tap water; its production uses a lot of natural resources like oil; and it creates a lot of waste. But the first two are arguments of the privileged.

I am very vocal about my disdain for bottled water, and while visiting my dad one day, I let him know how I thought his crates and crates of bottled water were ridiculous. Then my step-sister told me that her and her husband also bought crates and crates of bottled water, but she added, “That’s because our water is yellow. I’d love to just drink it from the tap, but I don’t trust it.” She had a point — did I really expect her to drink yellow water for the sake of saving plastic?

According to a report in The New York Times, about one in 10 Americans has “been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways,” and the U.N. estimates that 884 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water (that’s almost three times the population of the United States). For people without access to clean water, the arguments that bottled water is no safer than tap water or any other water are laughable — for people without access to clean water, bottled water is the safest bet possible.

For instance, as noted in the Times report, mountaintop removal mining and other mining related activities (e.g. acid mine drainage from abandoned mines) leave tap water orange or brown. Poor infrastructure leaves water open to contamination from aging, leaky pipes. Factories, landfills, and farms pollute the water either through runoff or just dumping toxins into water without regard to the Clean Water Act and how potent the toxins are.

We need to address these problems before the bottled water conversation, at least in the United States, can really gain speed and validity. There are likely many people, like my step-sister, who would gladly drink straight from the tap, but it just isn’t a safe and viable option, so the bottled water argument falls flat when opponents try to argue that it’s no healthier or safer than tap water — because for some, it really is.

This also means that the people who can afford bottled water need to remain part of the conversation about clean, safe water, not ignoring the problems because they can afford to ignore them. Mother Nature Network notes that:

Only the very affluent can afford to switch their water consumption to bottled sources. Once distanced from public systems, these consumers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods of upgrading municipal water treatment.

Simply buying a Brita water filter and quitting bottled water is not the answer for everyone — for some people it is, but for others it’s about major infrastructure changes and environmental cleanup and regulations. By portraying bottled water as merely a dumb idea (e.g. just bottling and selling what’s coming out of your faucet) and implying bottled water drinkers are dumb, bottled water opponents are excluding and insulting the people whose only access to clean water is bottled water, which leaves their voices and the problems of water pollution unheard and unsolved.

Rand Paul is delusional about mountaintop removal mining

June 17, 2010

Rand Paul, a Republican candidate from Kentucky vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, has some really bizarre, misleading, and uninformed views about mountaintop removal mining. Knowing no better way to tackle this video of him discussing his views on coal and mountaintop removal mining, I’ve transcribed most of the video and will analyze his quotes.

Statement #1:

I believe business should be left alone from government. I think the permit process needs to be made easier from the federal level and the state level. I think we shouldn’t have special taxes on their profit. I think we should have lower corporate taxes, those create jobs.

I’d much more rather lower taxes on the coal industry so they can hire 100 new workers than I would say, ‘Let’s tax the coal industry, send it to Washington,’ so we can get 100 new people digging a ditch that may or may not need to be dug.

The permit process was easy for a while — it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the Environmental Protection Agency really started cracking down on mountaintop removal mining permits. If you’re applying for a permit to blow mountaintops to pieces, shouldn’t the process be a tough one? You’re (1) using explosives, (2) possibly using those explosives on mountains near homes and schools, and (3) building a slurry pond of sludge for the leftovers — so yeah, the red tape is warranted.

But then Paul wants to make it about jobs. If we just ease up on the mining industry, they’ll be able to hand out lots of jobs — sounds good in this troublesome economy. The problem is that mining jobs have been dimishing for a long time, as Erik Reece pointed out (in 2006), because mountaintop removal mining is highly mechanized:

Ironically, here in Kentucky where I live, coal-related employment has dropped 60 percent in the last 15 years; it takes very few people to run a strip mine operation, with giant machines doing most of the clear-cutting, excavating, loading, and bulldozing of rubble.

It’s not the “special taxes” that are preventing the coal industry from hiring workers — it’s the fact that they can do coal mining now with fewer workers, which means more profit for them.

Statement #2 (when asked how he feels about mountaintop removal mining):

I think whoever owns the property can do with the property as they wish and if the coal company buys it from a private property owner and they want to do it, fine. The other thing I think is I think coal gets a bad name because I think a lot of the land apparently is actually quite desirable, once it’s been flattened out.

As I came over here from Harland you’ve got quite a few hills, I don’t think anybody’s going to be missing a hill or two here and there, and some people like having the flat land. Some of it apparently has become quite valuable when it’s become flattened.

TreeHugger made an excellent point and has a picture of a pre-mining mountain and post-mining mountain, to show that mountaintop removal mining is more than just chopping a few hills down — it’s completely blasting the tops off mountains, turning streches of mountaintops into bare, flat rubble.

There are pictures of mining sites in all the links I’ve provided so far — would you prefer staring at the bulldozed, gray constuction area-type mountains or the green, flourishing, vibrant mountains of trees? And sure it’s quite desirable when it’s flattened out — to mining companies who want to get the coal inside of the mountains!

Probably not so desirable to the people whose homes get flooded because the trees aren’t there to absorb the water, or the people who have an attachment to the mountains as part of their surroundings. Or the elementary school 400 yards from the mountaintop mining site, downhill from a coal sludge impoundment that holds almost three billion gallons of coal slurry.

It’s not just coal companies politely blowing off their mountain pieces and leaving the surrounding land be — they are hungry for profit, and they are hungry to find lucrative coal seams. Larry Gibson owns and lives on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, and Gibson has been told it’s worth at least $450 million. He felt so unsafe — guarding land that is worth so much to coal companies — that he launched a donation campaign in the spring to raise money for a security system.

Statement #3:

And I think they do a good job at reclaiming the land and you know adding back in top soil, bringing in elk. So I think they’re doing a good job at it, but the bottom line is it’s not just me pandering to coal, it’s me believing in private property.

If they bought the property, they own the property, they can do with that property as long as they don’t pollute someone else’s property, and I don’t think they want to. If they dump something in the river that goes to the next property, your local judges here will stop them, but I don’t think they’re doing that.

I think what they’re doing is what they can do with property they own and it doesn’t appear to me to be something the federal government should be getting involved with.

Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land, but it often doesn’t happen as it should. A recent study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that almost 90 percent of inactive mountaintop removal mining sites “had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture.” You can avoid completely restoring it if you put it to a better “economic” use, but throwing down some top soil isn’t the end of the road.

And Rand Paul is delusional if he thinks that (1) mountaintop removal mining doesn’t inherently pollute the air and water around the sites and (2) local judges can easily just listen to a resident’s concerns and tell the immensely powerful coal companies to cut it out. First here are some pictures of how mountaintop removal easily causes water pollution:

1. When a coal sludge impoundment gave way in Tennessee, here’s how the water looked:

2. Here’s a typical waterway tainted by either acid mine drainage or coal debris:

It’s actually not uncommon for children who live near abandoned coal mines or other coal mining sites to draw pictures in school and color the water orange or red instead of blue.

And it’s difficult for people to be heard — Appalachia is an area with a lot of poverty, and it’s an area where people’s concerns are vastly muted by the powerful, rich coal companies. If federal judges have trouble getting coal companies to follow the rules, do you think local judges are going to have an easier time?

The truth is that coal companies don’t care at all if they pollute anyone’s water. They don’t care if you’ve got orange water coming from your sink, coal ash in your lungs, or a house threatened by a flood (of water or even coal slurry).

Paul has this romantic notion of coal companies as these sweet entities that mind their own business, stay out of everyone’s way, and immediately learn their lesson when they cross onto someone else’s property. But as we can see from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, coal companies don’t take safety or anything else seriously, except for getting their coal and getting their money.

Paul wants to believe they are the kids at playtime sitting in the corner, playing with blocks, not bothering anyone. In reality, coal companies are the bullies that take people’s lunch money, break their toys, and never get in trouble for any of it (or talk their way out of it).

Gulf spill sheds light on worldwide oil problems, disasters

June 11, 2010

A friend pointed me to this New York Times article about how prevalent oil spills are in Nigeria, yet how they get little to no media attention — but when it happens in the U.S., it’s making headlines around the world:

Experts estimate that some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilt in the Niger Delta since oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years.

This is baffling. And worse yet, according to The Guardian (very insightful article), the oil spills are so frequent that oil companies and governments don’t take responseiveness as seriously:

The sense of outrage is widespread. “There are more than 300 spills, major and minor, a year,” said Bassey. “It happens all the year round. The whole environment is devastated. The latest revelations highlight the massive difference in the response to oil spills. In Nigeria, both companies and government have come to treat an extraordinary level of oil spills as the norm.”

And unfortunately, Shell and the Nigerian government are in a position where they can delay responsiveness and the environment can be horribly damaged without the world as a whole paying any attention. BP is under global pressure because it happened to own an oil rig that exploded within the United States — a global power that has the clout to demand and receive immediate action.

Shell doesn’t have the same problem. Although Nigeria is the eighth largest country in the world (the U.S. is third-largest) and has the 32nd highest GDP in the world (out of 227 countries) — which on paper makes for a seemingly powerful and influential nation — it’s economy is extremely dependent on the oil industry, according to the CIA World Factbook:

Oil-rich Nigeria, long hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and poor macroeconomic management, has undertaken several reforms over the past decade. Nigeria’s former military rulers failed to diversify the economy away from its overdependence on the capital-intensive oil sector, which provides 95% of foreign exchange earnings and about 80% of budgetary revenues.

This overdependence makes it easier for Shell and other oil companies to exploit the country, as both oil companies and the government keep official oil spill data a secret, likely because the government cannot afford to lose the business. Another problem, as outlined in the Guardian article, is that Nigeria doesn’t have the same voice and influence as the United States:

“This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper,” he said.

U.S. dependence on oil creates an unhealthy life for people elsewhere. Although some might argue that using less oil will crush a country like Nigeria’s economy, the oil industry dependence is already crushing their environment and their population. And, as the Times explains, “experts predict that as oil companies turn increasingly to the deep ocean and other difficult environments to get oil, more leaks are likely.”

Another interesting aspect of this story, however, is how true it is that atrocities can exist without global knowledge but, when they happen on U.S. soil, they actually get media attention. At a panel discussion about religion at OU last year, a man from India said that he found it interesting that the U.S. was so scared of having another terrorist attack after 9/11 — he said in India, terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence.

The U.S. is not used to bad things like this oil spill happening to it — it’s a powerful force with seemingly limitless resources, and we can be blinded by that and forget that other countries don’t have the same luxuries. Not only does an event like this provide a platform for Nigeria’s serious oil spill problems to be spotlighted, but it highlights that (1) our dependence has serious effects globally on other nations and people, and (2) we cannot ignore when we discover an isolated event is actually a recurring and common event elsewhere.

If we are going to hold BP to a high standard and ridicule it for polluting our waters, we should hold all oil companies to the same standard for waters around the globe.

Potpourri: the oil spill edition

May 27, 2010

1. Gulf Oil Spill: Who’s in Charge? per The Washington Post

On his blog, Joel Achenbach delves into the question of who’s in charge of plugging the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP or the government? His answer is that the entire operation is really complicated, with the government responding to the initial emergency, BP having the equipment needed to access the sunken rig, and the two trying to collaberate because it’s now the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history:

Federal authorities have been on scene from the very beginning — since the first hours of this disaster when it began as a search and rescue mission. Second, the National Incident Commander, Adm. Thad Allen, USCG, and the Federal On Scene Coordinator, Rear Adm. Mary Landry, are directing efforts and are accountable for this response. Third, at the Unified Area Command, we are working to ensure that BP, the responsible party, is meeting its obligations, pursuing all possible contingencies, and bringing the right resources to respond to this spill.

Achenbach’s response:

I think I understand. BP is the ballerina and the U.S. government is the Stage Mother.

It’s a mess. Read the updates, and you’ll see that no one really can give a definitive answer. I think they’re more focused on plugging the leak, which is fine with me. They are currently showing some progress.

2. Risk and Climate Change, per The Washington Post

Ezra Klein points out that ignoring the risks until something catastrophic happens is not good policy — and it shows how problematic our dependence on oil is:

The last few years have also been an ongoing seminar in the many ways that we ignore risks that we don’t like to think about, and the role that our evasions play in making the eventual catastrophes worse than they needed to be.

He hits the nail on the head when he says we ignore things we don’t want to think about, because why bother with worst-case scenarios or the fact that technological failure — or more likely human error — can lead to death. Eleven people died because of this explosion, 29 in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, and these could have been preventable had companies not pushed the envelope and risked safety in favor of profits.

3. MMS was troubled long before oil spill, per CNN

Big scandals have a domino effect, and this oil spill is no different — it is bringing to light how the Minerals Management Service, which is supposed to oversee offshore oil drilling, has accepted gifts from companies they are supposed to be monitoring and let the oil companies decide how they’d score on inspections:

In one case, an inspector in the MMS office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, conducted inspections of four offshore platforms while negotiating a job with the company, the report said.

Others let oil and gas company workers fill out their inspection forms in pencil, with the inspectors writing over those entries in ink before turning them in.

The report also alleged employees at the same office received tickets to 2005 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl football game from an offshore production company.

There are also some sex and drug abuse scandals going on, but isn’t it great to know that government regulators are taking their job so seriously? Perhaps it’s not just that these companies have no concern for the safety of their employees or the planet, but that some MMS employees who are supposed to double-check this also don’t make it a priority. I mean, are free tickets to a baseball game worth this oil spill and the lives it took?

Environmental degradation shouldn’t be a credit card system

May 25, 2010

There’s been talk about the government trying to raise the liability cap, which puts a ceiling on how much the companies have to pay for money lost in, say, an oil spill — the main talking point is that if the ceiling is too high, then only huge oil companies like BP will be able to afford the liability/risk of oil drilling.

Mother  Jones reporter Kate Sheppard, however, made an excellent point about why that’s not a bad thing:

The idea that a company should be able to drill and potentially cause problems that it can’t afford to fix should register as patently ridiculous.

This goes for all realms of activity that involve the environment — you shouldn’t be able to degrade, pollute, and destroy the environment if you can’t afford to clean it up or deal with the consequences. For some reason, this idea of responsibility and liability has often been lost on the environment.

The most powerful evidence of this is the more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the U.S. Superfund sites are toxic waste sites — the worst in the country. It wasn’t until an open-ended canal (Love Canal) that was filled with barrels and barrels of toxic waste seriously began having a detrimental effect on the people who lived above it that the government started dealing with the issue of toxic waste sites.

And even then, the problem of liability was at the forefront. The company responsible for the toxic waste had become part of a larger company, and even so, they had sold the property to the local board of education for $1, and they made sure to wash their hands of any responsibility:

Included in the deed was a “warning” about the chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer absolving Hooker of any future liability.

It’s easy to pollute the environment — it’s a lot more difficult to then clean up that pollution or fix the damage. Or, in the case of mountaintop removal mining, it’s easy to say you’ll clean up the damage when no one is really making sure you keep your word. In many cases, a requirement of a mining permit is to either restore the land to its approximate original state or some other beneficial use.

The Clean Water Act says the government is permitted to ask mining companies “to restore affected lands to usefulness for forestry, agriculture, recreation, or other beneficial purposes,” while the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act states that the government can require that “the acquired land, after restoration, reclamation, abatement, control, or prevention of the adverse effects of past coal mining practices, will serve recreation and historic purposes, conservation and reclamation purposes or provide open space benefits.”

A recent study by Appalachian Voices points out mining companies take advantage of these loopholes so they don’t have to return the sites to their original state — by saying they will convert them to another beneficial and economic purpose, they rid themselves of a more expensive liability. But, the study points out that 90 percent of nonactive mountaintop removal sites haven’t been “converted to economic uses.”

A lack of regulation is a common theme today in many areas — the financial industry getting bailed out after taking risks that it couldn’t afford to pay for if (and later when) they went downhill is the most prominent example. But a lack of liability in the environmental realm has been present for years, as pollution has spewed into the air, into waterways, and even into our bodies.

Considering all we’ve learned from pollution and environmental disasters, it seems like a no-brainer to say, “You can’t be in this business if you can’t afford to clean up your mess.” Why we still let people get away with it is beyond me, especially when those effects trickle down to humans — a lot of people claim environmentalists care more about fish and birds than people, but things like oil spills, mountaintop removal mining, and toxic waste affect people just as much.

We don’t want people driving around without at least minimum insurance because if something bad happens, they need to be able to cover some of the cost. Insurance costs make it difficult for low-income people to afford cars, but I don’t think I’d want minimum insurance coverage to get weaker or even become optional for the sake of allowing more people to drive — driving is dangerous, and the costs need to be factored into the equation.

The same goes for companies who deal in pollution or other activities that involve direct environmental degradation — if you could cause an oil spill that uncontrollably spews thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean every day but you couldn’t foot the bill, then you shouldn’t be “on the road,” so to speak. There shouldn’t be a credit card system for environmental degradation in which you destroy now, pay later, and/or rack up a bunch of debt that you’ll never be able to pay back.

‘Bike to Work Day’ also highlights bike-commuting problems

May 21, 2010

Today is Bike to Work Day (although by this time most people are probably home from work) — it’s a great idea, and I love that this year it’s predicted more people than ever will be participating. But for me, it’s a friendly reminder that my commute is so long and complicated that I can’t currently bike to work.

I live in Maryland and work in Virginia, a symptom of originally working in D.C., not being able to afford city living and living in the suburbs, and then getting a new job in Virginia. I live a little more than 20 miles away from my office, if I take the major highway to get there. Just driving that route takes an hour — Google Maps tells me biking would take at least two and a half hours and would be an extra four miles because I’d need to take a bike trail instead of the highway.

Commuting is a problem that many Americans face, especially when they work out in the suburbs. Sure, they can spare one day to try to ride their bikes to work, but some probably can’t even handle one day because their jobs are so far from their homes. In 2005, one survey said the average commuter had a 16-mile trip one way to work.

It’s tough for many people to embrace Bike to Work Day — or to embrace a lifestyle of bike commuting — because many cities and communities simply aren’t bikeable. As Ezra Klein said today when discussing going car-free, it’s all about the infrastructure — if a city doesn’t have an infrastructure that is conducive to people walking, biking, and using public transportation, then people’s only option is to drive.

So, although I love the idea of Bike to Work Day and hope lots of people took part, it simultaneously raises awareness about what we need to do structurally to make biking feasible. Increasing bus routes and bike racks on those buses so people can bus with their bike if they are too tired to ride, adding bike lanes and trails, and simply building cities and renovating cities so they are less car-centric are all good starts.

Meat/veg-eaters need to compromise for sake of environment

May 20, 2010

When people ask if I’m a vegetarian, I always feel like they are disappointed in my answer: I’m mostly a vegetarian. They immediately look underwhelmed: I’m basically telling them that I don’t have enough willpower to fully commit, and they think I’m some poser who doesn’t take animal rights or the environment seriously.

But I’m not the only one who sees being mostly vegetarian (aka flexitarian) as a positive, worthwhile endeavor — Graham Hill, founder of, gave this TEDTalk about vegetarianism which is fantastic. I encourage everyone to watch it — it’s only four minutes long, and it outlines his “weekday veg” diet. He doesn’t eat meat Monday through Friday, leaving the weekends open for meat if he chooses.

It doesn’t mean he will eat meat on the weekend, but he doesn’t have to feel guilty for falling off the bandwagon or relapsing into meat. It differs from flexitarianism (which aims to decrease meat consumption generally) by creating a guideline that is easy to remember: as Hill puts it, he won’t eat “anything with a face” Monday through Friday, so you simply check the day of the week and that will tell you if meat is an option. More than a diet, it is a lifestyle change.

Hill says it best when he discusses the downside to meat:

I knew that eating a mere hamburger a day can increase my risk of dying by a third. Cruelty, I knew that the 10 billion animals we raise each year for meat, are raised in factory farm conditions that we, hypocritically, wouldn’t even consider for our own cats, dogs and other pets.

Environmentally, meat, amazingly, causes more emissions than all of transportation combined, cars, trains, planes, buses, boats, all of it. And beef production uses 100 times the water that most vegetables do.

Meat production is terrible. Animals are wedged into cages next to each other, chickens have their beaks shaved down so they can’t peck at each other because they are in such close quarters, and you can imagine the sanitary conditions (or rather, lack thereof) at a place where animals are smashed together into cages.

Combine the disgusting treatment of the animals with the amount of water used in the meat production process and the pollution it creates, not to mention the pollution from the animals themselves and the factories, plus the grain used to feed all the animals, and there is a lot of environmental degradation going on.

But asking people to just stop eating meat isn’t as simple as it sounds — vegetarians and vegans can be elitist and judgmental of people who can’t stick to a strict meatless or animal-product-less diet, and meateaters can be elitist and judgmental of people who don’t eat meat or animal products.

Neither side wants to budge — meateaters don’t want to sacrifice eating meat forever, and vegetarians inherently feel like they are making a deal with the devil if they condone eating meat. “Weekday veg” is a compromise between the two, but both sides need to accept that compromise and some additional “best practice” rules, like trying to eat free-range and grass-fed animal products.

People who cut meat out of their diet during the week are cutting 71.4 percent of their meat intake out. Eating meat only three times a week cuts down your meat intake by 57 percent. These numbers are huge, and they could really make an impact if they became the norm. People often use the excuse, “I couldn’t give up meat,” as a reason not to be vegetarian and then they move on, but why not embrace a diet that lets you do both?

Yes, environmentalists can keep pushing vegetarianism and veganism, but the all-or-nothing approach isn’t realistic in my book. Like Hill says, people get nervous about giving up meat. Think of the health care reform debate — the late Sen. Ted Kennedy always said his biggest regret was turning down then-Pres. Nixon’s proposal for universal healthcare, because Kennedy wanted more than a compromise — he wanted all his demands to be met.

Vegetarianism — more so veganism — is the best option for the sake of the environment and the humanity of the animals who are mistreated in ways, like Hill said, most people wouldn’t allow if those animals were domestic pets like dogs or cats. I’m not going to argue that — but he’s right to say that the binary scares people, and it leads people to shy away from eating less meat, because people say eating less isn’t enough, you must eat none.

Some of the commenters accused Hill of being self-serving — I’m not exactly sure how cutting your meat intake by almost three-fourths and relishing in the fact that it’s healthier and better for the environment is completely selfish. Maybe he’s patting himself on the back, but I don’t really care or see why it matters — if his idea means dramatically less environmental degradation and fewer animals being treated horribly, then he can pat himself on the back 24/7 for all I care.

Blowout preventer: Why the Gulf oil rig continues to leak

May 10, 2010

In many of the stories I’ve read about the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the leaking oil rig is always mentioned but rarely with any explanation of why it won’t stop leaking. This is essential to understanding the severity of the problem, the cause of the explosion, and how an oil rig works.

This will be brief, but it’s important — all oil rigs in the United States are fitted with a blowout preventer to control pressure during oil drilling. If too much pressure builds up in an oil rig, there could be an explosion — the blowout preventer is a valve, so it can be closed and the crew and get the pressure under control.

A blowout preventer looks like this (and sits atop an oil drilling well):

Blowout preventers are supposed to automatically seal off the well when there is an uncontrolled build up of pressure, but the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig did not do that — therefore, the valve stayed open, the pressure was overwhemling, and this likely caused the explosion.

Before evacuating, crew members tried to engage the blowout preventer manually in order to close the valve, but it didn’t work. After the oil rig sank, BP and the U.S. Coastguard used robotic submarines to try to engage the blowout preventer underwater, but that also didn’t work.

So, the oil continues to spill into the ocean because the only thing that can stop the flow of oil — the blowout preventer — malfunctioned and didn’t automatically enable itself when the pressure got too high and doesn’t respond to any other attempts to close the valve either.

Until BP can find a way to either siphon the oil (currently the plan to cover the rig with a four-story containment box is failing because ice crystals are clogging the top of the dome) or plug the valve (currently they are thinking of using garbage to do this), the leak will continue.

It’s important to know not only that thousands of gallons of oil are flowing uncontrollably into the ocean, but why this is happening. A piece of equipment malfunctioned, and that piece of equipment was integral in stopping and controlling oil leaks.

What makes it difficult is that although blowout preventers have failed before, they’ve never sunk in waters as deep as those of the Gulf of Mexico. So strategies that worked in shallower waters are already not showing the same successful results when applied in deep ocean waters.