The top headline on MSNBC.com on Saturday morning declared "The granddaddy of all gushers? Not this spill." They touted a New York Times story:
President Obama called the leak in the Gulf of Mexico "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." But scholars are debating that description.
It's a good idea for reporters to question politicians' bluster about history. But it certainly sounds to Obama critics like an "It's not so bad quite yet" spin. The Times story goes off the spill question and into other disasters. It's certainly true that the Johnstown flood (with 2,200 deaths) trumps an oil spill in its human toll. Reporter Justin Gillis grew more conceptual:
Perhaps a one-day flood is simply too short-term to count as an environmental disaster.
On the other hand, if events that played out over many decades are included, the field of candidates expands sharply.
Perhaps the destruction of the native forests of North America, which took hundreds of years, should be counted as the nation’s largest environmental calamity. The slaughtering of millions of bison on the Great Plains might qualify.
But the notion of a slow-motion calamity deflates the idea of a disaster. Gillis comes around to that as well:
Craig E. Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University, nominates “the human overhaul of the Mississippi River Valley,” which destroyed many thousands of acres of wetlands and made the region more vulnerable to later events like Hurricane Katrina.
However, those activities were not seen as disasters at the time, at least by the people who carried them out. They were viewed as desirable alterations of the landscape. It is only in retrospect that people have come to understand what was lost, so maybe those do not belong on a disaster list.
You also can't blame any one president for these events. Can anyone imagine the New York Times jumping in two months after Hurricane Katrina to suggest it didn't have the highest death toll in American history? (The estimated death toll of 1,800 is third, but the other two were in 1900 and 1928).
Gillis added that there was a larger oil spill in American history -- on land:
In the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, an oil rush was on in the early decades of the 20th century. On March 14, 1910, a well halfway between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, in Kern County, blew out with a mighty roar.
It continued spewing huge quantities of oil for 18 months. The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. “It’s the granddaddy of all gushers,” said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area.
The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.
The Lakeview oil was penned in immense pools by sandbags and earthen berms, and nearly half was recovered and refined by the Union Oil Company. The rest soaked into the ground or evaporated. Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten. That is surely because the area is desert scrubland, and few people were inconvenienced by the spill.
And there was no television news to keep showing the pictures on a 24/7 basis.