When Environmental ‘Catastrophes’ Really Aren’t

The inconsequential consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire.

This year we mark the anniversaries of two environmental catastrophes. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Twenty years earlier, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River proved so thick with pollutants that it caught fire, sending oily black smoke billowing into the sky for half an hour.

Both catastrophes provide lessons for the present. But they’re not the lessons Al Gore would suppose.

A supertanker, the Exxon Valdez was carrying oil to the continental U.S. when it struck a reef in Prince William Sound, a vast, pristine body of water in Southern Alaska. By the time booms and skimmers had reached the remote site, oil had dispersed so widely that it had become impossible to contain.

The hundreds of deep, craggy inlets that surround the Sound became clogged with goo. Half a million seabirds, a thousand otters and nearly two dozen killer whales died. Salmon and herring eggs numbering in the billions were destroyed. Environmentalists, local officials, politicians–all predicted that Prince William Sound would never be the same.

As John Rogers of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service put it, “Discounting the loss of human life that occurred in the events at Chernobyl and at Hiroshima, one can liken the impact of the Prince William Sound oil spill to an Alaskan event of similar magnitude.”

Twenty years later?

“[T]he data,” as Steven Hayward explains in the 2009 edition of his invaluable Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, “suggest that … [Prince William S]ound has returned almost completely to its pre-spill condition.”

The populations of seabirds, otters, whales and fish of all kinds have rebounded. Researchers examining mussels and sediments have found that concentrations of hydrocarbons have fallen so low that they probably represent only “the continuing discharge of ballast water from tankers in the sound.”

Prince William Sound, clean and teeming. The lesson here is clear. Pace Al Gore and other hysterical environmentalists, the planet possesses remarkable recuperative powers. It isn’t fragile. It’s resilient.

Which brings us to the Cuyahoga River. From a study by Kent State University that was completed the year before the river, which flows through the industrial cities of Akron and Cleveland, caught fire:

“The surface [of the Cuyahoga River] is covered with the brown oily film. … In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. … This entire reach is grossly polluted.”

The 1969 fire, which apparently started when a passing train showered the Cuyahoga with sparks, prompted a spate of activity. State and local authorities sued polluters, stepped up the enforcement of state water pollution statutes, and floated a $100-million bond to help pay for a cleanup. Industries in turn began developing new techniques for limiting wastes.

The Cuyahoga River today?

“[W]hen biologists visited the [river] … last summer,” Steven Hayward writes, “they found 40 different species now thriving in the Cuyahoga, including steelhead trout and northern pike. … Indeed, the Cuyahoga is expected this year to meet the federal Clean Water Act’s stringent standard for healthy aquatic life.”

The lesson here is just as clear. A lot of what environmentalists believe they know, they don’t. “The Cuyahoga is worth recalling,” as Hayward writes, “because its image remains a default position for so much environmental discourse. It contributes to a willful narrowness of perception about actual trends.”

Those actual trends include the growth of fish stocks in American ocean fisheries, improved drinking water throughout the continental United States, a decline in air pollution in American cities–in Los Angeles alone, fine particulates have dropped more than 25% over the last decade–and, at Lake Tahoe, long a symbol of environmental degradation, seven years during which the water has each year grown clearer, not murkier.

“[T]he recovery of the ecosystems of both the Cuyahoga River and Prince William Sound has been nothing short of remarkable,” Hayward writes, “[but] it seldom gets much attention from the media or from environmentalists.” Which brings us to the final lesson.

Concerning the environment, no news is good news.
Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford Universityand contributor to RobinsonandLong.com, writes a weekly column for Forbes.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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