Reflections on the Oil Spill from Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger

Written by Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, on May 5, 2010.  Cross-posted at

The explosion on the high-tech oil rig leased by BP nearly 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico happened April 20th. Immediate word was that there had been casualties, but some workers had been able to evacuate in time and were saved. Local news showed footage of the fire in the Gulf, and anxious relatives being ferried to a hotel near the airport to await their loved ones — or word that their beloveds were among the lost. More reports later focused on the funerals of the men (they were all men — for whatever reason, oil rigs are not known to be havens of gender-inclusivity).

Announcements were made on April 21st or 22nd (hard to remember now) that the oil well was being capped as it blew, so (the announcement, presumably from BP, said) there would be minimal leakage of oil into the waters of the Gulf. As I packed for my New York trip on April 23rd, the news seemed to be changing. There WAS a spill, but it wasn’t too bad. When I arrived in New York on the night of April 24th, the media was in full retreat from earlier stories. There WAS a spill, and it WAS bad, it was very bad indeed. It might even be the worst ever.

Storms in the Gulf not only dropped rain on Jazz Fest revelers, it sent the oil slick moving rapidly toward the ravaged Louisiana coast. By the second Jazz Fest weekend, April 29-May 2, some folks in Irish Bayou and even Slidell, claimed they could smell it on the wind. (It may or may not have been the reason that the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin gave to Jazz Fest officials about canceling her set, even though her tour bus was already in New Orleans, and nobody was claiming to be able to smell it from there.)

Folks at Jazz Fest lined up in record numbers to get raw oysters, joking sardonically that it could our last raw oysters for 5-10 years. (If the seedbeds of Louisiana oysters are disturbed, new seed oysters will have to be obtained after the beds are cleaned and then carefully nurtured. it would take between 5 and 10 years to be able to harvest from such new beds.) While they made remarks steeped in disaster-humor, their eyes were alternately angry and sad. Hearing that Halliburton contractors had been involved on the rig, one man said, “Let Cheney pay for the clean-up.” The lead singer for Pearl Jam, on stage at the Fest, suggested that the children of BP executives spend their summer breaks working on the clean-up. He was wildly cheered.

Whether you live here in poor belle NOLA or anywhere else around the country, I know that all of us have been deeply affected emotionally and spiritually from this disaster, and the slow pace and inadequate scope of clean up. I know that all of us, young and old, well-off and struggling, want to do something, but we don’t know what. We know something of what this disaster means in terms of our lives and livelihoods and delicious food and our beautiful marshlands and fragile coastal areas, and the strange and wonderful wild things that live in those places, but there is still a mystery in terms of what happens next, what might happen next.

Here are some concrete ideas for things that can be done, right now, right away, to have a positive effect on the spill clean-up. And if there are those of you who read this who know of other things we can do, please do let me know so I can help spread the word.

#1 It is well-known that the containment booms for oil spills are filled with waste materials like hair, fur, and old nylons. (Check-out the YouTube video clip entitled “Hair Soaks Up Oil Spills“.) Collections of hair clippings from barbers and salons and fur clippings from pet groomers would be of tremendous assistance. A local hotel is working with a local environmental organization, Matter of Trust, to coordinate donations of old hosiery, pantyhose, stockings, clipped hair, and fur from pet groomers; that is the Ritz Carlton Hotel, 921 Canal St., NOLA 70130, 504-670-2817. Packages must be clearly labeled, such as “PANTYHOSE” or “HAIR CLIPPINGS”. If you live in New Orleans, you can drop off labeled packages of your old stockings right at the valet entrance of the hotel. You can also call your hair salon and dog groomer and request that they save all hair and fur for this important cause.

#2 If you are financially able, you can contribute to help the people who are hurt most. A fund has been set up by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund, to collect money to benefit local communities (in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and lower Jefferson parishes) most adversely affected by the disaster, who are mostly poor/economically marginal, Islenos, Vietnamese, or African American). Donations can be made online, and more information gathered, at

#3 If you are able and willing to, you can volunteer to help.  In-person volunteers can register with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, or through the Sierra Club. Recovery from this, as from Katrina, will be a marathon, not a sprint. We will need a lot of help for quite some time to come.

#4 If you live or visit near the Louisiana-Mississippi coast, and need to report damaged wild life or shoreline, these are the numbers to call: for oiled wildlife 866-557-1401; for damaged coastal areas 800-440-0858.

#5 Write and call your elected officials at the federal level. Demand clear procedures for emergencies in the Gulf. Demand accountability for when inevitable accidents happen. Demand immediate federal aid for the coast line, the wild life, and the human communities affected by such disasters.

Finally, we can all pray/meditate/send good thoughts when gathered in our faith communities. We can support and comfort each other in our rage and grief over this new disaster. We can use the work of our hands and the power of our minds to make this better and prevent its recurrence.

To all of you out there standing in solidarity with us in South Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Explosion in the Gulf

Rev Jim VanderWeeleRev. James VanderWeele is minister of Community Church Unitarian Universalist New Orleans and serves on the board of the interfaith community organization Congregations Acting Together.

The world has once again gasped at news from the Gulf, not the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico. We are not threatened by a hurricane this time but the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. This rig was at the cutting edge of oil-drilling technology. It drilled, then capped, then drilled again. Its floating platform was held in place by a global positioning system.

Dawn of day one
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on fire

Transoceanic (BP’s renter) was closing a drilling site, preparing to move. There are many safeguards, and all are used before shut-off valves are needed. But this fire surged swiftly. No alarm buttons were pushed. I see a swoo-ooo-ooosh of FIRE, rising 300 feet about the water, …in an instant.

Life was lost; human life on the front end; fish, animals, birds, plants, and Gaia are waiting in line.

Many local groups, including the Sierra Club, called for volunteers. Weather kept relief efforts in the bay for several days. Fishermen, who risk losing their fishing grounds, shrimp and oyster beds, await BP (and the Coast Guard) for approval of a local plan. They want to place booms across the river mouths. Barrier islands (and a few of them still remain) will blunt the impact of the oil on the swamps and marshes further inland but any oil that enters a stream will spread to the interconnecting waterways, channels, and canals emptying into the stream. The current ask (from those who stand to lose their livelihood) is for the fuel (and BP should have some of that) to initiate their coastal protection effort.

At our Sunday morning worship service we have a time for joys and sorrows. Our first three candles were lit for those who died, for the people trying to contain the slick, and for all the creatures that live on our coastline. We are deeply concerned, mostly for our coastline, for the fish and birds that live there, and for all who live in the entire Gulf Coast region. Part of our angst is tied up with governmental/bureaucratic/corporate red tape, colored by the fact that President Bush was ineffective during and after Katrina–while the people suffered. Now we wait to see if President Obama’s administration will manage the clean up effectively.

Early in the morning of the second day of the fire

For several days we thought this was Louisiana light crude, a thinner oil that breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight and bacteria. But a weekend report said one chemical test showed it may be raw material for asphalt—a heavier oil, impervious to chemical and natural degradation. Yet, other reports say chemicals are being shot by robot subs into the oil’s flow a mile below the surface. These chemicals have broken up the oil, causing a reduced residue to fall to the ocean floor, minimizing the amount of oil that reaches the surface, or so says the latest report.

Any hope for a minimal environmental impact was shattered this morning (May 3rd). Jellyfish and sea turtles have washed up on the Mississippi shores. Some of these turtles are on the verge of extinction. This may be the final straw for them. Oil is already in the coastal currents. This current carries water down the western edge of Florida. The Florida Keys may soon see oil on their beaches.

Oil on the ocean surface burns

One more thought. The plates of our planet are moving. Earthquakes and volcanoes may well be a signal. Yet we puncture Gaia’s epidermis with our most modern syringes. We drain out our earth’s fluids then throw it into our atmosphere and seem to expect our eco-system will not respond. May this be a warning, a warning we will remember, long after the news-cycle has turned, long after the Gulf returns to health.