Oil in the swimming pool

  • Jaime O'Neill


Once, during a time when I was separated from my wife, I lived in an apartment complex with a large and inviting swimming pool. One day, when I went to take relief from the heat at that glistening oasis, I found it fouled by motor oil. The apartment manager was there, shaking her head, speculating that an evicted tenant had come in the night to cause this trouble, spreading the oil upon the water in an act of vengeance.

Through the murky water I could see an open oil can at the bottom of the 6-foot marker, and there was a scrim of oil covering the entire surface of the pool, with a rim of black crud marking the tile where the water lapped at the overflow drain. I stood there in my robe and flip-flops, with a towel draped over my arm, feeling foolish beside water that usually carried the faint scent of coconut or lemon. Now the pool smelled like a gas station. The oil was black, as it would have been before it hit the refinery, and as it becomes after it's been through some car's engine block a bunch of times.

The pool was probably 40 feet by 100 feet, but one quart of oil was enough to foul it enough so that it had to be shut down for several days to be drained and then painstakingly cleaned. Even at that, I was told the oil did some lasting damage to the filtration system. I don't know how much water that pool held, but the ratio of water to oil had to have been hugely disproportionate. One quart was enough to make a considerable mess of things. It was also extremely disconcerting in ways I still don't entirely understand. The incident haunted me in ways my mind could not quite make right, leaving me with feeling one gets when things are badly out of place and simply not the way they should be.

Those disconcerting feelings have returned with even greater force since that awful day in April when 11 men died and the oil began to spout so ceaselessly into the Gulf of Mexico. Even when I'm not watching that obscene live feed of the oil as it gushes from the well head, the unfolding calamity darkens the mood of whatever else I might be experiencing, an omnipresent sense that things just aren't right, that a huge force has been unleashed.

If a quart of dirty motor oil can blight a very big swimming pool, what can we expect the numberless barrels of oil to do to the lower quadrant of our nation, or to our neighbors to the south, or to the planet as a whole, a global ecosystem that is inextricably interwoven in ways we don't fully understand?

As I write these words, the widening oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico stretches well over a hundred miles. For comparison, it might be instructive to imagine an area bigger than Lake Tahoe, or an area the size of the Grand Canyon, slickened and blackened with petroleum from rim to rim. Or you might try imagining Puget Sound, from Olympia at the southern tip, north past Tacoma, past Seattle, past Anacortes, all that water slick and thick with petroleum bubbling up from deep under American waters. Or try envisioning Lake Michigan, from Chicago northward, past Milwaukee, the shores of the lake coated with the guck and muck oil deposits when it isn't encased in something like the earth, a pipeline, or a can.

No matter the ratio of water to oil, one thing is certain: Unlike the owners of that apartment house swimming pool, we can't drain the Gulf of Mexico, scrub it up, and then refill it with new water.

I no longer live in the apartment complex where the pool was sabotaged with oil. Not long after that incident, my wife and I reunited. Some things can be fixed and some can't.  But no amount of money spent on public relations campaigns is going to redeem the reputation of BP. And no amount of new Halliburton cement is going to make Dick Cheney's old firm look like a responsible corporation. And no escrow account, however large it may be, is going to take away the damage done, or the pervasive and persistent sense that, in the world of corporate morality, something is fundamentally and criminally wrong.

Jaime O'Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Magalia, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Oil in the swimming pool
Justy Frank
Justy Frank
Jul 06, 2010 08:28 PM
Your column pushed through what was a level of denial I didn't think I
had about this tragic and continuing oil spill. It's like knowing something is bad but somehow that it's not SO bad.
Thanks for the column, though I'm not sure what to do about this new
and troubling information - Obama is not of a prosecuting mind. And all the jail time in the world won't fix things.....
Oil in the swimming pool
Jul 07, 2010 04:53 PM
I do believe your sense of something not right is RIGHT ON Jamie. The earth will eventually recover, but will we? What happens when the oil reaches the Gulf Stream and heads to the Arctic? We have a very delicate Eco system that man has been playing with for some time. In the next decade we will see just how BAD this "spill" is. Spill, the word is just not adequate for this catastrophe.

I saw a cartoon long ago, a man at a BIG desk with windows behind him showing smokestacks spewing tremendous amounts of air pollution. A younger man in front of the desk was asking the BIG WIG "Don't you have grandchildren sir?

The greed of mankind will no doubt be our downfall. BP is more worried about drilling more wells so they can make $$$ again off this huge oil deposit. All they ever see is the $$$ for new yachts and such. We the "small people" need to wise up and work together to FIX THIS CORPORATE BS.

I have Grandchildren, and I am worried sick about their future.

Corporations like this apparently aren't real people.
Jul 08, 2010 11:36 AM
I just don't understand why they and other massively disruptive, polluting industry giants don't see how self-defeating it is to pollute on this scale--or any scale. It's like polluted air and water are good enough for the masses but not themselves. They don't have to directly suffer the consequences, so it's okay for them to keep messing up natural resources and running away from the messes.
Disproportionate oil
Jul 09, 2010 10:29 AM
I'm not trying to excuse BP, really, they've been willfully negligent and they need to pay. But I'd like to point out that experts estimate that the leak is flowing at between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels/day. Americans use 19,498,000 barrels/day. So that leak, which started April 23rd, needs to continue through June 8th, 2011 before it equals what we use up in one day. We can make them the bad guy, and in many ways they are. But we're the ones buying it & giving them the incentive to go after it at any cost.
Oil in the Swimming Pool
Jul 14, 2010 12:20 PM
This spill started long before April of this year.
It started when people decided that it was worth the risk to drill that deep in the Gulf of Mexico. In communities all along the Gulf Coast there are those who thought the benefits of drilling far outweighed the risks. Those same folks are now outraged that drilling was halted- even for a day, so that drilling safety and methods could be reviewed. The risks associated with this sort of drilling become acceptable when the price of gasoline hits $4.00 a gallon. It's the price of our addiction.