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.