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A Few Words

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The Great American Oil Spill

"An oil spill is the release of crude oil into the natural environment, usually the ocean."

"A release event is described as a discharge of oil in harmful quantities that violate applicable water quality standards; caused a film, sheen, or discoloration of the water surface; or cause a sludge or emulsion deposit beneath the water surface."

These are some of the standards by which we measure what counts as an oil spill. One might formulate a broader definition, one that includes "release events" affecting solid land, affecting plant life, animal life, even affecting our cultural landscape. A broader definition of an oil spill is any discharge of a petroleum-based product, whether deliberate or accidental, that adversely or measurably alters a natural or cultural landscape.

Founded in 1970, the EPA strictly regulates oil spill cleanup. In 1968, the government drafted "The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan", which established an infrastructure for reporting and dealing with ecological disasters. The Clean Water Act of 1972 granted authority to both the EPA and to the Coast Guard to establish prevention and clean-up programs to deal with oil and other hazardous chemical spills. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 expanded the EPA's and the Coast Guard's authority, in addition to establishing a clean up trust fund — derived from oil taxes. This is a mere sampling of the legislation.

Yet even in the face of such legislation, since 1824, Media news organizations, local and federal governments, even environmental watchdogs have been covering up the largest oil spill in the history of humanity.


"Today, 96% of all paved roads and streets in the U.S. - almost two million miles - are surfaced with asphalt. Almost all paving asphalt used today is obtained by processing crude oils."

So claims the inadvertent origin of our exposé, "The History Of Roads And Asphalt". Indeed, there is an oil spill in America over two million miles long. It's time we did something about it.

A long-standing policy of dumping and pressing asphalt on to the Earth's surface unquestionably counts as an oil spill. What makes the act all the more criminal is its deliberate nature — we have intentionally orchestrated a controlled dump, knowing the historically horrific impacts of chemical and oil spills.

One component of the spill-damage is, clearly, environmental. It is difficult to find a location in America where a road is not visible. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Americans have never been anywhere that there aren't roads. Of necessity, this has an enormous impact on a peculiarly American attitude toward the natural world — there is no state of nature.

Another component of the spill-damage is both cultural and epistemological. The two are intimately connected. Roads are facilitators of travel. To lay roads in Ur was to enable ancient peoples easier access to each other; they were, in a sense, a cornerstone of modern civilization. In the US, roads string suburbs to urban areas, thus creating metropolitan districts, between which highways are the lifelines of commerce. Roads, then, are the foundation upon which modern living has been built.

Epistemologically, the way that we come to know the world around us depends deeply on asphalt infrastructure. We see cities and suburbs from the road — in school busses, in the family station wagon, even from bicycles. Beat poets wrote about how they came to know life on the road, be it walking or riding. Roads underlie the possibility of connecting empirical knowledge of one place with empirical knowledge of another. Surely, without such fast and easy travel available, our knowledge of the world and the peoples in it would not be what it is.

Given the apparent necessity of roads, the pressing question is: what actions can we take?

There are many approaches to the problem, but it is imperative that we begin to dismantle this ecological disaster as quickly as practicably possible. First, we need to raise awareness of the most obvious, yet unobserved, problem in human history. We can do this by advertising the broad and agreeable definition of an oil spill. Advertisements might take the form of bumper stickers, billboards, airplane banners, even blimp advertisements — the important thing is, ironically enough, to open the eyes of America's drivers while they're driving. Tell them to take a step back and think about the toxicity of the substance upon which they are driving.

Next, we need to begin the formation of citizens' action groups. These groups will have to be trained in a new form of spill-cleanup. This is not like squeegeeing a film from the ocean's surface, or bathing a slick sea lion. This is a solid, entrenched spill that will require jackhammering and back breaking labor. Citizens' action groups should pair up with local health clubs and develop physical training programs to ensure that the citizenry is duly prepared for the enormity of the task that they face.

To adequately dismantle and properly dispose of the road system, we will need one of the largest work-forces ever known on the planet. This workforce will have to be subsidized by the federal government. The strongest and sturdiest among the citizenry will be called upon to alter their lives and lifestyles, quitting their day-jobs to take on a new role in the clean-up effort. The government will have to promise at least equal pay and benefits to all who voluntarily sign up for the campaign.

Absent a large enough (paid) volunteer effort, the government will have to institute a conscription of sorts. Reasonably, we could expect those who have historically driven the biggest automobiles to be drafted first. This could be determined by vehicle registration records. That group could be cross-referenced with those aged 18-34 — the overlapping citizens being the first to go.

Military involvement cannot be discounted. In fact, military involvement will probably be necessary, as they possess the largest fleet of off-road vehicles in the world. These vehicles will be necessary to transport workers to their new jobs, since the roads as we know them will gradually disappear.

Once the spill is reduced to piles of crude rubble, we must "harvest" the piles and remove them to remote locations — ideally back from whence they came. We should consider refilling quarries as much as practical. Once filled, we will have to identify sound storage locations, far enough from drinking- water sources, forests and farms that the toxins of the asphalt can no longer infect the citizenry.

Once the asphalt roads have been removed and properly disposed, then we can address the possibility of building alternative roads, such as those made of timber in Glastonbury, England, or responsibly constructed cobble-stone roads found throughout the world — sometimes called "macadam" roads.

Doubtless, this project will be a tough sell to a populace who has never known a different means of transportation.

Perhaps this is the news that will motivate the populace the most: In late 2003, "The National Chemical Cleanup Task Force" (NCCTF) announced the results of a 12 year study tracking asphalt residue in ground and drinking water and on farmlands. Staggeringly, run-off from roads contains petroleum-based contaminants, some say, from the asphalt itself. Alternative interpretations emphasize roads' sponge-like qualities: i.e., oils and lubricants from automobiles soak into the tar and wash away in rain storms. Whatever the case, there is no denying that drinking water is contaminated with road-asphalt-based by-products.

Given this spate of facts, the general population should be convinced that it is beyond time to begin cleaning up the biggest ecological disaster in the history of our country.

Furthermore, an educated citizenry will likely begin to adopt similarly ecologically beneficial green programs. For example, elected officials might look to closing recently opened holes in environmental laws that provide the possibility of drilling for more oil on federally protected lands. The need to drill more oil will be reduced when the grand oil spill has been cleaned up.

Consider: The United States consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day, almost half of which goes to fueling automobiles. This implies, after the roads have been cleared, that the US would use 10 million fewer barrels of oil a day. On top of this obvious environmental benefit, this represents the only major suggestion buzzing around the media today that promotes true energy independence.

One could argue more abstractly that a national road-removal program will help to bolster America's educational record. Currently, the products of our educational systems are well below standards. Acts such as "No Child Left Behind" have failed both in conception and in implementation — particularly in funding. Abstractly, we might argue that the family of reasons for these failures is surnamed "community". Road removal programs, of necessity, will tie communities closer together. Suburban sprawl will be recognized as the culturally divisive phenomenon that it is, and localism will once again take hold of communities. Closer familial and communal ties, historically, have been directly linked to improved school performance.

Closer community bonds will inevitably reduce individualized senses of "entitlement", sometimes called "entitlement egoism", that lead to poor student performance and irresponsible urban development. When entitlement egoism is sufficiently purged from the American conscience, then progress will again be possible in arts, education, hard sciences and social reforms. America will be reborn while the residue of a misunderstood and divisive infrastructure is banished from the landscape.

Millions of miles of black ribbon severing ties across America are squarely to blame for abstract social divisions and ecological disaster. The desperate need to clean up this environmental and cultural mess cannot be understated.

A Brief History of EPA's Oil Spill Program
The Oil Pollution Act, 1990, summary
The History Of Roads And Asphalt
Consumer Factsheet on: BENZO(A)PYRENE
Ground Water Contamination By Crude Oil Near Bemidji, WI
Department Of Energy Oil Consumption Reports

© 2004 Sorrell