Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oil on Rock

I visited the Tauranga oil spill today. Mount Maunganui beach was reopened this weekend and declared safe for swimming (with the caveat that you should get out of the water if you suspected oil contamination). So I wasn't sure if I'd actually get to see any oil, since all the other beaches in the Bay of Plenty are closed to the public.

There seemed to be lots of people on the beach: a salsa dancing demonstration was drawing a crowd, paragliders drifted down from the top of the mountain and plenty of folk were noodling around on the sand. I didn't see anyone in the water, but that may have been as much to do with the cool drizzly weather as fear of oil.

The woman at the information centre told me that I might be able to glimpse the stranded container ship, Rena, if I walked around the headland track and the sky were clear. There was too much haze to see anything but one of the naval vessels patrolling the exclusion zone, and the helicopters taking salvage crews to and from the Rena. But there were dozens of people walking along the track.

For the first section of my walk, I was going against a tide of local volunteers returning from their clean up clutching haz-bagged gumboots and talking animatedly as strangers do when a disaster unites them as neighbours. Tractors towed trailers loaded with sacks of oil, oily sand, oily shells and oily protective clothing.

I found just one little track that was not blocked with emergency tape. Taking advantage of a rare break in the crowd, I sneaked down to the water's edge to try and find some oil I could inspect up close. I've been thinking so much about how I want to represent this oil spill in stitching. My oil spill images last year were mostly inspired by photos from the Gulf of Mexico, but the oil in Tauranga is of such a different quality, I can't use that oil spill to represent this one. I didn't touch any of the oil I found, and I was careful not to get it on my shoes and track it around the Mount.

Rena's spill may be small compared to international spills. It's certainly tiny compared to what is possible if deep sea drilling were to happen off shore of New Zealand. But the fuel used in container ships is the nasty dregs of the oil distillation process, literally the crudest of crude oils. It looks exactly like tar, and nothing at all like petroleum or even machine oil.

The beaches are relatively easy to clean up, because the oil-saturated sand can be shovelled up. Clumps of oily shells and debris are picked out. The nasty gunk is hauled off out of sight to landfill and not even a stain remains.

It's fiddly work, cleaning oil out of sand, but the cleaner-uppers have done an amazing job. News photos from a week ago showed Mt Maunganui beach covered in thick black sludge and now there's no trace of oil to be seen on the apparently pristine white sands.

But off the sandy beach and around the headland is a different story. The oil still clings to rough rocks around the high tide mark.

Here the army cleanup crew has to scrape and scrub, which looks to be very slow and laborious. They are working very carefully, paying minute attention to each crevasse or stain on the rocks. Their work reminded me a little of my own slow, absorbing stitching practice.

Despite the hard work of removing toxic gunk, the crew I observed seemed in very good spirits. I think it must be extremely satisfying to be doing something so valuable, so tangible and so effective. After ten days, most of the volatiles have evaporated from the oil, and it no longer smells bad. In fact, the Port of Tauranga had a worse oil stench when I drove past it.

A couple of New Zealand fur seals lounged on some rocks just off the headland. Signs on the track assured us that they'd been checked and are free of oil. I saw a dozen or so seagulls, swallows and a tui on my walk, and heard a grey warbler, all in fine spirits. But I thought of all the sea birds that have been killed by the oil in the last couple of weeks, and those that have been saved but must be kept in captivity until their homes are cleaned up and out of further risk. And I thought of all the fish and other sea creatures that have already been poisoned, and those that will continue to absorb the toxic residues for years to come. And those very fish are what the seals eat. So I'm not confident at all that a nice clean beach means everything is fine now.

The salvo crew is working night and day to try and pump out the remaining oil on the Rena before it breaks up. They are apparently managing to move about 10 sluggish tons an hour, in conditions of extraordinary danger and difficulty. The huge cracks in the hull, the ship's alarming tilt, and the bizarrely disarrayed containers all suggest that it would only take a bad storm or a small tsunami (there was a brief tsunami warning yesterday which thankfully came to nothing) to send the remaining 1000 or so tons into the sea. We are all praying that doesn't happen, because if it does, the thick black sludge that has been mostly cleaned up since last week will seem like a drop in the ocean.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oil in Water

Seep I and II (oil washing onto shore)

Last year, I watched the devastation of the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico with horror and grief. I responded, as I could, as I do, by stitching. I made a series of work interpreting images of oil on water and beaches. Many of these works were included in Imagining Antarctica, to express my fear of what devastation such an oil spill could wreck on the pristine environment down there.

Seep I (detail)

My response to the environmental disaster unfolding right now in Tauranga, just a hundred kilometers from right here is just as horrified and even sadder, though the scale of the oil spill is tiny compared to the Gulf. The same storms that are breaking up the ship, churning oil through the water column and tossing containers onto the rocks are pouring rain onto my roof right now. The people on the beaches, breathing the toxic fumes and trying to clean up sludge speak with my accent and are part of the economic, social and cultural region in which I live. The fish, shellfish, birds, seals and other marine life being smothered, choked and poisoned are my neighbours.

I have a regular job in Hamilton and no car, so my desire to be in Tauranga helping with the beach clean up isn't practical, quite apart from there being too many volunteers right now. Instead, I'm directing my response into research and stitching. I'm particularly interested in the oil that doesn't stay on the surface or wash ashore.

The controversial toxic chemical dispersants used so widely in the Gulf, and apparently to little effect in Tauranga so far, don't magically dissolve or neutralise the oil. Dispersants break up the oil into small droplets that are distributed throughout the whole water column. This has the advantage of quickly making it invisible to the media and the public, but the disadvantage of being harder to actually remove from the water. Also the small toxic droplets bear an uncanny resemblance to plankton and other tiny invertebrates that form the main diet of many fish and other animals.

This week's bad weather, so ill timed to hamper the salvage and clean up in Tauranga, is also churning much of the oil into the water column, doing what dispersants would do, but without the additional toxic chemicals. Dr Norm Duke says “Petroleum oil will naturally break down – but this takes time and oxygenation. So, the longer the oil remains floating at sea – the safer it becomes. And, the rougher the weather – the better also."

Reseach scientist Nic Bax says “It seems that oil will eventually be broken down by natural processes including microbial activity. ...It seems to be a long-term process as oil has been detected in sediments a decade after oil spills have occurred. The more volatile components of the oil are typically considered to be the most toxic, but they are also the components that will boil off or evaporate most rapidly. Typically heavier crudes hang around longer are harder to disperse and have a greater visual and aesthetic impact... Dispersion in the water column will be increased in high energy environments (such as high wave action) which will dilute the oil … reducing its local impact”.

Slick I, detail (oil droplets floating on the surface)

Ever since the Gulf spill I've been thinking about how I could represent oil in the water instead of just on the surface. Gripped by the drama of the Rena disaster as it worsens each day, I've come to see that the crochet spheres I've been making to represent intangible phenomena such as ash clouds and nuclear radiation, can also represent the drops of oil dispersed through the water column.

So now I'm crocheting globs of oil-in-water, planning an installation and writing up a proposal. I've made 48 spheres from ecru cotton* so far and will need about 400 to to realise my vision for the installation. That will take me a few months of stitching, by which time I expect Tauranga beaches to appear mostly clean, oil-covered birds and seals will be less common and the media's attention to have moved on to the next photo opportunity.

My installation will be a reminder that although the surface may appear resolved, oil is still present in the water. I want my work to remind viewers that the toxic environmental hazards from oil spills last longer than what is visible and deemed newsworthy. I want people to remember this truth, as deep sea drillers prospect for oil off our coasts.

Work in progress for oil in water, crocheted spheres before they are starched into 3D

*I source my ecru crochet cotton from op shops, where there are often a few half used balls lurking, unloved, at the bottom of a haberdashery bin. If any of my op-shop-cruising readers would care to collect these on my behalf I will gratefully reimburse you.