The white sand beaches of Destin, Fla., have long been a favorite getaway spot. No one wants to think about that beautiful sand being blighted by waves of black oil.
As bad as that scenario is for beachgoers, worse damage will be done to fish, shellfish and wildlife in the Gulf and its inlets and marshes; and people's livelihoods will be destroyed unless this black plague can somehow be stopped.
Why did this catastrophe happen?
There are not nearly enough answers. We know the oil well ruptured and the drilling rig 5,000 feet above it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Since then the well has been gushing thousands of gallons of crude every day and night.
Why can't the well be shut off? Why didn't the shut-off systems work?
The primary and secondary cutoff systems failed, and according to the Wall Street Journal, the well did not have "a remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills."
Those two nations are Norway and Brazil. Since 1993 nearly every Norwegian offshore rig has had the acoustic switch. And a spokeswoman for the country's Petroleum Safety Authority said the switches perform well as "the most successful and effective option."
The remote switch, an acoustic trigger, can be used to send sound waves to trigger the oil well's shutoff valve even if the rig is disabled or unmanned. The Journal said some major oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell and the French firm Total SA "sometimes use the device even where regulators don't call for it."
But there was no acoustic switch for the now sunken oil rig owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP. And the device is not required by U.S. regulators nor is it mandated in the United Kingdom where BP is based.
Several years ago the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department considered mandating the remote cutoff switch but drilling companies questioned its cost - about $500,000 - and whether it was effective, the Journal reported. Subsequently, the agency concluded the acoustic trigger was unnecessary because of other backup systems including unmanned subs that BP has used trying to shut the valve on the Gulf well. The subs have not been able to trigger the "blowout preventer" valve.
The CEO of BP said in an interview with the WSJ the preventer valve "is the failsafe mechanism that clearly has failed."
In what surely was an understatement, the Journal observed that the lack of an acoustic trigger on the BP rig "could amplify concerns over the environmental impact of offshore drilling."
Concerns should be amplified. Clearly, henceforth there must be more redundancy and genuine fail-safe systems that can shut down an undersea oil well. Clearly, unless that is done, offshore drilling will become a thing of the past for this country.