Dark Water Sheds Light on Animals and Oil Spills

You know the story. In April 2010, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drill rig caused almost 5 million barrels of oil to gush into the middle of the Gulf before it was capped 87 days later. This was the largest oil spill in history and it continues to impact wildlife and aquatic habitats from the ocean floor to the Gulf shores.

Dark Water, a new play now on stage in New York City, tells the story of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico through the eyes of the animals.

The play takes place early in the disaster. As oil and flames encroach and safe land and resources become scarce, the animals start exhibiting some very human traits: dividing land amongst themselves; drawing lines where other animals cannot pass; exhibiting forms of segregation; and abusing religion to promote self-power. One animal in particular, a seagull named Gullet, kills more animals than he can eat in order to hoard food for himself. He has learned this from watching humans. On the other hand, Daedalus the dolphin does not blame humans. In fact, he falls in love with a rescuer and wishes he could help her more with her efforts. The true heart of the play is Barnacle the turtle, who is seeking shelter for her children. The story follows her through the depths of the Gulf as she is both aided and misguided by other animals.

Like every good story there is love and hope, but what is special about Dark Water is that it pushes theater-goers to consider the ecological impacts of our resource-hungry society from a perspective we don't often see. Animals are the real yet silent victims of our environmental disasters. Recent troubling events like the West Virginia coal chemical spill and Quebec crude oil train explosion have shown us that our drive to go deeper and further to get at remaining fossil fuels is especially hard on our aquatic environments and no place is immune to the potentially devastating consequences. But, if you think of oil spills as things that happen in other places (like distant ocean environments) and not in urban or even suburban environments, think again. Oil spills have happened all around the country, even in New York City.

Back before the spill in the Gulf and before the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, the largest spill in the country was in the middle of New York City. Over the last century, between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil has leaked into Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek. The oil comes from a historic (and now defunct) refinery owned by ExxonMobil and is feeding an underground plume 50 acres in size, in areas that lie under businesses and homes. It contaminated an aquifer that lies beneath Brooklyn that was used as a source of drinking water until the 1940s (now Brooklyn gets its water from the New York City municipal water system).

The plume was discovered from the air in the 1970s but no action was taken on the site until the 1990s. Now, it’s on the National Priorities List and has EPA Superfund status, and while there is a remediation system in place, recovery and cleanup of the site has been minimal and lagging. It’s hard to imagine this in a place like Brooklyn, where real estate is so valuable that people are moving to Manhattan to get more affordable rents. If the Brooklyn case is any indication, prospects for cleanup of Gulf Coast environments seem dim.

The problems we face are two-fold. Companies don’t want to take responsibility for cleaning up the messes they create (or they use cleanup processes that are more toxic than the original spill, as is the case in the Gulf). And we, the people, drive demand for production because we use fossil fuels in everything. We don’t just use them to drive, cook and heat our homes. We use them when we eat industrially produced food that relies heavily on inorganic fertilizers and pesticides; we use them when we surround ourselves with the plastics that fill our lives (look around you – how much plastic is right in front of you?); and we use them when we fill our closets, cabinets and garages with cleaners, solvents, paints and so forth, that have fossil fuels at their core.

Dark Water holds up a mirror that lets us examine our own behaviors. How have we gotten here? What does our future look like? Where do we find hope in the face of disaster? These are big questions. Barnacle finds hope in the survival of her children, and it’s true, there is hope in the future. As the playwright David Stallings says, “The earth does not belong to humans alone, we share her resources with other living beings.” In the future, we’ll realize that we have more than just ourselves to account for. We’ll realize that reliance on fossil fuels is a trap and there are better ways to fuel the planet. It’s a future I’m looking forward to. I hope it doesn’t take bigger and bigger disasters to get there.