Just a few hundred miles north of my home in Fairbanks, Alaska, an enormous amount of crude oil has blackened the snow -- the largest oil spill in the history of the North Slope development.
More than 260,000 gallons of oil leaked undetected for days through a quarter-inch hole in a corroded pipe in the Prudhoe Bay field. The molasses-thick crude covered two acres of frozen wetlands, oozing beneath the snow toward the edge of a lake.
While hundreds of oil spill response workers have been busy cleaning up the BP mess in below zero temperatures, Congress is once again poised to consider a misguided proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America's greatest and wildest refuge.
On March 16, the U.S. Senate passed a budget resolution that sets the stage for opening the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to oil drilling, with the unrealistic hope of generating an estimated $7 billion in lease sale revenues.
Proposed development would be located about 60 miles east of the big spill, in a pristine wilderness currently closed to such activity. The coastal plain is a sensitive birthplace of caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and many species of migratory birds that fly incredible distances to nest and raise their young.
Oil and wildlife don't mix.
Oil is a poisonous substance. A tiny drop of crude oil on a bird's egg can kill the embryo beneath the shell.
If a mammal, such as a polar bear, is contaminated with oil, the bear will immediately begin to clean itself by licking its fur and ingesting the oil. The consequences would be fatal.
If bird feathers become soaked in oil, the birds lose the protective properties of their feathers, and they can quickly die from hypothermia or poisoning.
We know this too well by the tragic loss of bird life from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which killed hundreds of thousands of birds.
Opponents have argued that these catastrophic events rarely happen.
But this latest major spill is not an isolated incident. Each year more than 500 spills of crude and other toxic substances occur on the North Slope. A new report for the Alaska Forum of Environmental Responsibility by Dr. Richard Fineberg raises serious concerns about oil field operations and future risks. (Visit www.alaskawild.org for the complete report.)
We do have other alternatives to drilling in this environmentally sensitive wildlife refuge. We can reduce our fossil fuel consumption, drive more fuel efficient cars and develop alternative energy sources.
Other promising regions are already open for development with billions of barrels of discovered oil yet to be produced. This includes 14 million acres of North Slope lands that the state of Alaska regularly leases to industry.
But we have to draw the line somewhere. The boundaries around the Arctic Refuge are there for a purpose: to protect wildlife, natural habitats and an extraordinary arctic wilderness, not for enclosing oil fields.
While workers will continue restoration efforts, Americans should ask, should such industrial activity and the potential for similar spills be allowed in America's only Arctic Refuge?
If Congress allows oil development and toxic spills in the refuge, we might as well tell our children to dip their Easter eggs in crude.
Alaska author Debbie S. Miller has explored the Arctic Refuge for 30 years (www.debbiemilleralaska.com). She has written several books, including her recent children's book, "Big Alaska: Journey Across America's Most Amazing State" (Walker & Company, 2006). She can be reached at email@example.com.