58 days later, oil continues to grip Louisiana’s coast

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2010



VENICE – Almost five years after Hurricane Katrina battered and devastated most of the southeast Louisiana coastline, wetland areas of our state that serve as the first line of storm defense now face a new threat as oil from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig owned by British Petroleum continues to flow into the fragile marshes of lower Plaquemines Parish.

A group of about 30 reporters from newspapers across Louisiana traveled to Venice Friday for a first hand look at the oil-infected marshes. The tour included a stop at a wildlife cleaning facility as well as an update on cleanup and recovery efforts from state and local leaders.

Dale Benoit, co-publisher of the Plaquemines Gazette and the St. Bernard Voice, coordinated the trip and served as tour guide throughout the day. Benoit has been covering the spill since the rig exploded on April 20 – now 58 days ago.

“The oil follows the tidal system in that it comes in and goes out regularly,” Benoit said. “There has never been an accurate amount recorded along the shores. The marsh grasses of Pass-a- Loutre in south Plaquemines are the first places oil began to show up on the coastline.”

The tour of the marshes began in Venice, where a pair of rescue boats from Plaquemines Port Harbor District shuttled reporters to the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Along the way, boats of various sizes normally used for shrimping, crabbing and other fishing could be seen shuttling boom to oil contaminated areas in the marsh.

“Two types of boom have been used to combat the oil at varied levels of success,” Benoit said. “The hard boom, which is supposed to block the oil, has been almost no help because it doesn’t capture the oil under the surface. The soft boom or absorbent boom is working, but it is in short supply.”

Benoit said representatives from BP claim they have received more than 40,000 responses regarding solutions to assist in cleanup. He said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Gov. Bobby Jindal have also been working together to examine possible cleanup methods.

“The most recent experiment has been a vacuum method involving a vacuum truck being placed on a barge,” Benoit said. “It is working well, but more trucks are needed.”

Jindal said Friday the Army Corps of Engineers has given the state approval to use an additional 13 vacuum barges to suck oil off the top of the water. He said the barges are parked far off the land to allow smaller boats to bring the vacuum pipe into the wetlands.

“We can’t afford to let the oil sit there in the marsh grass,” Jindal said. “We are doing everything we can to fight this oil before it gets further in.”

When the tour arrived at the wildlife refuge station at Pass-a-Loutre, representatives from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries spoke of the damage caused by Katrina and what the area now faces with the threat of oil in the marsh.

“The area we are traveling on was once an area of floating marsh you could walk on,” said Wildlife and Fisheries representative Tommy Prickett, who piloted one of three boats shuttling reporters to the oiled marsh area. “The days are numbered for some of these unprotected islands. The next tropical storm will likely send them out to sea, and it will only be accelerated by the oil, which is killing fragile grasses.”

After a 15-mile trip south from the refuge station, the lush marsh grasses began to turn from a healthy green to a sickly brown. Although surrounded by two levels of boom, the affects of the oil were clearly seen as the roots of the grasses were stained black.

Prickett said pressure from the governor and continuous media exposure in recent weeks prompted cleanup crews to finally spring into action in the area. On Friday at least six boats were working in the area to repair and replace hard and absorbent boom.

“There have been times when the governor was brought in here and no work was getting done,” Prickett said. “It wasn’t until more media showed up that work started to finally get done.”

The oil in the marshes Friday did not appear to be as thick as has been depicted in recent days, but distinct pockets of sludge could be seen hugging at boom surrounding the grasses.

“It’s likely to take several years before things recover in this area,” Prickett said.

When the trip returned upriver to Venice, media representatives traveled to Buras for a visit to a Marine Spill Response Center at Fort Jackson, where rescue teams from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working to clean and treat oiled wildlife, including white and brown pelicans, seagulls and various species of terns.

“All of the birds that come through the center are given a full examination and administered medication to help with hydration,” said FWS representative Erin Gawera. “We clean them, nurse them back to health and release them in areas far from the spill zone.”

Gawera said the birds are first treated with a vegetable-based oil and then bathed in dishwashing liquid. She said dishwashing soap is most effective because it cuts right through the oil without being too harsh.

The cleaning area operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week, according to an FWS representative. At any given time, roughly 30 people can be found working at the site cleaning and treating birds. Reporters were allowed access to a cage containing clean pelicans but were prevented from entering the cleaning warehouse by FWS officials.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, rescue crews in the state have collected more than 770 birds in the region. Nearly 500 birds were found alive, but another 275 were found dead. Gawera said the dead birds are kept in a freezer to await an autopsy to determine cause of death.

“Some of the birds have no visible signs of being oiled so we want to determine exactly what killed them,” she said.

Once the birds are treated and cleaned, FWS tags them so they can determine if any cleaned birds return to the oil-infected area. Gawera said none of the birds tagged were seen back in the oil.

“I think the work we are doing is very positive,” Gawera said. “We are giving these birds a good chance at survival and full recovery.”

In addition to a bird cleaning station, Ft. Jackson is also being used as a staging area for another phase of oil contamination protection. The Louisiana National Guard is using a fleet of eight Chinook helicopters to lift 2,000 pound sand bags that will plug holes between barrier islands as part of a sand berm operation. The procedure is similar to the one used following Katrina when helicopters filled levee breaches with sand bags.

Jindal said the sandbags are being used to plug gaps at Scofield Island and Pelican Island. He said eight gaps had been filed at Pelican Island and work was continuing to fill three of six gaps at Scofield Island. More than 14 million pounds of sand had been dropped near the two islands by Friday.

“This is just another sign of the ingenuity of the Louisiana people,” Jindal said. “We are going to do whatever it takes to keep this oil from doing more damage than it has already done.”