In the Wake of the Oil SpillPosted by Carter Dillard, ALDF's Incoming Director of Litigation on June 21, 2010
I arrive at Grand Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island and prime beach destination for locals and tourists alike, just after lunch on Monday. There I meet up with Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, who, in conjunction with Louisiana’s Clearwater Wildlife Sanctuary, has begun operation “Here to Help.” It is an ongoing effort to survey affected areas and relay information on the location and number of animals in distress back to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jeff and others are also attempting to streamline the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation licensing process to make it easier for volunteers to receive training and authorization to assist with wildlife rescue efforts. I will accompany them today on a boat trip east of the marina – towards several bird habitats and rookeries than lay in the path of the spreading slick.
Before leaving the marina we see thick globs of reddish oil floating in the water, surrounded by a glassy sheen. I dip my hand in the water to touch one of the globules – it easily sticks to my hand and I cannot wipe away the residue. Leaving the entrance to the marina we spot a heavily oiled pelican – blackened really – sitting listlessly on a mooring. A lone porpoise, not far way, surfaced and then disappears.
After about a fifteen minute boat ride east we arrive at some of the main bird habitats and rookeries in this area – vital wetland for a variety of species, like the brown pelican and pink spoonbill.
The smell in the air as we approach one of the largest habitats is the first sign that things are not right. There is a thick petroleum odor that hangs in the air, much like the smell of crayons. And then there is the boom – the inflatable and absorbent barriers we have been seeing on television – that is meant to block the oil. As we motor up to the first habitat it is clear that the boom is not working. There is thick oil on the shore of the habitat behind the boom, and the oil is creeping up the black mangrove and smooth cordgrass that cover the island. The grass and mangrove are now literally two-tone – and will soon die. Birds float along the shore and inside the boom, wandering along the blackened shoreline – some of them covered in oil.
There are habitats like these throughout the hundreds of miles of coast stretching to the east and west of Grand Isle. Boat captains in the area explained that the oil, carried by the swift currents that run in the area (six to seven knots at times), had seeped far inland – ten or more miles – into the inland north shore of Barataria Bay. The pictures of beach cleanups are misleading – the oil has gone around the beach barrier islands, and pushed deep into the fertile wetlands that make up the coast here. Deepwater Horizon lies some fifty miles from these habitats. The oil has travelled across the Gulf – and over anything between us and it.
As we motor from one habitat to the next I am struck by how there is oil in the water that we cannot easily see. Where there is no thick crude visible, the water still has an unusual sheen to it. And then it becomes apparent. Everything floating within the water, the clumps of sea grass, the plastic bottles, the hull of our boat, eventually collects a black-brown coating. The oil is there – but largely invisible.
The oil prevents the birds from properly regulating their body temperature -normally the birds we see would not allow us to approach them, but they are trying hard to cool themselves. Sources in Grand Isle tell us that crews hired by BP are removing the dead birds early in the morning, before the daily media rush. The total number of dead animals collected – including birds, turtles, and mammals – is highly controversial, with numbers ranging from roughly 1,000 to 35,000.
We move further north to survey a normally very active rookery. On the way we pass large rust-colored slicks on the surface. Our captain explains that he has to clean his boat every day that he takes it out. When we arrive at the rookery we see a few boats idling outside of the boom. A young brown pelican darkened with oil, and a spoonbill, more brown than pink, are at the edge of the shore.
Elsewhere we see where the boom has actually washed up onto the shore – the birds step over it as they meander along. We pass several habitats like this – some with no boom at all. Grand Isle is a major focal point of the clean-up efforts. The president was here shortly before we came. We all wonder whether habitats far from any cities and towns are getting any attention at all – and whether the little effort we see here is doing any good.
On the trip back to the marina we pass an Exxon gas plant which runs right up to the edge of the water. It is ironic to find oil along the shore of the plant. A white egret flies just overhead – from the boat we can see that there is oil spreading up into its lower thighs.
Residents here describe the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts here as “a show.” Local wildlife officials have said they are disorganized and woefully underfunded, unable to perform the work they know needs to be done. While the primary focus appears to be on cleaning beaches to lure back the tourists, and to compensate the fishing and other industries impacted by the spill, it seems – as in Katrina – that the animals are being left behind.