After Oil Spill Crisis, a Protector Keeps Watch


CARLISLE, La. – A daughter of Plaquemines Parish, her camouflage outfit the color of the forest, checks the oil. She checks the steering, the coolant, the gas. She makes sure that everything is tied down or stored away, so that nothing loose will fly into the fanlike propeller at the rear of her airboat. “Maintenance,” she says. “Maintenance.”

Then off she roars, a singular woman named Albertine Marie Kimble, guiding her airboat across the grass and into the precious marsh waters, where she is most at home. An honor guard of green-winged teal ducks rises to greet her, the only resident of this southeastern Louisiana spot called Carlisle.

“Wow!” she shouts. “Whee-e-e-e!”

The BP oil spill of 2010 has come and gone, mostly. The cleanup armies have been reduced to platoons, the oil company’s public-relations blitz has lost its apologetic urgency, and you have to know where to look to find any remnants of the catastrophe. But Albertine Kimble, protector of these waters, is still here; she has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

She is not an oil rigger, or an oysterman, or a shrimper. She is the coastal program manager for Plaquemines Parish, tending to its wounded banks. She is also the parish itself, rooted generations-deep in its soft soil, an outdoorswoman living in a remote mobile home raised nine feet off the ground by creosote poles and galvanized girders.

Ms. Kimble may be the best duck hunter around — so good that she wonders whether it’s why she remains single. She can dress a bagged deer, then dress up for a night at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina sent waters high enough to flood her elevated home, she spent nearly a year retrieving the scattered coffins disinterred by the deluge and returning the dead to their places of rest.

“I’ve been here forever,” says Ms. Kimble, 49, who has long brown hair and, somewhere on her person, a .38.

Ms. Kimble takes it personally when weekend warriors carve illegal swaths through marsh to reach their hunting camps. So imagine how she felt when a man-made, man-killing catastrophe in April began spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the sensitive waterways of the Gulf of Mexico, including those of Plaquemines Parish.

Imagine, too, her reaction to the lawsuit filed last week by the federal government, alleging that BP and other companies had not used the safest drilling technology, and had failed to take proper precautions. It’s all about the money, she says in disgust. All about testosterone. All about — lack of maintenance.

Plaquemines Parish is so quiet now it almost seems that the nation only dreamed of a massive spill. The television klieg lights are gone, along with many of the “vessels of opportunity” and most of the boom. Most of the BP contingent is gone as well, following a farewell party or two at the Venice marina, at the bottom of the parish, where the dark-blue waters beckon.

The marina’s manager, Chris Calloway, says that the only obvious evidence of the oil spill now are the new trucks and boats owned by the “spillionaires” — people who struck it rich by renting out their boats and land and services for BP’s cleanup operation that lasted months. Oh, and the occasional strip of forgotten boom, and the patches of dead marsh grass here and there.

The dead marsh vegetation, though, says it all for Ms. Kimble.

The Louisiana coast already has profound problems with erosion — with the vanishing of land — thanks to several factors: The great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The water-diversion projects that altered the delivery of the river’s silt and freshwater, allowing Gulf of Mexico saltwater to eat away at the protective marsh grass. The wells and boat canals carved into the marshes by oil companies over the decades.

Then came the oil spill, insidious now in its quiet presence. Ms. Kimble recently went out to examine the aftermath, from the brown, dead marsh grass in Bay Jimmy to the malodorous oil found with a shovel’s nudge in the beach sand at South Pass. The ducks rising in her honor may be virgin white, but what dark damage has been done beneath the water’s surface? To the shrimp, the oysters, the marsh grass that provides coastal protection?

“Where did it go?” she asks about the oil. “Can you account for all of it?”

The matter is deeply personal because Ms. Kimble is so deeply embedded in the narrow strip of Plaquemines that runs between the Mississippi’s eastern bank and Breton Sound. She went to Louisiana State University to study music therapy, but came home before graduating to help care for her ailing father, Gerald, the parish comptroller and parish bugler — the “Al Hirt of the Cut Grass,” he was called.

She started working for the parish 26 years ago, spraying pesticide out of airboats for $3 an hour, then moving up to other assignments — so many, in fact, that she has trouble remembering them all (“Oh, and I was with the mounted police.”). At every step, she made sure to challenge the male-dominant culture. When she was hired as a harbor patrol deckhand, for example, she responded to a barge’s pictorial array of naked women by hanging up a photographic celebration of naked men. That ended that.

Ms. Kimble used to live three miles from here, until someone broke in one night and tried to assault her; her bullets missed their fleeing mark, she says — unfortunately. She later moved her trailer to Carlisle, where the Kimbles go way back. And way back is where she settled, far from the road and nine feet in the air, guarded always by Hunter, a rescued Labrador retriever that she nursed to good health.

“Maintenance,” she says again.

Here, in Ms. Kimble’s raised nest, among live oak and cypress trees, the motif is camouflage chic. Her cozy living room features an alligator’s head and various mounted ducks, including two named Fred and Ethel. Hurricane Katrina’s waters stopped just short of that crucifix on the wall, she says, as she serves coffee in cups of fine china.

It’s funny, she says. Her daddy died in June 2005. A few months later, Katrina altered her world. Then she spent all that time putting her dead neighbors back in the ground. But by the beginning of this year, life in the parish seemed to have found a proper balance between oil and water.

She distinctly remembers having this thought while at the Assumption of Our Lady Mission, the Roman Catholic church in Braithwaite where she sings soprano, plays the flute and says the Hurricane Prayer. She remembers being happy.

“Everything was looking so good,” she says.

Today, eight months after the catastrophe, Ms. Kimble allows that things look good again in Plaquemines Parish — but only on the surface. “It’s going to come up again,” she says, of the oil, the anger, the consequences.

So this daughter of the parish tends to her maintenance. The other day, she helped to plant 2,500 stalks of marsh grass along a canal. At Mass on Christmas Eve, she will be playing her flute and singing “O Holy Night.” And then, well before the Christmas sunrise, she expects to be out again on these precious waters, hunting duck and attaching a wish to every falling star.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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