FOURCHON BEACH – Don’t tell Forrest Travirca that you’ve heard Louisiana dodged the bullet on environmental damage from the BP oil disaster. You might find yourself eating those words.
“Smell this!” Travirca demanded as he grabs a handful of brownish sand from this beach just west of Grand Isle and pushed it at the nose of a reporter. “That’s right – it’s oil.”
The field inspector for the local property owner shook his head in disgust and pointed down the beach where tiny yellow and red flags mark oil deposits that must be removed.
“All the brown spots and patches you’ll see on this beach for the next nine miles is oil, too,” he said. “And if you dig down a few inches or a few feet, you’ll see oil, too. And if you walk into that marsh back there, you’ll find oil.
“So don’t tell me we dodged any bullets. Or that it wasn’t so bad. Because I’ve been out there every day since May dealing with all that oil we dodged. It just makes my blood boil.”
Since the Deepwater Horizon stopped gushing crude into the Gulf on July 15 and sightings of fresh oil have tailed off, the story line for the worst oil disaster in American history has slowly begun to change. Those agonizing fears that a huge oil tsunami would wash over the wetlands and smother a way of life have given way to sighs of relief. And while scientists caution that the long-term damage to the ecosystem is unknown, most agree the worst-case scenarios didn’t happen, because most of the 200 million gallons of oil BP pumped into the Gulf stayed offshore.
Massive fish kills were averted. Fishing areas have reopened. Cleanup crews are packing up protective boom, and airboat crews are being laid off.
And the bottom line from state authorities is that of the Louisiana’s 7,700 miles of tidal coastline, only about 500 miles were oiled.
Still a battleground
That seems a small toll – unless, like Travirca, you manage some of those 500 miles. Then you find yourself in a place where the bullets are still flying and battle is still going on, a battle experts say you could be fighting for years to come.
“There might not be fresh oil coming ashore, but there’s a lot of residual oil that will continue to show up, especially in those places that were hard-hit,” said Ed Overton, an LSU professor who has been studying and fighting oil spills for 30 years. “This is a well-known and common occurrence in spills.
“I’d say those folks are probably going to be dealing with this certainly for the next year, and very possibly beyond in these hot spots.”
One of the hottest of the hot spots is the coastal beach and marsh complex between Grand Isle and Fourchon, a 12-mile stretch of beach, low dunes and salty marshes laced with lagoons, bays, bayous, and oil and gas canals. It includes the state-managed Elmer’s Island Wildlife Area, but most of the area is under private ownership.
The largest holding, about 12,000 acres, is part of the Edward Wisner Donation, a 1914 gift held in trust for the city of New Orleans. Spend a day walking the area and you know this is one of those places where BP’s bullets hit the bone.
“The perception out there from the press – and particularly from BP and the Coast Guard – is ‘We’re in the home stretch. We’re done. It wasn’t so bad,’ and that’s a false impression,” said C. Cathy Norman, secretary-treasurer and land manager for the Wisner Donation.
‘It doesn’t stay gone’
“Those comments and stories are frustrating to us because our beach is a mess. It was bad for us. And it continues to be bad for us, because it’s not over – in fact, it’s far, far from over.”
BP’s oil began coming ashore here on May 20 and never really stopped, Travirca and Norman said. Yards-long bands of floating oil that appeared that first day grew in length, width and thickness through the weeks. The long lines and floating islets of peanut butter-colored slush arrived almost daily until the first week of September.
“If you squeezed it, black oil came out of the inside,” Travirca said. “At first it was just on the beach, but when we got storms like Alex and Bonnie, the tide pushed it over the beaches and into the back marshes.”
BP cleanup crews, including Coast Guard and Louisiana National Guard, worked frantically to remove layers of oiled sand, but the oil had an ally on these beaches: Louisiana’s coastal erosion problem.
Beach retreat – erosion to the north – averages about 46 feet per year here, Norman said. That rate hasn’t paused during the spill, so oil that landed on the beach and wasn’t collected immediately often became submerged by the Gulf within days.
“You come out one day and it looks like the beach was cleaned overnight, but what you’re seeing, really, is new beach, because the beach that was here a few days ago – and the oil that was on it – is now under the water and covered with new sediment and sand” Travirca said. “But it doesn’t stay gone.
“When we get rough weather, that sediment containing the oil gets picked up pushed back up on the new beach. Some of it is exposed; some of it is buried again.”
A walk on the beach proves his points. Drag a foot across what looks like common debris lines left by a falling tide and the sand turns brown from the oil residue carried by the detritus. Dig a small hole with a shovel, and brown pockets of buried oil are revealed.
And patches of brown sand exposed to the heat of the noonday sun often begin secreting oil.
Oil bubbles to the surface
“There’s so much oil in some of these sands that when they heat up, the oil starts bubbling to the surface,” Travirca said. “That’s one reason the cleanup crews have to wear those (protective) shoes. They’re literally walking on oil sometimes.”
The water isn’t clear, either. The falling tide reveals many shallows clogged by what looked like yards-long mud flats just beyond the water line. But a shovel proved them to be huge, sticky mats of sand and sea shells bound together by oil residue.
In some places where the mats were exposed to the sun, black and brown oil was bubbling to the surface, tracing small black lines between shorebirds and hermit crabs before dripping into the Gulf.
“Those were mats of oil that landed on the beach, but were not collected before the tide came up,” Travirca said. “By then it was weighted down with sand and sediment, and eventually was covered with more sand.
“But then the shoreline changes, and it gets exposed again. Or the next storm that comes will wash it up on the beach and maybe all the way into the marsh.
“You see birds and crabs and other animals walking on it and feeding in it. You see fishermen out there casting over this stuff, and they have no idea what’s below their boats.
“This can’t be safe for critters and people.”
Overton and fisheries biologists agreed with that assessment.
Threat still remains
While the most dangerous components of the oil – the volatile organic compounds – probably were weathered off long ago, what’s left still poses a mortal threat to any fish and wildlife that make contact, Overton said. And oil that was buried in sediments before being heavily weathered could still carry compounds proven to be carcinogenic to humans.
“Oil that is buried in sediments doesn’t degrade very quickly, or at all, so whatever properties it had when it was covered, it will still have when it’s exposed again,” Overton said.
And the that re-exposed oil often appears in the most critical segment of the estuarine ecosystem: the line where plants meet water.
“That edge is critical to the whole food chain, and when oil gets there – whether it’s new or old – it can’t help production,” said Myron Fischer, director of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries research lab located at Grand Isle.
“The real concern we have is what will our samplings show next spring, because that’s when we’ll first be able to tell how much damage it did to reproduction. I know this: As long as it’s there, we have to try to get rid of it – and they tell us that could take years.”
None of that is news to Norman or Travirca.
“We’ve had top scientists with NOAA out here, and some of them have said the best thing to do is just to leave it alone, and eventually it’ll all be gone,” Travirca said. “They say it could take decades, but it’ll finally be gone.
“I say, ‘What about the rest of us during that time? What about the birds and the fish? What about the fishermen? What about the chance my granddaughter could have to walk and swim on this beach?’
“So when I hear people say ‘It’s over,’ I just feel like screaming. I want them to come spend a day on this beach, and then tell me it wasn’t so bad, or it’s over.”