For residents of the battered Gulf Coast, Hurricane Isaac didn’t just bring sheets of rain, pummeling winds, and a powerful storm surge. The slow moving, deceptively destructive Category 1 hurricane stirred up tragic memories of Hurricane Katrina, which arrived seven years earlier to the very day, and it stirred up something else.
Oil. As much as a 1 million barrels, the remnants of a man-made disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
At approximately 6 a.m. today, my consultant Marco Kaltofen from Boston Chemical Data Corp. — who has been invaluable in documenting pollution and other fallout since the BP catastrophe — reported that he spotted a large BP crew and a fleet of payloaders and other heavy equipment ready to move out at Orange Beach, Ala. That is a community that has suffered tarballs and other toxic pollution after earlier — and lesser — tropical storms in the Gulf. Later today, Kaltofen sent me pictures of a positive test for oil residue in sand from Destin, Fla., a nearby restaurant that had been polluted with oil from the storm surge, and oily material in the sand at Destin’s Calhoun public beach — all a good distance east of where Isaac made landfall.
Although our thoughts and prayers are focused those morning largely with the residents of Plaquemines Parish and other Louisiana towns that are coping with epic levels of flooding, I predict that over coming days the oil and toxic gunk stirred up by Isaac will become a major storyline.
And it didn’t have to be this way. For one thing, a major reason that so much oil remains in the Gulf is the result of a failed and horribly conceived clean-up strategy from BP and the federal government. The spraying of massive amounts of the toxic dispersant Corexit pushed the oil out of sight but not out of the Gulf (and it contaminated more seafood and sickened more residents in the process.)
What’s more, in recent months BP has been eager to spend its spare millions on slick TV commercials promoting Gulf tourism and sponsoring a “green” Olympics — rather than putting more resources into oil cleanup that could have minimized the pollution we are getting socked with today. Now, state officials admit that people who could have been rescuing flood victims will instead be dealing with new pollution that is the result of BP’s recklessness:
The state is adding about 50 experts to its hurricane response teams to identify new oil damage from the surge of sea water expected from the storm, said Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Isaac is expected to batter almost three-quarters of the state’s coast with wave collisions that have the power to erode beaches and send sea water deep into coastal marshes, according to computer models from the U.S. Geological Survey. That may force debris from the Gulf, including oil, deep into Louisiana’s wetlands, according to Graves.
“We should be able to focus all our resources on search and rescue, and helping people repopulate,” Graves said in a telephone interview. The oil removal plans are a “frustrating necessity that would have been largely preventable had BP been more aggressive about removal efforts.”
Here’s something else that’s important to remember: Research has now established that the BP spill destroyed marshlands in Louisiana, which are Mother Nature’s first line of protection from tropical storms. So the oil spill may have contributed to the flooding you are seeing on TV:
In June, Brian Silliman, of the department of zoology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found oil from the spill may have more than doubled the rate of shoreline erosion by killing the roots of salt-marsh grasses. His group will go to the area after Isaac to see how much the storm affects erosion, he said in a telephone interview.
“I’m not pulling all the alarms here,” Graves said. “But the oil is absolutely an added disaster threat in the middle of all this other mess. It’ll delay and frustrate recovery efforts.”
Those words were uttered before Isaac hit, and before we realized how intensive those recovery efforts will need to be. Today, residents of the Gulf are watching crews of able-bodied men and women cleaning up a mess that never should have been there in the first place. So now you understand why, down here in the Gulf, Isaac is a painful case of what Yogi Berra famously called, deja vu all over again.
To learn more about how oil from the BP spill is complicating cleanup efforts, please read: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-08-28/louisiana-plans-for-gulf-oil-dredged-by-isaac-s-force
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Our government needs to tell these clean-up workers that they are being put in harm’s way by cleaning up the oil from the beaches and marshes