Coast Guard says substance found floating in Gulf is algae, not oil (PHOTOS)


A Coast Guard official said Saturday the orange substance floating in miles-wide areas of West Bay on the Mississippi River delta appears to be algae, not oil as reported Saturday morning by The Times-Picayune.

Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil said a Coast Guard pollution investigator has collected samples near the mouth of Tiger Pass and, while those samples need to be tested in a lab, “based on his observation and what he sees in the sample jars, he believes that to be an algal bloom.”

Last August large red algae blooms were confirmed on the Mississippi River delta as well as in Breton and Chandeleur sounds.

LSU researchers said such large blooms are not unusual along the Louisiana coast from spring through fall if the nutrient-rich water flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River becomes warm enough.

However, boat captains working in the BP oil spill response team who first reported the sightings as oil said Saturday they were not convinced by the Coast Guard’s initial assessment.

“I’ve never seen algae that looked orange, that was sticky, smelled like oil and that stuck to the boat and had to be cleaned off with solvent,” said one captain, who like the others wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their BP contracts. “I’ll wait for the lab reports. In fact, we’re also sending some samples off.”

Boat captains had said Friday they had become frustrated by a lack of response from the Coast Guard after a week of reporting the sightings.

A Coast Guard spokesman said Friday that his office knew nothing about reports of large areas of weathered oil surfacing in the Gulf. He said the only report from the area of West Bay was “a 10-by-10 area of foam and oil called into the Houma office by a shrimper.”

But O’Neil said Saturday that the Coast Guard had actually been investigating the claims since Wednesday.

He said the New Orleans Sector of the Coast Guard had conducted a helicopter overflight of the area Wednesday and the pollution investigator on board concluded the substance was an algae bloom. A Coast Guard boat was dispatched to the area to collect samples, he said, but it had to turn back due to rough seas.

O’Neil said that information was not provided to The Times-Picayune on Friday because the Coast Guard spokesman responding to questions was stationed at the Unified Command Office, which is in New Orleans but not in the same building as the New Orleans Sector office.

“The Unified Command doesn’t have visibility on each and every pollution report filed in the Gulf of Mexico on each and every activity conducted by each and every sector,” he said.

The reports of oil came just three days after the Coast Guard officer in charge of the federal government’s response to the BP spill, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, said research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed little recoverable oil remained in the Gulf.

Fishers and environmental groups have consistently countered such claims with reports of personal sightings of oil floating in the Gulf and washing up on beaches.

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