Louisiana’s coastline continues to be smeared with significant amounts of oil and oiled material from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, with cleanup teams struggling to remove as much as possible of the toxic material by the time migratory birds arrive at the end of February, said the program manager of the Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams, which are working for BP and the federal government.
There are 113 miles of Louisiana coastline under active cleanup, with another 55 miles awaiting approval to start the cleanup process, according to SCAT statistics. Teams have finished cleaning almost 72 miles to levels where oil is no longer observable or where no further treatment is necessary.
But that’s not the whole story for the state’s coastline. According to SCAT statistics, there’s another 2,846 miles of beach and wetland areas where oil was once found but is no longer observable or is not treatable.
Gary Hayward, the Newfields Environmental Planning and Compliance contractor who oversees the SCAT program, said that large area will be placed into a new “monitor and maintenance” category, once Louisiana state and local officials agree to the procedures to be used for that category.
“With rare exceptions, most of the marshes still have a bathtub ring that we have all collectively decided we aren’t going to clean any more than we already have because we’d be doing more harm to the marshes than the oil is going to be doing to them,” Hayward said.
The cleanup protocols for each state have been approved by state and local governments, federal agencies and BP, he said.
Louisiana’s senior coastal official says the state is monitoring the cleanup, and remains concerned with end-of-year conclusions that the cleanup is almost complete.
“The reality is we still have hundreds of miles of oiled shoreline today,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “We still have oilings on a regular basis in areas of Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish, and there’s still a lot of oil buried back in the marshes where it was carried during high water events.
“The threat is absolutely still there and the oil is absolutely still there,” he said.
‘We know we’re not done’
Hayward does not disagree.
“We know we’re not done. We’re still working,” he said. “We have some challenges ahead of us, including winter weather that will slow us down a bit. But we’ve made a lot of progress.”
At the height of the oil recovery and cleanup effort over the summer, the response program included 48,200 workers and 9,700 vessels. As of Dec. 23, there were still 6,170 workers and 260 vessels, although not all of those are participating in the cleanup.
Hayward said that the aim is for the cleanup to evolve into a long-term monitoring program for both beaches and marshes by the end of April all along the coast, but that could depend on shoreline re-evaluations scheduled for April and May.
“We’ll be assisted by very low tides in April and May, where we can really see how things have worked out in the winter,” he said.
The biggest remaining problem in Louisiana, Hayward said, is a large area of marsh along the shores of Bay Jimmy in northernmost Barataria Bay, west of Port Sulphur, that was fouled when storm surge from Hurricane Alex in late June pushed oil into the bay system, even though Alex went ashore near the Mexico-Texas border.
“There was enough high water in the tide surge and enough oil on top of the water that it came down on the marsh surface and flattened the grass along a 40- or 50-foot swath along the marsh front,” he said. “And when it did that, it pushed the grass over and left an oily mat on the surface. That has since dried and has become a very crusty surface, underneath which there is still gooey oil.”
Cleanup contractors have tried several methods over the past few months to remove that oil.
“We tried burning and that didn’t work,” Hayward said. “We tried various methods of cutting the marsh and raking the black tarry mat up, and met with some success. We’ve tried four different ways to cut the marsh and let the young sprouts come through.
“But oddly, what we saw was that even though that marsh was quite heavily impacted, before the growing season stopped, the marsh sprouts were coming up through that stuff,” he said. “So we feel pretty confident that even though it looks like hell, that area will recover in the spring when things start to green up again.”
February target date
The target date of February is aimed at removing the threat of oil from areas along Louisiana’s shoreline by the time migratory birds return to roost or rest on their way from Central and South America in the spring, Hayward said. The hope is also to assure clean beaches in advance of the tourist season on Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon Beach.
The 3,086 miles of targeted coastline in Louisiana, which makes up the SCAT western district, dwarfs the 1,598 miles of mostly beaches targeted for clean-up in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, which comprise the eastern district. Hayward said cleanup efforts also are aimed at February completion in those states.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get it done because of the loss of the last tourist season, and they want to get open for the winter months and they want to get open for spring breakers,” he said.
Unlike Louisiana’s rough texture beaches, a mix of sand, Mississippi River sediment and organic material, beaches to the east, especially along the Florida Panhandle, are a sugary, powdery white sand that’s more difficult to separate from the weathered remains from the BP spill.
“It’s really not oil. It’s not sticky, it’s not tacky, it’s basically a very crumbly, weathered oil residue,” Hayward said. “You can pick it up in your fingers and crumble it and it will just disintegrate.”
Mats of weathered oil
However, the cleanup plan is still struggling with tar balls and other material washing ashore from mats of weathered oil that are located in the surf zone just off several key beach areas, including Pensacola, Fla.; Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge at Gulf Shores, Ala.; and the barrier islands off Mississippi’s coast. Officials are concerned submerged tar mats may also be the source of tar balls that continue to be spotted along Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon Beach.
“People are concerned about the chunk of oil that they can’t find counted” in the federal description of how much oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward said, and the tar mats explain a small part of the missing oil.
“These tar mats can be three or four or five yards wide and a couple hundred meters long, and they’re discontinuous,” he said. “They’re being found in 2 or 3 feet of water, just below the low-tide line.”
“These are areas where tar balls keep washing ashore,” Hayward said. “The shallow water (where the tar mats are believed to be located) precludes a lot of vessel activity. It’s a very turbulent area.”