Horn Island stopping waves of tar


HORN ISLAND — Reporters were walking down the pier here to leave when National Park Ranger Patricia Kraft said, “I’m glad you came. I think there’s more tar on this island than people think.”

Horn Island, 14 miles long and standing with other barrier islands like a sentry to the waters of the Mississippi Sound, is taking it on the chin.

Tar fields steadily wash ashore along its southern beaches, which face the Gulf and what’s left of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. Small crews are scooping up 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of tar a day along that side.

On its northern shore, which faces the mainland, all the island’s major lagoons and ponds have been oiled. Even though they are in the interior, the marshes and lagoons open to the Sound — Big Lagoon, Ranger Pond, Garden Pond.

Garden Pond, the first inlet to the east of the Horn Island ranger pier, was oiled in early July.

The oil came around the island, into the Sound and hit its delicate side.

For whatever reason, the oil moved under the boom set up to protect the wetlands.

“At the entrance you could see 8 inches of oil on the marsh grass in the pond,” Kraft said. “It got less as you moved into the pond.”

“It was fresh, liquefied oil flowing in and out,” she said. “There has been no cleanup.”

More boom was added — 300 feet of one kind and 280 feet of another.

BP cleanup crews aren’t working the northern shore, either. Some of the concern is the fragile environment might be disturbed. There has been concern about nesting osprey, but the last of the fledglings has left.

Kraft is usually assigned to a park in Florida, but she has spent 28 days on Horn Island, watching cleanup as an advocate for the island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Steve Mangum, from Scott County, has been overseeing crews on the island for BP since early June.

He has 30 to 40 workers, who pick up the tar patties by hand on their knees.

“We’d have more teams out here, but there’s logistical problems,” Mangum said. “If storms come up, we have to evacuate. And there’s a fine line. We don’t want so many that they trample the resources.”

Mangum drove a four-wheeler hauling reporters along the island’s winding southern shore.

In the light surf of the water’s edge, hundreds and hundreds of blue crabs lined the shallows.

“They’re here to lay eggs,” Mangum said. “At least that’s what they tell me. The males are further out.”

Several yards on shore, cleanup crews tackled a monumental task in the heat.

They start each day at 5 a.m., reaching the island work stations about 7 a.m. They work until 4 p.m.

Mangum said, “We’ve had some 16,000-pound days.”

The tar patties, some larger than a dinner plate, are scooped into plastic bags, weighed and hauled off. For oiled or injured birds, another crew is called in.

Often the patties are covered by wind-blown sand.

“It’s hit and miss that we find those,” Mangum said.

They’ve tried using hand-held blowers to uncover buried patties.

“After storms we see all kinds of stuff,” said Douglas M. Kirchoff, another foreman. “We’ve found some tar mats buried more than a foot deep.

“With the heat,” he said, “a spot will coming oozing out of the sand like lava.”

How long do they expect to be cleaning Horn Island?

“I’d hate to say,” Mangum said. “There’s still a good bit here to do.”

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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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