The 5,600 vessels taking part in the oil spill operation on the Gulf of Mexico make up the largest fleet assembled since the Allied invasion of Normandy, according to the Coast Guard.
Hordes of helicopters, bulldozers, Army trucks, ATVs, barges, dredges, airboats, workboats, cleanup crews, media, scientists and volunteers have descended on the beaches, blue waters and golden marshes of the Gulf Coast.
That’s a lot of propellers, anchors, tires, and feet for a fragile ecosystem to take, and a tough truth is emerging: In many places, the oil cleanup itself is causing environmental damage.
Part of that is inevitable – the oil has to get cleaned up somehow, and BP and the government will be subject to second-guessing no matter what.
“Absolutely nothing you do to respond to an oil spill is without impacts of its own,” said Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11, and oil began gushing into the Gulf, federal, state and BP officials say they have been guided in their response by picking the less damaging cleanup method.
Still, environmentalists and veterans of other spills say the torrent of untested cleanup methods rushed into practice by panicked officials and unqualified experts is wreaking havoc and, at least in spots, may be unnecessary.
“The more you disperse (with chemicals), the more you bring in these big machines, the more you bring in inexperienced people and the more sand berms you build, the less chance you have of letting Mother Nature and skimmers and booms do the job,” said Mike Brewer of Buras, La., who ran an oil spill response company and is working on the BP cleanup.
For starters, the EPA allowed BP PLC to spray a chemical dispersant, a product called Corexit, to break up oil right as it came out of BP’s broken well nearly a mile below the surface. The idea is to save shorelines from being clobbered with vast waves of crude.
In practice, the use of dispersants that had never been tested that far beneath the surface has made the oil much more difficult to track than it would have been in a single, massive slick. And environmentalists and marine biologists still aren’t convinced the chemicals are safe for sea life.
The EPA halted underwater spraying while it tested samples collected by BP, then allowed it to resume once the results came back to the agency’s satisfaction. Further tests are ongoing, and crews quit spraying dispersant once the well was contained this week, Jackson said.
“Basically, we conducted uncontrolled experiments in the open ocean – that does not seem like a good idea to me,” said John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
Jackson said there was little evidence that the chemical dispersants had caused damage and called their effects “relatively mild.”
Eager to be seen as taking charge, Gov. Bobby Jindal began building a series of untested sand islands and other barriers along the Louisiana coast, making construction of these berms a personal crusade. In theory, sand berms and jetties will stop the oil from entering sensitive estuaries.
But berms and jetties interrupt shrimp and fish migrations as well as tidal flows; the work can even undermine what little is left of Louisiana’s gooey and sediment-layered shoreline.
“None of the coastal scientists have signed onto this thing,” said Leonard Bahr, a former adviser to both Republican and Democratic governors in Louisiana on coastal restoration issues.
Fishermen and locals, however, almost unanimously agree with Jindal’s unorthodox barrier plans.
“We know these (berms) stop the oil. It worked on Fourchon Beach,” said Windell Curole, a levee manager in south Lafourche Parish, an area long struggling with erosion. “The people that are pushing for these things are more invested in it than the scientists.”
In a move that put its compensation costs toward curtailing the spill’s environmental effects, BP hired truckloads of inexperienced oil spill responders – shrimpers, unemployed workers, college students, and migrant workers. The manpower is essential, but their footprint can be huge, especially if they’re not used to watching their step.
“It was like the Wild West there for a while, and it still is to some degree,” said Drew Wheelan, a wildlife biologist with the American Bird Association Inc., a conservation group.
Wheelan said cleanup crews trampled on numerous nesting bird colonies, including at least one batch of least tern eggs he saw. Wilson’s plovers and endangered black skimmers on Louisiana’s Grand Isle and East Grand Terre islands were threatened by intensive beach cleanups.
“The whole entire area in the past two weeks has been completely crisscrossed by tire tracks. The entire cleanup there has been entirely sickening,” Wheelan said recently of East Grand Terre. “There are tire tracks from the low tide line all the way up into the dune vegetation. Not an inch of that frontal beach has been spared from traffic.”
Out on the Gulf, BP brought in a super-sized skimmer from Taiwan – the “A Whale” – capable of sucking up 20 million gallons of water a day, aiming to corral huge quantities of oiled water at once. Like some of the other methods, it had never been tested and scientists worried that it could cause serious damage.
“It will suck in a lot of biology,” said James Cowan, a Louisiana State University fisheries scientist.
Coast Guard officials questioned its effectiveness, noting that it would be better for attacking a single huge slick than for the countless smaller pools that the dispersant helped create. Authorities announced last week that the massive ship was dropping out of the spill operation.
Forrest Travirca has seen the cleanup’s side effects up close as a land manager for the Wisner estate, a public land trust that includes Fourchon Beach and a large marsh area that has seen some of the heaviest oil so far.
On an airboat cruise through marsh, signs of the messy cleanup jumped out. Reddish-brown and sticky tar coated the blades of marsh grass behind a beach lined with sand baskets brought in by Army dump trucks. Absorbent boom lay washed up against shorelines. Crews had staked down shade tents every few hundred yards.
Almost as soon as he stepped onto the sand, Travirca saw something he didn’t like: Two ATV tracks meandering carefree across the sands. Someone with the cleanup had strayed from designated traffic corridors.
“This really upsets me,” Travirca said, standing over the fresh set of tracks. “They’re not supposed to be driving back here. They’ve got to drive along the front of the beach. Birds nest back here.”
He walked a few paces away and pointed out another set of ATV tracks he discovered a few days before. “This track here was inches from a tern nest with eggs.”
At least now, more than three months after the spill, the cleanup is becoming more organized.
In the beginning, he said, the beach “looked like the autobahn.”