More BP fallout: Will the baby birds ever come back to Cat Island?


There was a story a couple of weeks agoabout the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill that got a fair amount of attention, including on this blog. A researcher had discovered that the oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon blowup had sped up the already ongoing erosion of critical wetlands in the Bayou State:

The 2010 BP oil spill accelerated the loss of Louisiana’s delicate marshlands, which were already rapidly disappearing before the largest oil spill in U.S. history, a new study reports.

As the oil washed into the marshlands, it coated and smothered thick grasses at their edge. When the grass died, deep roots that held the soil together also died, leaving the shore banks of the marshlands to crumble, said Brian Silliman, the University of Florida researcher who led the new study.

Silliman found that the oiled marshes of Louisiana had receded at a rate of about 10 feet a year — or double the normal (and already disturbing) rate of erosion of key wetlands in my home state. That’s an alarming statistic — but it’s still just a statistic. Sometimes to really understand the impact that Deepwater Horizon had on the bayou, you need to go out and see for yourself. Today, I read a short but outstanding piece in the Atlantic about a place called Cat Island, a barrier island in Plaquemines Parrish, where the marshes clearly have not recovered. The piece is heartbreaking — here’s an excerpt:

Cat Island’s mangrove forests used to be impenetrably dense. You can walk through them with little effort now. Most of the island is underwater. Tree roots used to prevent waves from sweeping away the sand that holds the sediment in place, but with the death of many trees and marsh grasses, there’s little habitat left for the nesting birds.

According to P.J. Hahn, coastal zone manager for Plaquemines Parish, Cat Island is disappearing like sugar in coffee. The island rookery serves as a nesting ground to seagulls, spoonbills, and egrets, but it is primarily populated by brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. The bird was only recently taken off the endangered species list; now, tragically, its numbers will again dwindle. Hahn estimates that the island has shrunk from four acres to one since the 2010 oil spill.

A plan to restore the island is afoot, and that’s good. But for some little creatures, restoration is clearly way too late:

I joined Hahn as he took a geologist and a Manchac Consulting Group team out to survey the area before implementing their plans in September. After tropical storm Debbie blew over, Hahn found only one baby pelican on Cat Island East. The high waters had destroyed many of the nests, killing most of the newly hatched baby birds I had photographed the week before. If a hurricane hits the area this season, it is possible there will be nothing left to protect by the time the barrier is scheduled to be built.

Stories like this one burn me up. The tragedy is that the world has finally woken up to the risks and past abuses of some of BP’s more reckless drilling practices. For example, it was reported today that BP is abandoning an incredibly short-sighted plan for deep, deepwater drilling in the Arctic waters off Alaska— because the new safety regulations in place after Deepwater Horizon would have made the project prohibitively expensive. That’s good news, and it’s also good news that the federal government is imposing an additional $13 million fine against the Big Oil giant for its role in the 2005 Texas City oil refinery blast that killed some 15 workers there.

But the fines and penalties and new rules won’t bring those 15 workers back. And they won’t bring back the baby birds of Cat Island — not all of them. That’s not just a violation of the law. It’s a crime against nature.

To read about the hastened erosion of wetlands in Louisiana, go to:

Check out the Atlantic’s “The long shadow of the BP spill keeps killing baby birds”:

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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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