HOUMA — Oil cleanup efforts are wrapping up in Terrebonne, as crews begin the exhaustive process of checking and double-checking cleanup work. But in Lafourche, heavy work is under way as crews dig deep into the beach to unearth sunken oil.
Lafourche Parish spokesman Brennan Matherne said contracted cleanup crews are continuing to focus on Fourchon Beach, which was pummelled with heavy oil for months during the spill. Oil seeped beneath the surface of the sand, forming buried mats of oil.
That oil is constantly unearthed and washed onto the surface of the beach as tides come in and go out, leaving tar balls that can be picked up by workers patrolling the beach.
As bad as it is that oil keeps washing up, Matherne said, “it’s helping us to some degree.”
“It’s easier to see where the oil is and pick it up. There are layers of oil and sand covering the beach right now,” Matherne said. “There’s one area near Bayou Lafourche that’s been covered over with easily 3 feet of sand, so now they’re trying to dig it up.”
Workers have been using heavy equipment to dig beneath the surface of the sand to look for tar mats along the shore’s nine miles of beach. BP’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams, known as “SCAT” teams, inspect and catalogue the oil to determine how it should be cleaned up.
Workers still clean up the oil by hand, rather than using some of the sand-washing machines that have been employed on other beaches along the Gulf coast.
“There’s still a human element to it,” Matherne said. “They’re taking that delicate a touch with it.”
Matherne said there’s no sure timetable as to when the beach will be cleaned and opened to the public.
“We’d hate to put a time table on it,” Matherne said. “We’re thinking it will be done by the first quarter of next year.”
He said the parish hopes the cleanup will be finished by April, which will mark a year since oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster began spilling into the Gulf April 20.
In Terrebonne, Emergency Director Earl Eues said all liquid oil that could be cleaned up with absorbent pads without damaging marsh grass is gone. The beaches of Terrebonne’s Isles Dernieres barrier-island chain have seen some tar balls wash ashore, but have taken no major inundations of oil.
Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams have travelled to all marshes and sandy shores where oil was reported to recommend cleanup techniques, and crews have come in behind them to perform whatever duty was suggested, Eues said.
Sometimes, that means recommending a crew go into a marsh and wipe the oil off grasses. Or it means gently pressure washing marshes with a hose to flush oil out, so the oil can be collect with boom.
But other times, marsh grasses are so sensitive that attempting to clean them might do more harm than good, as workers, boats and equipment might weaken the already-stressed wetlands. That’s when scientists recommend an area of wetland be declared “NFT” by the cleanup teams — a term that designates “no further treatment” is needed to clean the wetland area this year.
That doesn’t mean oil won’t potentially be cleaned later. But crews will continue monitoring the marsh for now and let the oil degrade on its own.
Currently, contractors with BP are headed out to all of the sites where oil has been reported, and are double checking the work done by cleanup crews on shorelines and marshes.
“They’re going out and making sure the oil was cleaned up,” Eues said.
The parish has its own contracting agency, ES&H, a Houma-based environmental emergency response and consulting business, to spot-check areas that BP workers have already visited.
Eues said there will be a long-term process of monitoring oil-stricken areas in Terrebonne.
“BP has made a commitment,” he said. “They’re probably going to be monitoring for quite a few years.”