Oil still oozing along coastline amid dying marsh grasses


The state’s struggle to deal with the remains of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill can be seen in miniature in a broken stand of roseau cane in Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area, Wildlife & Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said Tuesday morning.

When Barham scooped up a handful of earth, what oozed from between his fingers was a mixture of soil and oil.

“They made an attempt to try and clip some of this grass and make it grow, but it looks nothing like it did a year ago,” Barham said of the cane stand along the pass.

“It was a thick, luscious, green, tropical marsh, and now you see a very weathered, stressed, unhealthy marsh situation,” he said. “It won’t be long before a lot of this is in water.”

Indeed, wildlife agents hammered poles of plastic pipe along the water’s edge in the days after the spill, and since then, the shoreline has retreated several yards.

The ooze of oil came from beneath the ground. There, it mixed with the roots of the cane stalks that had sprung to life after an original die-back and are now turning brown again.

Barham and Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves were leading a tour of reporters and photographers to several oiled spots on the state’s southernmost coastline to reinforce their argument that BP and its cleanup contractors should not abandon their efforts to find – and remove – oil from the coast.

The 115,000-acre Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area was the first such area established by the state, nearly 100 years ago. It stretches east from Southwest Pass, the main shipping channel of the Mississippi River, to a part of the Gulf of Mexico north of Breton Sound.

It was among the first sections of coastline affected after oil began spewing from BP’s Macondo well, and has been one of the most difficult locations to clean.

The oil Barham was dipping into had washed several dozen yards into these wetlands on high tides, or possibly on surge created by a tropical storm just offshore last year. Tidal forces attempting to pull oil and water back out of the area were stymied by the slightest of natural ridge features, causing the oil to pool and sink into the soft root system.

Cleanup contractors paid by BP removed oil from the surface, but determined that no further cleaning would be successful in this secluded patch, Barham said.

“No further cleanup necessary,” he snorted as the oily soil dripped from his fingers. “You can smell that smell. There’s a surge of odor that comes out of this marsh.”

Barham said the state has unsuccessfully urged BP to allow Louisiana State University scientists to grow oil-eating microbes that could be injected into the oiled wetland to speed its cleanup, now that BP had determined that traditional cleanup methods will no longer be successful.

“If you’re ever going to have a place, it looks like this is certainly the place to do some things like that,” he said. “In this terribly oiled area that still has residual oil that’s down just as far as you can pry.”

His comments were interrupted by staccato booms from air cannons positioned at several locations within the tall grasses.

The noise of the cannons, combined with the swish and flash of metallic strips flapping from poles above the cane, are designed to keep birds from settling into the oily area.

“This is the very terminal end of the Mississippi Flyway,” said Todd Baker, biology program manager for Wildlife & Fisheries. “You get a wide variety of birds, waterfowl, neotropical migrants, raptors, all of them. When they come through, this is the first piece of land they see. When they leave, this is the last place they rest up before they jump across the Gulf of Mexico.

“The hazing cannons are not foolproof,” Baker said, as a Louisiana red-winged blackbird chirped from atop a cane stalk a few yards away.

About 15 miles away as the birds fly – or 30 by boat – Graves used a shovel and his hands to dig about a foot beneath the surface of a spit of sandy beach at the end of South Pass, turning over black-stained sand that smelled like diesel.

In the background, earth-moving equipment stood at the ready to churn the stained soil to the surface so the oil could weather and, hopefully, disappear.

A hundred yards away, outside a line of protective boom, dozens of laughing gulls and least terns perched on another non-oiled part of the spit.

Again, air cannons sporting poles with metallic streamers were strategically positioned throughout the oiled section of the beach, with the booms and flapping aimed at keeping birds away from the toxic contaminants.

Today, Graves, Barham and other members of the coastal authority will tour Bay Jimmy, in northernmost Barataria Bay, before holding a noon news conference with Gov. Bobby Jindal on Grand Isle to commemorate the Deepwater Horizon anniversary.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at mschleifstein@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3327.

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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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