Seeping oil threatens marshes’ intricate ecosystem


At least a dozen tiny crabs scurried along the sandy bottom of Jackson Marsh here, just inches beneath a streak of oily sheen racing back into a crude-soaked Gulf with the tide.

It’s a scene that angered Mayor Tommy Longo, who witnessed devastation of a different kind when Hurricane Katrina leveled his city five years ago.

“It was like a kick in the gut, after all that we’ve been through,” he said about seeing the brown goo stuck on the fragile needle rush in the marsh earlier this month.

The marshes on the Gulf Coast serve as nurseries for shrimp, crabs and other sea life, a nesting ground for pelicans and other birds and a much-needed buffer against hurricanes.

The millions of gallons of oil spilled already threaten to kill the intricate ecosystem. Without the marsh, smaller fish won’t be able to hide from predators. Shrimp won’t breed and birds won’t nest. The grasses won’t be there to block the tidal surges.

Longo had watched the creeping crude melt into the marshes of Louisiana, but trusted Coast Guard and BP officials who said Gulf Coast wetlands would be aggressively defended.

The people on the ground, those with sticky crude on their fingers and caked to their boots, knew what would work, but their suggestions were ignored, he said.

Silt fencing went up after the oil made its way into the pristine wetlands through one of the county’s many outfalls. Now the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has taken a wait-and-see approach while Mother Nature handles the invasion.

“It is important to remember that even though this spill is not a natural event, oil is a natural part of the ecosystem, especially in the Gulf, and there are bacteria that have evolved to break down petroleum hydrocarbons,” MDEQ spokesman Robbie Wilbur said. “So if we can limit the penetration of oil into these areas, Mother Nature will help us clean it up.”

Only 9.8 miles of marshes in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle have been hit by oil that started spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well in late April.

Louisiana hasn’t been as lucky.

“We use them as a benchmark for what we didn’t want to have happen,” Longo said. “We didn’t want the same thing to happen to us.”

David Carmardelle is the mayor of Grand Isle, La., which used to be a summer hot spot for tourists. It sits halfway between New Orleans and BP’s leaking well. His island is seven miles long and “dead in the water,” he said.

Carmardelle helplessly watched the oil first hit his southern shoreline beaches, then stretch around the island to invade the northern marshes.

“It’s pretty sickening to watch it come over. When I saw that marsh being damaged, it brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “It’s a silent monster.”

Lightweight booms along the shoreline only aggravated the problem.

Carmardelle said in Grand Isle, the protective booms became damaging debris in a stormy Gulf, crushing marsh vegetation as waves pushed the oily protection into the reeds, cane and cordgrass.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered 40 miles of sand berms to be built along the coast to protect 2,000 to 3,000 miles of tidal shoreline and to stop the soil from entering sensitive estuaries. Carmardelle wanted to block the oil at the passes with a rock wall and barges before it could enter the Caminada Bay, but his idea was shot down, he said.

Even with plans in place to prevent future contamination from the oil, some say the marshes in Louisiana are dying.

“You’ve got to pull into that marsh and see there is absolutely no life. Everything is dead,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told The Los Angeles Times.

The oil physically smothers the surface plants, then penetrates deeply into the marsh soil.

Plants may die, but the roots can still hold the soil together. If those are damaged, too, erosion occurs.

When the roots wash away, the marshes turn to open water, said Mark LaSalle, executive director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

Once a marsh is coated, officials have several options, he said. They can burn the plants, use low-pressure flushing, cut back vegetation or use biomedical remediation. He’s not a fan of any of those options because of the potential damage to the marsh through the application process.

Doing nothing could actually be the best solution.

“Any kind of physical action in marshes is ill advised,” he said.

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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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