Tar balls reach Lake Pontchartrain


Showing just how unpredictable and all-consuming the massive Gulf oil spill can be, tar balls and small sheens of oil have entered Lake Pontchartrain and are hitting Texas shores for the first time.John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s coastal stainability program, spotted the first tar balls in the Rigolets Pass on Sunday. By Monday, the blobs of oil had washed ashore as far west as Treasure Isle in Slidell.
Cleanup crews used nets to scoop up the tar balls throughout the day, collecting more than 1,000 pounds of oil and waste. BP also deployed 19 manual skimming vessels and four decontamination vessels to the area, and placed 600-feet of hard and soft boom at a choke point in the Rigolets to prevent more oil from entering the lake. Cleanup efforts are expected to resume today.

Lopez said oil made its way into the lake because of winds from the far edges of Hurricane Alex last week as well as sustained east and southeast winds during the weekend. The winds from Alex pushed a large amount of oil into the Mississippi Sound for the first time, and the east winds during the past few days pushed oil into Lake Borgne, the Rigolets and eventually the eastern stretches of Lake Pontchartrain.

Wind patterns ultimately will decide the trajectory of oil, but Lopez said the general pattern of circulation in Lake Pontchartrain is counterclockwise, meaning if more oil came in the lake, it generally would travel along the north shore and then possibly loop back around to the south.

Although he expects the impacts from oil in the lake to be “pretty modest,” Lopez acknowledged that there is a symbolism for the New Orleans area now that oil has reached the lake.

“It’s kind of like it’s coming to home now.”

Citing the new reports of oil, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Monday issued precautionary fishing closures in parts of Lake Pontchartrain and in Lake Borgne, Lake St. Catherine, the passes and surrounding areas. The state’s Department of Health and Hospitals also closed all oyster harvesting areas east of the Mississippi River, which includes Lake Borgne.

So far, the oil that has entered the Rigolets and the lake has been in small amounts and has been weathered greatly after traveling a long distance from the well site. The geography of eastern Lake Pontchartrain also has played a role in keeping most of the oil out, with narrow passes such as the Rigolets preventing a full flow from Lake Borgne and Mississippi Sound.

“It has a fairly tortuous route to get to the lake, and that’s why we’re at day 70-something of the spill, and we’re just seeing the oil reach Lake Pontchartrain,” Lopez said. “This oil we’re seeing probably headed east toward Alabama and Florida before it came this way. It’s traveled probably at least 100-200 miles, depending on how far east it went.”

Washing up in Texas

Also on Monday, The Associated Press reported that Texas crews were removing tar balls from the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island.

The Texas landfall and the encroachment into Lake Pontchartrain weren’t unexpected, but they were staggering nonetheless, as the previously spared gateways to the highly populated areas saw the first physical evidence that they would not be immune.

A lot of the spill’s drastic movement during the weekend was caused by the peripheral effects of Alex, which also stymied BP’s cleanup and containment efforts temporarily. Cleanup was suspended for three days, BP said.

The company has reported spending more than $3.1 billion on the whole spill response so far, even as it pushed for its ownership partners in the blown-out well to pick up a share of the bill. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., another big Gulf of Mexico oil producer, paid for 25 percent of the Macondo oil field lease, while Japan’s Mitsui had a 10 percent stake.

But Anadarko has insisted for weeks that it played no role in the drilling operations and wouldn’t be responsible for BP’s “reckless decisions and actions” in handling the well that blew out of control April 20, killing 11 rig workers and setting in motion a series of events that have damaged the Gulf.

Analyzing payout to victims
BP’s payments to spill victims — those injured physically or economically by the oil — have not kept pace with what it has spent on containment, according to newly released data. The British oil giant agreed recently to release spreadsheets detailing its claims process and payments, which total about $147 million for more than 47,000 claims across the entire Gulf Coast — or about 5 percent of what BP has spent overall.

BP says it’s averaging five days to pay a claim, but about half of the 95,000 claims filed haven’t been paid yet.

Louisiana residents and businesses have received about $75 million for their claims, more than half of all payouts for economic losses and personal injury to date.

Louisiana victims have received three times as many payments and triple the money of what has been paid to Florida residents and companies, even though nearly the same number of claims have been filed from the two states and the average payment in each state has been practically identical.

The information was posted on the BP website at about the same time that the state of Louisiana, using a third-party claims administrator to analyze the numbers, questioned the speed of payments, the staffing of BP’s claims operation and large daily fluctuations in payouts.

An analysis of the first public claims data corroborated complaints by Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Kristy Nichols, Louisiana’s top official for tracking BP claims, who said payments slowed at the end of June as an independent claims process under presidential appointee Ken Feinberg was being set up.

But it also showed that payments increased and sped up in the first few days of July. BP paid more than 1,400 claims each of the first two days of the month after payouts dipped below 500 a day in the middle of last week.

About 40 percent of the payments to Louisiana residents and companies have been focused on the three parishes closest to the spill site: Terrebonne, Jefferson and Plaquemines. Each parish’s victims have collected about $13 million so far. But the county or parish receiving the most money to date is actually Mobile County in Alabama, where claimants have collected $15.9 million.

Waves disrupt large skimmer

BP said Monday that despite the effects of Hurricane Alex, it kept collecting its usual daily intake of about 25,000 barrels of oil to two containment ships. The storm did delay a third vessel that was supposed to install a floating riser tube last week in an effort to double the daily collection rate. The new system, which is designed to disconnect and reconnect quickly in case a big storm threatens, is now expected to be in place later this week, BP said.

A new addition to the cleanup effort, the massive Taiwanese tanker called “A Whale,” remained in its 25-square-mile testing area near the spill site but also was extremely limited by the choppy seas.

Bob Grantham, a spokesman for TMT Shipping Offshore, which owns the A Whale, said Monday that two days of testing of the vessel’s ability to swallow huge amounts of oily water were “inconclusive in light of the rough sea state we are encountering.”

It is supposed to be the world’s largest oil skimmer capable of collecting 500,000 barrels of oily water in one day, but the new process needs to be tweaked to address specific conditions in the Gulf after successful tests using fire foam off the coast of Portugal.

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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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