U.S. Coast Guard Dances Around the Question: Is It an Oil Slick or Not?


When is oil not oil? Apparently, when it’s only an “oily substance” in the eyes of the U.S. Coast Guard and others trying, once again, to downplay environmental damage in the Gulf.

The Wall Street Journal headlines the situation as “Oily Matter Washing Ashore in Louisiana,” and recounts an incident that went viral over the weekend as “[authorities] mobilized oil-spill-response equipment and the Coast Guard had hired a contractor to lay containment booms in hopes of stopping the substance from penetrating inland waters and ecologically sensitive shorelines. Photos taken by Jefferson Parish officials show globs of reddish matter coming ashore on Elmer’s Island, a state wildlife sanctuary, that looks very similar to what washed onto northern Gulf beaches during last summer’s oil spill.”

The WSJ and other national media outlets are finally starting to cover the disturbing situation, and the pro-business newspaper echoes some of our earlier reports that “…the substance has washed ashore on Grand Isle, Fourchon Beach and Elmer’s Island. A rainbow-sheen-like slick that is associated with oil spills has also been reported on the surface of Timbalier Bay, the Coast Guard said.”

This is actually one of two incidents that ignited the internet over the weekend, the other has been dismissed (at least by the Coast Guard, we’ll see how it actually plays out). The WSJ notes the second incident, reporting that “…in a separate investigation, the Coast Guard has determined that what was reported Saturday as potentially a miles-long oil slick is actually a plume of silt emanating from the Mississippi River.”

Once again, it’s hard not to be skeptical of the Coast Guard and other official sources, so we are awaiting independent confirmation of both potential slicks. But we should all be aware of the fact that the Coast Guard may use spill-related funding sources and oil-spill response tactics while stopping short of calling it an actual “oil spill.” It’s a matter of semantics, but it speaks volumes about regulatory attitude.

Here’s the WSJ report: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703858404576214652214217060.html

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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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