A month after the Transocean / BP / Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, burns, and begins to perpetually leak oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I walk onto the beach at Grand Isle, unprepared for what I am about to witness.
In the first weeks of the disaster, I tracked the mass of oil on the internet. In the Gulf South, we’re quite proficient at tracking events along our coast. Tidal fluctuations and strong winds pushed the tragedy north and east, painting the wetlands of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and the Chandeleur Islands. As a native of lower Lafourche Parish, I couldn’t help but think, “At least the oil isn’t traveling west of the Mississippi River. At least the people of Jefferson, Lafourche, and Terrebone are safe.” Then on May 7th the winds changed, and my moment of optimistic naiveté returned to haunt me – oil moved west of the river and into the aforementioned parishes.
Approximate size and location of the oil slick on May 22nd, 2010. Image taken from NOLA.com. Slick sizes are based on flyover information and NOAA trajectories.
Today, the beaches of Grand Isle are officially closed to the public, but our team finds a way in. I am part of an impromptu oil sample gathering mission spearheaded by Andy Baker (Coastal Programs Assistant for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation). Joining us are Dean Wilson (very committed activist for Atchafalaya Basinkeeper) and Christopher Esposito (background in Coastal Oceanography and currently a Masters Student of Coastal Sciences at the University of New Orleans). I’m tagging along with these environmental experts to document the day’s work through photographs and GPS data.
With the oil coming ashore, Jefferson Parish sheriffs were trying to clear the beach. They were very nice to citizens while obviously increasingly desperate and forceful. On the right you see a Jefferson Parish deputy trying to explain the situation. They are obviously the foot soldiers on the ground representing the local interests. It was just hours after this that the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office began to commandeer BP’s idle boats.
Before we even reached the shore, we ran into Mrs. Louise Anne from Atlanta, GA (left) and Brenda Bertrand from Gonzales, LA (right). Both women, originally from Leeville, were in town for their 50th high school anniversary. Louise was very proud that all but six of her remaining Golden Meadow High School classmates were in attendance. She also noted, “We didn’t cancel because of the oil. In fact, we had a great time on the island!”.
I thought we would spend most of the day looking for tar balls, when in fact the beach was littered with them. It was almost impossible to walk on the shore without stepping on a tar ball. The misplaced oil droplets were abundant and varied greatly in consistency and size.
Andy reports, “Part of it was solid and part of it dripped onto his my hand. The oil is weathering, being changed by the sun and water and waves as it comes ashore from floating in the Gulf. There are a lot of light hydrocarbons that are evaporating in the heat. In some cases, the tar balls really look like mud or clay. Actually last month on Ship Island we saw beached balls that WERE actually clay. This is not clay. It’s somewhat mixed with sand and mixed with floating biological material, marsh and sticks and other things get mashed up in there. Some of them were like clay and some were less weathered.”
There are hundreds of oil rigs very close to the shore. At night, the horizon lights up like a city on the water. Any one of them could have an accident, but it’s much easier to contain in shallow water. The disaster is one hundred miles away from Grand Isle, but the extreme depth makes all the difference.
The most appropriate description I’ve heard for this kind of tar ball came from an NPR correspondent who referred to them as “melted caramels”. This is an appropriate comparison due to the color and texture.
Liquid oil – Generally the more liquid and less weathered the oil is, the more toxic it’s going to be and the more it will mix with sand and vegetation. This is an example of an emulsion – when two liquids are not chemically mixed but finely divided into droplets like mayonnaise.
In this photograph, you can see several layers of weathered crude, including a light sheen on the water.
Andy explains our presence to a Grand Isle policeman. Once he found out that we were interested in sampling the crude, the officer was very pleasant and allowed us to continue our observations.
Burned and light for a rock, but solid. The fires, or controlled burns, are changing the oil also. Andy Baker noted, “We found some of those styrofoam-like blocks that I’m sure were burned oil. The burning of the oil basically burns off the lighter hydrocarbons and leaves the asphaltenes, the heavier hydrocarbons, but they can only burn when they’re on the surface and concentrated enough.”
More tar balls further down the beach. Andy indicates that these photos, “show clumpy tar balls that are standing up, showing that they are solid and mixing with sand.” If you didn’t know better, you might think that the beach was littered with rocks.
These beach-goers came from New Iberia to rent a camp for the weekend. Bad timing. They didn’t seem to care that the beach was closed.
Dean Wilson, with the non-profit Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, met us just before noon. We convened at what is typically the Tarpon Rodeo Pavilion. Now, the pavilion acts as headquarters for BP, Jefferson Parish Deputies, EPA, national guard, and other government entities.
Earlier on the beach, we were given a hard time by Jefferson Parish deputies and Grand Isle police. We came to the conclusion that gaining access to sensitive areas of the island might come easier with credentials. Attempting to become bona fide on Grand Isle might be the most fascinating aspect of our trip. First we spoke to national guardsmen. They denied us entry to the pavilion and suggested that we check in at the community center, with BP representatives. We rolled the dice with the BP reps but were denied again and directed to find “the major” at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We found no major, but two gentlemen there informed us that their hands were tied. BP was calling the shots on Grand Isle. The Wildlife and Fisheries workers urged us to return to the Tarpon Rodeo Pavilion and request to speak to a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy. Two representatives from the Sheriff’s office came out to meet us. They seemed to sincerely want to help us, but in the end, “The system is not yet available for generating passes on site for scientific and media-related entities.” We were basically told, “Come back tomorrow”. Andy sums it up well, “Exploring the different agencies by trying to get permission to go on the beach was really the most interesting part of the whole day and the most illuminating part about what was really going on.”
Returning to the pavilion for another go at attaining credentials. The Jefferson Parish Emergency Management mobile command center is visible on the right side.
I was very surprised to find Grand Isle State Park open to the public. With that said, the beach was still off limits, leaving only the pier and observation tower fully accessible. On the steps to the observation tower we met AP photographer Patrick Semansky, out of New Orleans. Sadly, even this professional photographer was getting some of the same run-around that we were! On the pier we witnessed many pelicans and dolphins, both in great danger as the coastal waters turn red with crude.
We noticed these men earlier, wearing hardhats and life jackets. Now, off of work for the day, they were kicking back and enjoying the beautiful weather. Andy worried about their well-being, “I hope the guys doing cleanup are keeping notes about what they encounter everyday as they may need it in future lawsuits. I’m glad people are getting work, but you know these guys are being exposed to poisonous toxins with really minimal protection.”
After completely failing to obtain credentials we decide to hit the beach “guerilla style”. Upon returning to the same beach from the morning, Andy noted, “There was noticeably more oil in the afternoon. The oil at the wrack line was much more foamy and red”. The wrack line runs along the shore and is marked by debris that washes up from the gulf. In the afternoon, the beach was littered with even more tar balls, waves with a red hue crested and crashed ashore. Andy began taking samples of solid oil on the beach and floating red oil from the water.
After collecting samples from the beach, we started back for the car. When we crossed over the levee, a gentleman greeted us from his raised porch. Before long his wife appeared and they invited us up for a better view of the approaching red tide.
Marline and Tommy Chappell own and manage the Blue Dolphin Inn on Grand Isle. Like most residents and business owners on Grand Isle, their property was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just as they were completing repairs from that storm three years later, Hurricane Gustave came barreling through and erased most of their progress. Many people would call it quits right there, but the Chappell’s are tough as nails. Completing all the repairs themselves, they picked up the pieces one more time. The last rental unit was completed about a month ago, but the Chappells didn’t even have time to celebrate. Who wants to rent a room with a view of tar balls? In the last month, Marline says that she has cancelled at least one hundred reservations. At approximately $100 a night, that brings their losses to $10,000. Marlene said that this was supposed to be the season where everything would be fixed.
Before the Chappells called us up to their porch, they were using binoculars to view a very large patch of oil as it floated closer and closer to shore. They were wondering if this was the final blow to drive them and Grand Isle out of business, maybe even the whole coast. Somehow, they were still smiling.
Word had gotten around that a tanker truck was sucking up oil on the other side of the bridge, and this marked our last stop for the day. We pulled off the highway to see what was going on. Indeed there was a large tanker truck, marked “Liquid Vac”, taking in oil from the pass. Also, this was the only place on the whole island where we witnessed cleanup in progress. After a few photos and an attempt to take samples we were ushered to the national guardsmen across the street by the foreman. Andy was able to acquire a few samples from the other side of Highway 1.
“This is the only cleanup we saw all day, near the bridge on the west side of the island. This cut is the tidal pass. I got shut down from actually sampling on the job site. I could see some red oil between the containment boom and the absorbent boom. You can see in the picture of the plastic bag that it just coats everything, so even the stuff you use to clean it up has to be cleaned up. The tanker was sucking up oil and probably processing it and possibly refining it back down. Some will be hazardous toxic waste and some is going to be processed and turned back into industrial material” – from Andy Baker’s notes.
Andy acquires and bags his last sample of the day. In my final conversation with Andy he sums up our final stop, “We did actually get the last sample legitimately. The tanker guys sent us over to the other side of the road to the national guard, and they allowed us to simply grab a sample. The samples went to Pace Analytical in St. Rose, LA.”
This stop at the west end of the island was our last attempt at taking samples. We did try to reach Fourchon Beach, but we were turned around at the final bridge by a harbor policeman. In our last ditch effort to obtain credentials, we stopped in at the Port Commission office. A cop eating an early dinner with three inmates in orange jumpsuits pointed us up a flight of stairs. There, we got the same run-around as before.
On the drive back to New Orleans, Andy, Chris, and I talked about some of the options that officials were currently weighing, as the oil continues to spill into the gulf. The booms are not working, certainly not as a permanent solution. Every time I see a boom, it has oil on both sides. More drastic solutions to the problem are being looked at at right now such as: the creation of one solid barrier island wall and the stoppage of tidal inlets. Chris Esposito talks in depth about these methods in his notes:
First, some background. Offshore of the barrier islands, the sea floor takes on a characteristic steepness, or slope, which is mostly dictated by the prevailing wave climate and the type of available sediment. If the system undergoes some shock that changes the slope of the sea floor, but the wave climate and sediment remain constant, the sea floor will eventually return to its original slope.
One of the worst parts to the original plan was to dig a large trench offshore of the barrier islands and use the excavated material to build this berm. This trench would be the shock that I talked about above, and the result would be for the system to return to its equilibrium shape. Exactly how the island would return to its equilibrium shape is not something that I know how to predict accurately, but there’s a serious risk that the island would basically sink into the sea as the system borrowed sediments from uphill to fill in the trench. To the best of my knowledge, this trench is no longer a part of the plan.
Tidal Inlets. A second potentially risky plan would be to close large numbers of tidal inlets. The tide comes in because the water level in the gulf is higher than the water level behind the barrier islands. Closing the inlets doesn’t change that. It just maintains the difference in water level because the tide can’t come in. But the situation wouldn’t be stable any more, meaning that the high water would eventually, somehow, find a way to the low water. Would it break through the new barriers? Would it break through an existing island? Would it scour existing tidal channels deeper to accommodate the extra flow?? Nobody knows! But it’s a guarantee that the tide would come in somehow.
I should point out here that the reason that so many scientists are not behind this plan is at least in part because we have no idea what’s in it. There are some inlets that it would probably be completely harmless to fill in, such as cuts caused by recent hurricanes. But nobody seems to know whether the plan is to just fill in those cuts, or to fill cuts in on a wider scale.
My biggest worry about this plan is not that it will directly harm the barrier island system. I think that there are people out there in the various agencies (DWF, USGS, USACOE, etc.) making sure that “do no harm” is priority number one. I’ve heard that the trench idea, for example, was nixed by USGS pretty quickly. My biggest worry is that a poorly thought out plan like this will set back any real progress towards developing a barrier island management strategy by years. If we spend $250 million building some goofy pile of mud now, and it washes into the sea without offering a single bit of hurricane protection, and without helping the oil situation very much either, how are we supposed to convince anybody at any level of government that we can do this properly next time? I would think that this plan effectively kills a properly thought out barrier island management plan for at least a decade.
This oil spill could actually provide a great opportunity to develop a well thought out, properly funded plan for managing the barrier island system. Right now BP owes a great deal to coastal Louisiana. In addition to paying out fishermen for lost catch and compensating oystermen for spoiled beds, BP is going to be responsible for an enormous cleanup. It’s not that big of a stretch for Louisiana to decide that the money that BP would spend on a cleanup might be better-spent jump-starting a coastal management plan. If BP had already shelled out $250 million for a plan that didn’t work, it would be an awful lot harder to squeeze more money out of them for a workable plan.
After a day at Grand Isle, I am left with more questions than answers. Who is in charge of Grand Isle? Why hasn’t BP descended on the disaster with a blitzkrieg of environmental clean-up crews? What is the future of Grand Isle, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast? How do you measure a disaster of this proportion? How do you explain to your children and grandchildren why people don’t fish anymore? Can you replace a lost heritage? Hopefully, we’re on the cusp of a solution, yet I can’t help but feel that irrevocable damage has already been done.
Check out BP/Deepwater Horizon Disaster – Report From Plaquemines by Woodlief Thomas for an account of events in Plaquemines Parish just a day after our Grand Isle trip.