Why the oil spill is even worse than it looks

SPECIAL REPORT: “We are about to die down here”

Gerald Herbert/AP/ Win McNamee/Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES

Louisiana boasts a healthy hawk population. The birds hang on air currents everywhere, scoping out rodents or roadkill, taking in views we can only imagine. What their understanding of the oil spill from above might amount to, it’s hard to say. Maybe a hawk thinks Earth is bleeding.

But for those of us living in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico coast, the shape the BP oil disaster takes is one that looks horrifically like a torturously slow-moving hurricane, one that will put all others before it to shame. From a centre plume of crude come bands after bands of destruction. Only the outer bands have arrived on shore so far, a mere hint of the storm’s eye.

On a recent mission to discover first-hand what true havoc is unfolding, we drive from New Orleans down to the southernmost point in Louisiana, a tiny fishing community called Venice. Surrounded by water, Venice is where the Mississippi River finally flows into the Gulf, not in what one might expect, a giant deluge of water, but rather in a series of complicated mazes that only the locals know how to navigate.

Unexpectedly, to navigate the current politics of this place is just as confusing, even a little frightening. A military presence lurks, as does the sensation of a police state. Still, a general disorganization permeates the air, and shuttles for workers who appear to do nothing but arrive and depart fill the dusty shell and dirt roads. Louisiana state cruisers perch at many corners of town, and when we stop to ask the mostly beefy officers sitting bored in their vehicles where we might find the BP Media Center, or any facility for media orientation, they just shrug and send us on our way.

A couple of hours and numerous laps through town later, we come across a nondescript tan building with a large parking lot nearby and a number of security guards sweating and lounging under canopies. None of them seem to know anything about BP beyond it being responsible for this latest nightmare as well as their temp jobs. Finally a Coast Guard petty officer approaches and immediately takes control. He promises that if we show up at an ungodly early hour the next day, he’ll arrange to take us out on a boat ride to some of the affected areas.

Leaving New Orleans before seven the following morning, we pass swampland and refineries, drive on roads always wet for no other reason than the fact that they actually sit lower than the surrounding wetlands.

Of course, marshes and swampland comprise much of lower Louisiana. Roads, towns, and sometimes entire cities are built from what Mark Twain aptly described as “made ground” here. Maybe it’s not the wisest place to settle. Maybe it’s not meant to finally endure. One might argue that it’s the very nature of coasts to erode, change, and take new shapes every millennia or so.

Others, though, would argue that humans can and should settle where they sense they belong. Home for millions is California’s west coast, earthquake central. The residents know what they’re in for. Vancouver Island is due for a tsunami. There’s the New Orleans parallel example of the Netherlands, a below-sea-level region corralled by levees.

And Tornado Alley in the American Midwest loses residents every summer to twisters. If people want to live in a wetland and net shrimp, harvest oysters, and watch the airboats cut paths through the grassy waterways, who’s to say they shouldn’t be allowed to do so?

Admittedly there are always at least two sides to any controversial issue, environmental, economic, or otherwise, but for those of us here in Louisiana, the BP disaster hasn’t divided us into the two most obvious camps: us vs. them.

Because, of course, some of us are some of them. Some of us work for BP. Some of us need the local oil industry to survive, to feed our families and to put clothes on our backs. Others of us need the second (or third) degree of separation to contribute to our livelihoods: waiters serve up oysters on the half shell in New Orleans’ fine dining restaurants to patrons spawned directly from the oil industry who ultimately pay our rents.

Still others shrimp for a living, or we captain recreational fishing boats and take out loads of visitors to catch Gulf redfish and speckled trout and flounder. We own mom-and-pop seafood shacks and rental units on Grand Isle, waiting for tourists. We bartend and gas cars and sell groceries. And we volunteer for the Coast Guard.

That next morning, our guide for the day, Chief Petty Officer Lonnie Evans, a reservist of the U.S. Coast Guard and marine science technician who’s one of the first to be flown into Venice, begins to shed light on how intricately aligned and divided the local community is.

To his credit, Evans is helping to maintain his small quadrant of coast incredibly well. He placates and attempts to reassure, saying, “We’re doing everything we can to prevent impacts from the oil in this area. This environment down here, the wildlife in the marshes and in the Gulf of Mexico, they’re very resilient. They deal with influxes of salt water and fresh water based on drought periods or floods, they deal with hurricanes, seasonal changes, not to mention the natural predators that are in the area, and we’re hoping they spring back after the spill.”

In Evans’s section of the Gulf Coast, it would seem that the gushing oil has been managed well and that the regional flora and fauna will take the presence of slick crude and its globular brother in stride. His extreme optimism is almost contagious, and until we meet others with a different story, he nearly succeeds in instilling a controlled and manageable view of the coast.

But one needs only to visit the International Bird Rescue Research Center and functioning shelter in Buras to know that Evans’s take on the erupting volcano of oil affects far more of the natural world, with far more dire consequences. On Wednesday, June 9, the IBRRC shelter allows a conglomeration of international journalists and photographers into the hub of its rescue operations. The sun has daggers, and the centre kindly offers water to the hordes. The captured, oil-soaked birds don’t live air-conditioned lives; in turn the facility is cooled only by fans.

We’re informed by Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the IBRRC, that the shelter’s pelican numbers have grown exponentially in the last week.

Pelicans feed solely on fish, and the buildings containing the rescue efforts reek of fishy offal. The crated birds, both oiled and newly cleaned, object with grunts closer to moose than to what one might expect from birds, their cries guttural and low-registered. It’s the chorus effect that proves so haunting. As of June 9, the centre has already treated 415 birds, the majority of which arrived in the previous five days. For all intents and purposes, the number reflects only the tip of an iceberg.

The pelicans, brown and white, covered in oil, are each held down by three volunteer workers in metal buckets and scrubbed with dish soap. It is a searing sight, one not easily forgotten, miserably sad and heart-wrenching, and in the din of bird noise and camera clicks, it’s impossible to believe the worst has passed. A wave of death for Gulf birds and fish builds in certainty and impact.

In the meantime, the IBRRC, a non-government agency, depends on its corps of volunteers to clean the birds and, under media pressure, among other factors, set the scrubbed specimens free within a week. If some measure of the oil spume has been contained by BP’s temporary cap, the pressure placed upon environmental and emergency agencies has only gained in magnitude. In the Buras facility, words like “giant scope” and “catastrophe” fill the fetid, hot air like so much fishy stink. We are delivered the classic hospital emergency ward analogy when we ask how the workers deal with the sights, the sounds, the wounded and dying: “If you cry every time somebody or something comes in injured, you have no place being here. Save the ones you can. Move on.”

No doubt BP would like to move on. Its evasive tactics and constantly adjusted numbers would indicate it would willingly, happily, deceive the public for weeks, months, or even years. What can no longer be denied, however, is that since the April 20 explosion, the well has vomited tens of millions of gallons of oil into the blue-green waters of the Gulf. We can all see it.

At the time of writing, the oil that has risen to the water’s surface covers over 6,400 square kilometres of water. Square kilometres. To look at it another way, a noxious, murderous mass bigger than all of Prince Edward Island floats in the Gulf.

Few man-made entities can be seen from space without magnification. The Great Wall of China is a notable exception. Now, too, we can include BP’s oil disaster. It is viewable, easily, from space. Its mass has grown to such proportions that satellites pick up its floating presence inside the ovoid parameters of the Gulf of Mexico as easily as, oh, the land mass of the state of Delaware were it to be relocated to the subtropical climate.

Canadian families, snowbirds, and young people on March break have long packed up and headed south to the beautiful white sands of Alabama and Florida. Coastal Mississippi towns fill their casinos with tourists, and Louisiana’s fishing waters abound with visiting sports enthusiasts. Here’s hoping everyone’s gotten their fill before this summer. While the casinos might not close, it’s a certainty that the beaches and fishing waters will. They’re already slamming shut with the repetitive clank of a row of bank vaults. A Sunday lounge on the Orange Beach, Ala., waterfront turns into a mass evacuation; the utterly pristine shores are now desecrated by giant oil globs and dark swaths of greasy crude. Pensacola Beach seems to be the oil’s next target. Those of us living in Louisiana watch with horror as the black bands of the man-made hurricane destroy not only our home but our neighbours’ as well.

On Thursday, June 10, cleanup crews work near the mouth of the Mississippi River in both the South and Pasalutra/North Passes. They clean in marshland reeds behind a row of booms that hasn’t succeeded in keeping the oil at bay, and on a large strip of blackened sandbar. The fact that the marshland’s Roseau cane serves as a nursery to uncountable aquatic species isn’t lost on anyone here. No bugs buzz in the blackened stalks. No birds perch among them.

More interesting than the strangely random and incredibly plodding feel of the workers’ efforts, however, is the difficulty in finding many of them. Whether our guide, Chief Petty Officer Evans, wants us to only see a small example of the oil making landfall, or that so few restoration efforts have yet to begin in the area, remains unknown. Possibly he hopes only to spare our feelings. Whatever the reason, none of the scenarios seem positive: the true cleanup is horrendous and shouldn’t be seen in its massive size lest the viewer become overwhelmed; or the workers are so ineffective as to render their efforts senseless or even useless; or maybe there just aren’t enough workers to go around; or BP isn’t paying enough to cover all the boom breaches or to actually place booms in the first place; or the oil is still, hauntingly, making its slow way to shore.

No matter what the reason for the smattering of cleanup crews, the workers themselves are being held to strictly enforced rules: 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off. The Louisiana heat slices through even the most hardy of locals, and as they sweat and sweat in their gear, the oil seeps and seeps into the sand and fingers its way deeper into the grasses.
Sadly, not all of the damage reports come from the shoreline. Recent news of deep plumes of crude below the surface has infiltrated the media and Internet.

Dr. Joe MacInnis, a Canadian physician-scientist, author, and famous deep-sea explorer who, along with his friend, the director James Cameron, has led numerous Titanic expeditions among many other accomplishments, writes of the oil plumes’ damage in his harangue “Oil Kill.” “The cell-swarm of killing continues . . . to the phytoplankton—the lungs of the planet,” he writes. “Trillions upon trillions upon trillions of dead diatoms and dinoflagellates rain down through the filthy procession of upward moving oil. In deep water they merge with uncounted corpses of copepods and in deeper water still, the lifeless remnants of big fish, small fish, turtles and invertebrates. The deluge of mega-death continues until the remains come to rest on the gaunt floor of the Gulf.”

Of course, a human way of life clings to this intricate ecosystem, one that’s been so momentously thrown off its course, too. The Louisiana shrimpers and fishermen, along with those who tend the oyster beds, supply 30 per cent of all the nation’s seafood. Talking with Venice fishermen, this much is obvious: the Louisiana seafood industry stands to take a hit from which it will never recover.

The political pundit James Carville is fuming. “We’re about to die down here!” he recently raged on a national morning show. In his hometown New Orleans paper, he explains further: “And then BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster hits us with the deadliest combination imaginable of corporate greed and governmental malfeasance. We’ve been lied to by BP at every turn, from oil flow estimates to the existence of plumes to health effects . . . Add that to the fact that we have not seen a single penny of royalties for oil produced more than six miles off our coast. We assume all of the risk, produce seafood and oil and gas, with none of the reward.” Strong words indeed from the man who’s touted as the maestro who won Bill Clinton the White House.

“It’s about done with now,” shrimp boat captain Dewayne Baham says. “The oil’s moved in. It’s about shut everything we got down.”

He continues with a shake of his head as he discusses BP’s inability to contain the oil. “If they don’t stop it from coming out, man, we’re in for it. It’s gonna be 10 years before we can catch any shrimp anymore.”

When asked what will happen if such a situation occurs, how Dewayne will feel, how he’ll feed his family and make a living, he says, “I don’t know. How’s a doctor going to feel if he gets told he can’t be a doctor anymore? You got to leave your house, your whole place where you grew up. At 46 years old [after 30 years of shrimping], where am I going to go to start at? I’d start at the bottom making chump change.” Dewayne, clearly, is far less optimistic than the Coast Guard.

Dewayne’s not the only man aboard his boat who’s upset. But deckhand Myron Smith isn’t just upset. He’s apoplectic with anger, with BP’s ineptitude, with frustration at The Man and the entities he can’t see or touch or argue it out with. “Shoot the f–kin’ Queen,” he says, apparently referencing the homeland of British Petroleum. “Hang the CEO of BP!” Myron spits. “And leave his corpse hangin’ there. Vultures need to eat, too.” He goes quiet for a moment, still full of rage. “I don’t have nothing good to say. And I need to keep my job.” For what little time he might have left at that job, it seems fair to say.

After listening to Myron Smith, though, the dividing line suddenly begins to delineate itself with more clarity, notwithstanding Mr. Smith’s clear affection for the Queen and her United Kingdom. This disaster doesn’t ultimately come down to warring parties necessarily, to foreigners vs. locals or interlopers vs. the home turf. It’s an us vs. them of a different kind, the result of which will reverberate for decades.

Both the natural world and the people who depend upon it for their livelihood—the humans who have long traditionally harvested what the natural world offers up to feed the rest of us—are the ones who stand to lose it all. Those of us who like to sun near the surf will find other beaches. And the oil executives will find new ways to take from Earth whatever they want.

But now, what’s done to the natural world by the BP oil debacle is already done. We can’t stuff Pandora back into her box. The aquatic breeding grounds of so many fish and mammals, alongside the bivalve oyster beds, have died or are, right this moment, being choked to death. Birds continue to seek out what prove to be their last meals by diving for fish swimming beneath floating crude. Shrimpers who’ve not made a profit since Katrina have begun dry-docking their boats and putting them up for sale; their source of livelihood has been polluted into near oblivion.

Some believe the measure of any culture’s humanity can be gained by observing how it treats its elderly. Others would argue that taking a culture’s temperature is most accurate by looking at how we treat our prisoners of war. Not just those of us living in Louisiana but in all the world should redirect our communal gaze this year. We must measure the success or failure of our utter worth by how we treat our natural environment. How much, exactly, can we inflict upon Earth before it decides to quit? Not tomorrow or next year or a decade from now, but today, this very day, is the right time to reassess our dependence on oil. Our economic dependence alone tolls a warning bell for all who can hear it.

It might be so much anthropomorphism to believe the hawk flying its slow circles in the southern Louisiana sky thinks Earth is bleeding. Hawks likely don’t think metaphorically. But one thing’s certain: the hawk knows that what it sees isn’t right. The shape of the thing, the dark mass in the waters, isn’t right.

June introduces the literal hurricane season. It barrels in on us now. Predicted by experts to be worse in scale and number of storms than the last few years, these coming months on the horizon feel to Gulf Coast residents like guns loaded with armour-piercing bullets. The man-made BP oil fiasco, in the vortex of a furious natural phenomenon, threatens to morph into a cataclysmic disaster beyond all reckoning. Humans need to fix this. We have to fix it now.

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