With the upcoming five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29), the Gulf Coast is bracing for another media onslaught.
Network anchors all have their tickets (each competing for turf with Anderson Cooper along New Orleans’s Riverwalk), CNN is broadcasting a two-part special (“New Orleans Rising”) and next Monday/Tuesday HBO will air Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary, “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
As if the place hadn’t gotten enough attention during the past four-plus months, the Gulf States can’t stay out of the news these days, which is a good thing. Given the continuing debate over just how much oil is still stewing in the ocean it deserves to be in the headlines for a long time to come.
As I predicted a few days ago, every day seems to bring a new estimate on just how much of the oil spewed by BP is still out there. The statistics grow evermore confusing. The government says “74 percent of the oil is gone.” A University of Georgia team claims “79 percent is still there.” And today a report in Science – which the Times calls “the most ambitious paper to emerge yet” – casts grave doubt on the government stats and suggests there is a huge plume of oil two miles long floating beneath the surface, which will pose problems for the ocean, wildlife and man for months, possibly years, to come.
While that chatter dominates Gulf-related headlines, I think now is an appropriate time to reflect on all the other bad shit impacting the region on top of the multi-million gallons of crude that were recklessly dumped into it.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking was one of two sizable man-made disasters that will have long-lasting impact on Louisiana shores. The other goes back to 1927, when man (i.e. the Army Corps of Engineers) began his failed attempt to “control” the Mississippi River. The twin debacles, combined with a historically corrupt and inattentive state government, has assured that despite the cantankerous quality of life that makes the state the most unique of all fifty is also treated like America’s toilet bowl.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
Despite the hullabaloo created around the world by the Deepwater Horizon accident, oil spills are hardly a new occurrence. They’ve been happening since prehistoric man first accidentally tapped into an underground petroleum reservoir.
Long prior to BP’s debacle, yellow and orange booms have permanently ringed rigs in the Gulf – and around the world –, in effort to contain the inevitable daily leakage from a far-from-perfect extraction process. Study the reports from just the past twelve months of leaks and spills in the Gulf; they are common occurrences, though usually measured in the hundreds of gallons rather than millions.
And given our lack of a cohesive energy policy, our national unwillingness to truly commit to developing alternative energy sources and still-growing demand for energy from fossil fuels, such leaks and spills and gushings will continue.
Just read the headlines from the past few days: A thirty-inch pipeline near the Kalamazoo River splits and spills a million gallons of oil into a waterway headed for Lake Michigan. A barge slams into an abandoned well in Barataria Bay at 1 a.m. (an ecologically-sensitive estuary already dealing with a massive oil mess thanks to BP) sending a shower of water, natural gas and oil spewing into the air for days.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
During the past eleven weeks I’ve been on and around the edges of Barataria Bay for many days. This is ground-zero for the oil mess clean-up in southern Louisiana, a 650-square-mile jigsaw puzzle of marshes and wetlands where hundreds of workers have been sweating for weeks, valiantly attempting to wipe, absorb and suck up the oil which has penetrated it deeply.
If you haven’t been there in person, it’s hard to describe just how convoluted the place is. Imagine it this way, using that puzzle analogy: Think of a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle spread out on a table. Now randomly take half those pieces away, the pieces that remain resemble the bay.
It is a jagged, unformed piece of shallow water and low-lying land with no straight lines and thousands of corners, inlets, shallows and loosely connecting waterways. Today, oil has seeped into nearly every corner. Policing it – trying to stop it from entering, with booms – proved impossible. Skimming oil off the surface has worked to a degree, but even the dozens of fishing boats armed with skimmers can only make a dent. Cleaning it up once the oil has invaded the edges of the marshes is, well, a nightmare. Imagine trying to scrub individual pieces of sea grass by hand or vacuum out bubbly brown crude that has penetrated several feet into the wetlands.
During a recent weekend on the bay I was able to see the efforts being coordinated by a variety of local and non-local contractors, who have each hired workers, some from the area, some from other states. While there appears to be lots of activity on the bay – boats zooming here and there, floating villages set up as way stations – there seems to be little authority or control.
For the rest of my dispatch plus video from Barataria Bay, go to takepart.com.
By Michael Roberts, Louisiana Bayoukeeper: The boat ride, out, from Lafitte, Louisiana, Sunday, May 23, 2010, to our fishing grounds was not unlike any other I have taken in my life, as a commercial fisherman from this area. I have made the trip thousands of times in my 35 plus years shrimping and crabbing. A warm breeze in my face, it is a typical Louisiana summer day. 3 people were with me, my wife Tracy, Ian Wren, and our grandson, Scottie. I was soon to find out, how untypical this day would become for me, not unlike a death in the family. This was going to be a very bad day for me.
Photo by Jeffrey Dubinsky, Grand Isle, LA
As we neared Barataria Bay, the smell of crude oil in the air was getting thicker and thicker. An event that always brought joy to me all of my life, the approach of the fishing grounds, was slowly turning into a nightmare. As we entered Grand Lake, the name we fishermen call Barataria Bay, I started to see a weird, glassy look to the water and soon it became evident to me, there was oil sheen as far as I could see. Soon, we were running past patches of red oil floating on top of the water. As we headed farther south, we saw at least a dozen boats, in the distance, which appeared to be shrimping. We soon realized that shrimping was not what they were doing at all, but instead they were towing oil booms in a desperate attempt to corral oil that was pouring into our fishing grounds. We stopped to talk to one of the fishermen, towing a boom, a young fisherman from Lafitte. What he told me floored me. He said, “What we are seeing in the lake, the oil, was but a drop in the bucket of what was to come.” He had just come out of the Gulf of Mexico and he said, “It was unbelievable, the oil runs for miles and miles and was headed for shore and into our fishing grounds”. I thought, what I had already seen in the lake was enough for a lifetime. We talked a little while longer, gave the fisherman some protective respirators and were soon on our way. As we left the small fleet of boats, working feverishly, trying to corral the oil, I became overwhelmed with what I just saw.
I am not real emotional and consider myself a pretty tough guy. You have to be to survive as a fisherman. As I left that scene, tears flowed down my face and I cried. Something I have not done in a long time, but would do several more times that day. I tried not to let my grandson, Scottie, see me crying. I didn’t think he would understand, I was crying for his stolen future. None of this will be the same, for decades to come. The damage is going to be immense and I do not think our lives here in South Louisiana will ever be the same. He is too young to understand. He has an intense love for our way of life here. He wants to be a fisherman and a fishing guide when he gets older. It is what he is, it is in his soul, and it is his culture. How can I tell him that this may never come to pass now, now that everything he loves in the outdoors may soon be destroyed by this massive oil spill? How do we tell this to a generation of young people, in south Louisiana who live and breathe this bayou life that they love so much, could soon be gone? How do we tell them? All this raced through my mind and I wept.
We continued farther south towards Grand Terre Island. We approached Bird Island. The real name is Queen Bess Island, but we call it Bird Island, because it is always full of birds. It is a rookery, a nesting island for thousands of birds, pelicans, terns, gulls etc. As we got closer, we saw that protective boom had been placed around about two thirds of the island. It was obvious to me, that oil had gone under the boom and was fouling the shore and had undoubtedly oiled some birds. My God. We would see this scene again at Cat Island and other unnamed islands that day. We continued on to the east past Coup Abel Pass and more shrimp boats trying to contain some of the oil on the surface. We arrived at 4 Bayou Pass to see more boats working on the same thing. We beached the boat and decided to look at the beach between the passes.
The scene was one of horror to me. There was thick red oil on the entire stretch of beach, with oil continuing to wash ashore. The water looked to be infused with red oil, with billions of, what appeared to be, red pebbles of oil washing up on the beach with every wave. The red oil pebbles, at the high tide mark on the beach were melting into pools of red goo in the hot Louisiana sun. The damage was overwhelming. There was nobody there to clean it up. It would take an army to do it. Like so much of coastal Louisiana, it was accessible only by boat. Will it ever be cleaned up? I don’t know. Tears again. We soon left that beach and started to head home.
We took a little different route home, staying a little farther to the east side of Barataria Bay. As we approached the northern end of the bay, we ran into another raft of oil that appeared to be covering many square miles. It was only a mile from the interior bayous on the north side of Barataria Bay. My God. No boats were towing boom in this area. I do not think anyone even knew it was there. A little bet farther north, we saw some shrimp boats with boom, on anchor, waiting to try and protect Bayou St. Dennis from the oil. I alerted them of the approaching oil. I hope they were able to control it before it reached the bayou. We left them and started to head in.
My heart never felt so heavy, as on that ride in. I thought to myself, this is the most I’ve cried since I was a baby. In fact I am sure it was. This will be a summer of tears for a lot of us in south Louisiana.
I’m beginning to feel like something of a jinx. I go to the Antarctic Peninsula every austral summer and invariably while I’m there ships run aground, or sink. I slink into the U.K. for an anticipated 48 hours and an erupting volcano shuts down 8 million travelers. And the very week that we are putting the finishing touches on a new film, two years in production, about the complex relationship between man and the sea in southern Louisiana … catastrophe strikes the Gulf of Mexico, impacting many of the fishermen, conservationists and activists featured in it. (Not to mention my several Chilean friends who are still leading efforts to clean up their coastline and get people back in homes before winter arrives down south.)
Just how bad are these recent seeming-catastrophes?
Even as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches anew (yesterday its drifting ash shut down airspace over Ireland and Scotland, nothing like the damage done by cancellation of 100,000 flights while I was there) by comparison to past blasts it remains a small burp.
How small? In 1815, on the island of Sumbawa (in today’s Indonesia), a volcano named Tambora sputtered and coughed for nearly two weeks before blowing 24 cubic miles of lava into the sky, opening up a crater more than three miles wide and a mile deep. More than 120,000 people died, largely because everything around them – vegetation, marine life – was smothered by ash causing crop failures and epidemics.
Sixty-eight years later, Krakatoa spewed just 3.5 cubic miles of molten rock and ash; Vesuvius 1.4 cubic miles and Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, 0.3 cubic miles. Each of those was considered major; Iceland’s recent burp was just that. Yet it shut down all of Europe for six days, impacting the world’s economy to the tune of between $2 and $3 billion.
Similarly, as the Times reports this morning, the ongoing spillage in the Gulf of Mexico are – for the moment – far from record-setting. (Its list includes the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqis during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991 and the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil before it was stopped. The Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons is the biggest spill since.) Of course we won’t know for some weeks/months to come just how much the Deepwater Horizon will leak into the ocean.
But as winds and currents for the moment are keeping much of the leaking oil from washing ashore in the Gulf States – though trade winds may very well carry the spillage around the southern tip of Florida and eventually up the Atlantic coastline – there is a kind of creeping “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the mainstream press.
Not so dissimilar from the attitude towards offshore drilling itself, until a couple weeks ago. If you can’t see the rigs from shore, they must not be a problem. If the majority of the now-spilling oil doesn’t come ashore but stays out to sea, disaster has been averted. Unless of course you’re a dolphin, whale, mollusk, seabird or fishermen, whose lives and livelihoods depend on a clean, healthy ocean.