Despite commandeering boats, officials losing island oil battle in Barataria Bay

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Signs of the siege were scattered across East Grand Terre Island at the mouth of Barataria Bay: a pile of rakes crusted with oily mud, drenched absorbent matted into the sand, baby pools filled with greasy mud-colored water, wooden scrub brushes that looked more appropriate for a bubble bath than the cleanup of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. A crew of 36 had been working on the island since June 2, said Deepwater Horizon response team spokeswoman Gail Dale, but even after three days of raking up oil-contaminated soil and sand, thick black gobs still clung to marsh grasses and mangrove trees.

“More oil is getting into the mangrove every day. It’s in the water. The fish are using it for cover,” said Clint Edds, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist leading a tour of reporters. The biologist grew quiet as he toweled thick black oil off the twisting above-ground roots of a mangrove plant. Instead of its usual splay of waxy green leaves, barren branches hung over water flecked with rust colored bits of oil.

Biologist Clint Edds wipes oil from a mangrove tree.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Especially after alarmed Jefferson Parish officials, frustrated that BP wasn’t responding to their calls for boom to protect the area, commandeered a few dozen idle cleanup boats May 22.  But by then, the oil already crept past the containment line, threatening fragile wetlands that were fighting to survive even before the encroachment of crude.

Edds’ job is to track the oil, and he had been working in the area for weeks. Since the crude landed here, the trees looked sicker each day.

“The outside edges are dying off where the oil landed,” he said. He called a colleague to radio his coordinates to the command center.

East Grand Terre and neighboring West Grand Terre separate the Gulf of Mexico from Barataria Bay, serving as a crucial buffer against tropical storms. In recent weeks they have become  the front line for this latest, wholly man-made storm to hit the region. In just one day last week, 35 oil-drenched birds were reported in the area, according to Fox 8 television.

The BP-hired contractors were instructed to begin “immediately” reshaping sand barriers to protect islands, including East Grand Terre, said Wildlife and Fisheries lab director Myron Fischer.  He could not comment on why BP boats were not out there taking preventative action earlier.

“Obviously oil has gotten into the system,” Fischer said. “We are doing everything we can do to prevent that from happening again.”

But two weeks after the parish seized control of BP cleanup vessels and state officials ordered up more protection, it’s become obvious that the state’s “everything” may not be enough.

The immediate response ordered up by Fischer took two days to materialize, Dale said.  She said that no report of oil washing in came into the command center until the May 24, two days after media coverage of Jeffferson Parish’s emergency response began. When the islands appeared in the command center report that day, 10 people were sent out to do “maintenance,” Dale said. She said she doesn’t know why the boats were idle on May 22 or why no report was made earlier.

The day Edds wiped oil off East Grand Isle mangrove, the island was on track for assessment by a shoreline cleanup team composed of government officials and private contractors hired by BP, according to Deepwater Horizon response team spokeswoman, Mary Martin. Wednesday, however, rain delayed a scheduled visit to the island, according to another command center spokesman, Charles Taplin. By Thursday, the crew of 36 workers was back, but another oil tide had washed over the East Grand Terre, covering the pelicans that nest in its vegetation in thick black goop. The next day the 35 birds were rescued and cleanup workers returned.  Yet oil still continued to wash up on shore over the weekend.

Did any changes in the way boats were being sent out happen as a result of the May 24 breakdown in communication?  Nothing official, Dale said, but “you are always tweaking things as you go to make things more efficient.”

All photos by Andy Levin. Visit Andy’s website for more images of the oil spill and the Louisiana coast.

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