Oil spill update from the field: Hurricane Alex mangles boom and leaves fresh oil

Ryan Johnson, a Coast Guard marine science technician, stands beside an oiled patch of marsh on Grand Terre Island, one of the spots hardest hit with oil. Much of the island has been cleaned but Hurricane Alex brought oil back. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, July 6
Brown pelicans smothered in oil, struggling in the surf, unable even to flap their wings, dead. This was the scene from Grand Terre Island one month ago; over the holiday I motored there in an aluminum skiff with a group of Coast Guard officers whose job is to make sure it never happens again. Each day they scout the beach, noting new oil and calling in affected wildlife; they’ve saved five pelicans and one turtle to date. But Hurricane Alex has kept them away for four days and they’re worried what they might find. Upon landing we don yellow booties to protect against oil and pass through the grounds of a research station wrecked by Katrina to the beach. Ryan Johnson, a freckled Seattle Coasty stares at the scene and sighs. Booms lay mangled and storm waves have dribbled tar balls and shiny spots of fresh oil well above the high tide line. “We’ve just doubled the amount of work for cleanup workers, we’ve got oil near wetlands; it’s not good,” says Johnson.

An end almost seems near; BP is capturing significant oil at the spill site and relief wells should be done by early August. But hurricane season is just beginning and Alex was an ominous test run. The storm made landfall in northeastern Mexico, more than 600 miles from the Deepwater Horizon site, but it halted cleanup crews for almost a week, brought oil to new places like the Texas coast and Lake Pontchartrain and re-oiled beaches like Grand Terre, where workers have been cleaning for weeks. What would a direct hit mean? “That would be devastating upon devastating,” Johnson says.

Hurricane Alex dealt only a glancing blow but still halted cleanup operations for nearly a week. The storm mangled booms and dribbled tar balls and shiny spots of fresh oil well above the high tide line. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Coast Guard press officer Zachary Crawford picks up a baseball-sized hunk of brown sand. “What’s this?” he asks. “Asphalt,” replies Johnson and knocks the clod in half, revealing the same congealed black goop roads are lined with. “It’s good and bad,” says Johnson. “The volatiles are gone and it is easy to rake and shovel, but if you miss it, it will just sit here, and sit here, and sit here…” On Grand Terre, these oversized tar balls have been found as big as pineapples.

There is some good news, although the absorbent booms and oil-soaking pompoms that have been placed neatly across the beach are now strewn and ineffective, they are black and soaked with oil. “This means the stuff is doing its’ job,” says Johnson excitedly. Further along, the beach is lined with large trash bags tied off with duct tape. The bags are stuffed with oiled beach debris and soiled white Tyvek suits, which cleanup workers must discard at the end of each day. Beside two kiddie pools, workers lay black carpeting under a white tent. This is a decon station, where workers get hosed down after a day in the field. There are more than half a dozen stations like this on Grand Terre, each one was taken down before the storm and now must be put back up. “Instead of getting the tar balls they are rebuilding decons right now,” says Johnson. “It’s frustrating, three steps forward, one step back.”

Coast Guard press officer Zachary Crawford holds what looks like a ball of brown sand, but the inside is filled with congealed oil called asphalt. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

By 10 a.m. the sun is scorching, we stand in the shade of a derelict research buildings and watch pelicans dive bomb for fish. The men are tired, they have worked for a month without break. Johnson, who looks a bit like Matt Damon, was married just weeks before the spill. He lived with his wife for two days then got a call to come to the Gulf. Crawford is a sheriff in Spokane, Washington and a member of the Coast Guard Reserve. Before this, he served with the Marine Corps in West Africa and the Middle East, where he lost one of his men. Alex Olbert has a baby face and is usually stationed in Alaska. He got a call at 6 p.m. to come to Louisiana and was on a plane at 8 the next morning.

“We are the eyes and the ears,” says Johnson, as he stares across the sand, shimmering in the heat, to the sea. He grew up in the Ozarks, miles from any ocean, and didn’t consider the Coast Guard until he saw an infomercial late one night in college. “Ever since I was a kid I had a fascination with Jacques Cousteau and Ernest Hemingway and cats like that,” says Johnson. “I have always been a little bit of an environmentalist, or as my old man would call it, a tree hugger.”

We head back to the dock and Olbert radios in the morning's report to the command center: “Sporadic oiling on GT-1, sporadic tar balls, marble-sized to pancake-sized. Also, oil came in 100 to 200 feet beyond the water line; the entire beach is now a hot zone.”

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

Cleanup workers on Grand Terre Island shield their faces from sand blown about by an all too common afternoon thunderstorm. "People wonder why this is taking so long," says Coast Guard petty officer Johnson. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”