Oil spill update from the field: Thick oil still oozes beneath a forgotten stretch of Grand Isle Beach

Leanne Sarco (left), an educator at Grand Isle State Park, and Audubon's Melanie Driscoll dig through thick oily goop on a stretch of Grand Isle that never got cleaned. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Grand Isle, Louisiana, August 20
Beneath the beach on the west end of Grand Isle State Park is thick black oil. The strange goopy objects stuck in the muck are hermit crabs, oiled beyond recognition. They are food for the terns and gulls which flock nearby. Heavy oil is gone from much of the Gulf but on this stretch of Louisiana beach it remains. Park managers, worried the large machines being used to clean beaches would trample bird nests insisted that BP use alternative methods here. This never happened; instead the area was missed completely.
The issue highlights a concern many conservationists have had with the spill response; that it was heavy-handed and near-sighted, environmental guidelines were scrapped and environmentalists themselves were chided as being too soft and too slow. Politicians took advantage of the spill to push through projects in a vacuum of science, like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who hastily had built sand berms off the Chandeleur Islands to block oil from hitting the coast. The barriers are now eroding rapidly.

“Lives and livelihoods have temporarily been ruined and as a result local politicians are really frantic,” says Melanie Driscoll, the leader of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative. “A lot of the cleanup has been political knee-jerk response done for show, and that has led to a complete waste of resources, destruction of beach and in some cases, total fiasco.”

Melanie Driscoll, Audubon's David Ringer (center) and Captain Richie Taranto head into Barataria Bay to check up on the Cat Island bird colonies. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Early on a muggy morning, I head to the coast with Driscoll and Audubon communications officer David Ringer. In mid-May, the three of us spent a day searching for oil on Elmer’s Island; it hadn’t arrived yet but in later trips we documented oiled pelican colonies in Barataria Bay and shorebirds feeding amongst globs of oil on Grand Isle. Now, for my last post, we’ll revisit these spots.

Captain Richie Taranto motors us along a canal lined with boxy mansions. Taranto is a sports fisherman but has been making good money working for BP, $1000-1500 a day. Nevertheless, he doesn’t trust them. “You’ll see oil out here one day and the next it is gone so you know they’re spraying dispersants at night,” says Taranto. We weave through the marsh then cross Barataria Bay to the Cat Islands, small grassy knots of land where hundreds of brown pelicans nest, along with roseate spoonbill, yellow crowned night heron, ibis and laughing gulls. In late May I saw dozens of oiled pelicans here, some sitting on eggs. Now, juvenile pelicans crowd the shore, others perch lazily on boom. “They all look clean and happy,” says Ringer.

But Driscoll explains that the interior of these islands are dotted with birds killed by oil. Only after juvenile birds clear out will wildlife officials have a chance to go in and count the dead. Birds face other risks; it is unknown just how the small critters shorebirds feed on have been affected by the spill and we won’t know how the spill affected sensitive bird reproductive systems until nesting pairs can be recounted next spring.

One sign of recovery is bright green grass sprouting in spots once occupied by grass gunked with oil. “This is something we were hoping for but didn’t know we would find,” says Driscoll. “In some ways it feels like the initial crisis has passed and you’ve come out of ICU,” says Ringer. “But the problem is this is a system in catastrophic collapse; we’re still losing 25 square miles of marsh a year.” Taranto nods in agreement. “If you look at the GPS there’s nothing but land,” he says, “but when you actually get out here there’s nothing but water.”

Most of the beach at Grand Isle State Park was thoroughly cleaned, but is still closed to the public. (Photo by Justin Nobel)

On the way to Grand Isle we pass a sign that reads, “Damn BP. God Bless America.” Damning BP sounds good at first glance, but damning BP means damning oil, which means damning cars and damning cars certainly sounds un-American to me. “People wanted to be mad and they wanted to blame BP, but I don’t think they wanted to look beyond that,” says Driscoll. “The same people who live near the coast and want to protect it are driving gas guzzling SUVs and big pickups.”

Beyond where Driscoll is digging through oozing oil at the end of Grand Isle State Park I spot a young man with curly blonde hair, wading in the waves. In his hand is a Styrofoam carryout container lined with fist-sized black lumps. They are tar balls, winnowed smooth by the waves. The man, Frazer O’Hara, has spent the past two months volunteering with a group bent on rescuing oiled hermit crabs; they have saved over 5,000 to date, scrubbing them first with castile soap, cleaning inside their shells with Q-tips, then releasing them into unoiled back bays.

We talk for several minutes, the horizon darkens, thunder rumbles somewhere out over the sea. In four months of reporting on the oil spill, O’Hara is one of the few young activists I have met. I ask him where the others are. “I feel like people are afraid of the word revolution,” says O’Hara. “We have a clichéd notion of it, we think of violence and going to the hills, but this revolution is within ourselves.”

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

Frazer O'Hara has been helping rescue oiled hermit crabs from a stretch of Grand Isle beach that never got cleaned. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon magazine)