Eyewitness Account: Oil Still Soaking Gulf Coast

Part of the sticky tar mat found on a beach near where a colony of pelicans nest.
Part of the sticky tar mat found on a beach near where a colony of pelicans nest. Photo by Maura Wood

It seemed odd to be heading out of the Myrtle Grove Marina on a beautiful day looking for oil. The Deepwater Horizon well was capped over a year ago. BP is trying to wrap up their clean-up operations, tell us it’s all clear, and hightail it out of here. So it’s over, right?

No, it’s not over. What we saw in Louisiana’s Bay Jimmy and Barataria Bay was deeply disappointing. The oil is still there, and the impacts of the oil are evident.

We stopped first in Bay Jimmy at the marshes that took the worst oil hits. Last summer, these areas were repeatedly inundated by oil. Clean up crews determined that oil-soaked marsh grass had formed such a hard cap over the soil that sunlight and microbes couldn’t penetrate to remediate, so they had recommended “marsh raking.” By scraping the dead vegetation and oil cap off the surface of the marsh, they hoped to allow natural remediation and plant regrowth to take over.

For me, seeing these marshes is a step back in time. They appear as oil-soaked and damaged as they did a year ago. Clearly a great deal of material was removed, and the next growing season will tell the story of whether “marsh raking” is a success. But viewing the lifeless marsh edge  from the boat, with propane cannons booming to scare birds from the oily surface, was sobering and saddening.

We proceeded to Cat Island, where a colony of breeding pelicans was in full fledge when the oil hit last summer. Earlier this year, we had noted nesting proceeding as usual. Now, in September, the island was eerily deserted, nesting duties completed. The absence of birds made the condition of the mangrove canopy of the island all the more visible – the mangroves were dead or dying. When we first approached this island last year preoil, it was green, covered with a canopy of black mangrove on which the pelicans were nesting.

Photo by Maura Wood
Photo by Maura Wood

Now, only small patches were green, and the remainder were brown lifeless sticks. Did the oil kill the mangroves? We haven’t seen data to show that is the cause. But having seen it cover the island for months during the previous year, we couldn’t help but think it certainly might be implicated. In any case, restoring thriving and healthy nesting sites for pelicans and the other water birds that share their rookeries will be an important element of repairing the damage from the oil spill.

Finally, we waded ashore on the front beach of the nearest barrier island to check it out. Tropical Storm Lee had recently come through, stirring the sand with surge and waves. Sure enough, we quickly discovered a large tar mat that had been exposed, a sticky and smelly layer that extended far down the beach.

So the oil is not gone. Barataria Bay is beautiful, but problems remain. Restoration is imperative, and funding must be dedicated to ensure a healthy and thriving Gulf.