July 10th – 11:09AM
Grand Isle, LA – After making the two hour crack of dawn drive and overcoming the first of many engine troubles, we finally shoved off yesterday aboard an 18 foot Twin-V on loan from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Driving through Barataria Bay, we saw the effects of oil almost everywhere, yet in a seemingly subdued manner. To our surprise we saw a couple small pods of dolphins, in addition to a still strong bird population (yet I’m told it was even stronger just months ago). While it was encouraging to see that life could still go on in these ravaged waters, that encouragement says a great deal about this situation given the wildlife typically seen in these wetland areas. Fish were few and far between and the dolphins we saw were digging for food on the bay floor, some of which we sampled, finding what appeared to be crude oil (lab results pending). It’s clear that the water here isn’t fit for living and it’s only a matter of time before the more resilient animals either vacate the area or die; dolphins, large birds, even crabs will survive for the time being (how many will die, who knows?), but eventually the sheer amount of oil and toxic chemicals in the water will take its final toll.
We returned after a long morning on the water, refueled (ourselves and our boat), and made a second trip out. After driving through a large oil sheen and taking a few more samples, we landed on the beach of a small island a few miles northeast of Grand Isle. Upon first glance, impact on the beach appeared to have been mostly weathered away by the constant push and pull of the tide. Walking about fifty feet down the beach, we encountered a large and bubbly dark mass, about six inches deep. Emitting the clear stench of petroleum, the mass appeared almost as asphalt, likely after weeks of weathering. Oil like this lined the beach just past the high tide line, before which the waves had dragged the remaining oil back into the water and mixed it into the sea floor. Tidal pools sat full of thinner oil and chemical mixtures, with brown and rainbow streaks lining their surface. The beach itself was dead, some small crabs and a few small patches of tall grass were the only signs of life. Oysters lay stained and empty amongst the black stubs of grass and there were almost no birds. This beach had been left to despair, one of the countless unnamed casualties of this disaster. In time, cleanup crews will make their way to its shores, but it will be too late, it already is. The only question left is what sort of long and short term impacts will these substances have on the ecosystems that they are now becoming a part of?
Moving above the surface for a moment, we heard today from a colleague who flew over the affected area that BP is continuing with their larger-scale surface burns, apparently on such a scale that she and her passengers had no visibility and trouble breathing near the spill site. On our flight over the source, a fellow passenger was sternly warned by a BP employee working there about the dangerously high level of chemicals and toxins in the air. While the oil in the water emits a number of dangerous fumes, much of the air quality degradation is caused by the immense amount of burning going on at and around the spill site. Between the constant burning that occurs there, of methane for example, and the surface burns, the damage being done to the air and ozone must be significant. So much research needs to be done so that precautions and treatment can be put in place before a health epidemic in the Gulf becomes yet another impact of this disaster. Given the host of respiratory, pulmonary, and other diseases and conditions that afflicted cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, a similar outcome seems inevitable. We’ve yet to see a single cleanup worker, BP or state employed, donning a ventilator and most of those that wear protective suits wear them opened to their waist. Clearly, BP nor any governmental agency have made the risks involved with these substances known to the workers involved, one has to wonder if we even know exactly they are. At the end of the day, our government should know when to step up and protect these people and not turn a blind eye, letting thousands of workers put their lives at risk.