Jul 21, 2010 8:52 AM by Sharlee Barriere
FOURCHON BEACH, La. (AP) - The 5,600 vessels taking part in the
oil spill operation on the Gulf of Mexico make up the largest fleet
assembled since the Allied invasion of Normandy, according to the
Hordes of helicopters, bulldozers, Army trucks, ATVs, barges,
dredges, airboats, workboats, cleanup crews, media, scientists and
volunteers have descended on the beaches, blue waters and golden
marshes of the Gulf Coast.
That's a lot of propellers, anchors, tires, and feet for a
fragile ecosystem to take, and a tough truth is emerging: In many
places, the oil cleanup itself is causing environmental damage.
Part of that is inevitable - the oil has to get cleaned up
somehow, and BP and the government will be subject to
second-guessing no matter what.
"Absolutely nothing you do to respond to an oil spill is
without impacts of its own," said Lisa Jackson, administrator of
the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11,
and oil began gushing into the Gulf, federal, state and BP
officials say they have been guided in their response by picking
the less damaging cleanup method.
Still, environmentalists and veterans of other spills say the
torrent of untested cleanup methods rushed into practice by
panicked officials and unqualified experts is wreaking havoc and,
at least in spots, may be unnecessary.
"The more you disperse (with chemicals), the more you bring in
these big machines, the more you bring in inexperienced people and
the more sand berms you build, the less chance you have of letting
Mother Nature and skimmers and booms do the job," said Mike Brewer
of Buras, La., who ran an oil spill response company and is working
on the BP cleanup.
For starters, the EPA allowed BP PLC to spray a chemical
dispersant, a product called Corexit, to break up oil right as it
came out of BP's broken well nearly a mile below the surface. The
idea is to save shorelines from being clobbered with vast waves of
In practice, the use of dispersants that had never been tested
that far beneath the surface has made the oil much more difficult
to track than it would have been in a single, massive slick. And
environmentalists and marine biologists still aren't convinced the
chemicals are safe for sea life.
The EPA halted underwater spraying while it tested samples
collected by BP, then allowed it to resume once the results came
back to the agency's satisfaction. Further tests are ongoing, and
crews quit spraying dispersant once the well was contained this
week, Jackson said.
"Basically, we conducted uncontrolled experiments in the open
ocean - that does not seem like a good idea to me," said John
Hocevar, the oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
Jackson said there was little evidence that the chemical
dispersants had caused damage and called their effects "relatively
Eager to be seen as taking charge, Gov. Bobby Jindal began
building a series of untested sand islands and other barriers along
the Louisiana coast, making construction of these berms a personal
crusade. In theory, sand berms and jetties will stop the oil from
entering sensitive estuaries.
But berms and jetties interrupt shrimp and fish migrations as
well as tidal flows; the work can even undermine what little is
left of Louisiana's gooey and sediment-layered shoreline.
"None of the coastal scientists have signed onto this thing,"
said Leonard Bahr, a former adviser to both Republican and
Democratic governors in Louisiana on coastal restoration issues.
Fishermen and locals, however, almost unanimously agree with
Jindal's unorthodox barrier plans.
"We know these (berms) stop the oil. It worked on Fourchon
Beach," said Windell Curole, a levee manager in south Lafourche
Parish, an area long struggling with erosion. "The people that are
pushing for these things are more invested in it than the
In a move that put its compensation costs toward curtailing the
spill's environmental effects, BP hired truckloads of inexperienced
oil spill responders - shrimpers, unemployed workers, college
students, and migrant workers. The manpower is essential, but their
footprint can be huge, especially if they're not used to watching
"It was like the Wild West there for a while, and it still is
to some degree," said Drew Wheelan, a wildlife biologist with the
American Bird Association Inc., a conservation group.
Wheelan said cleanup crews trampled on numerous nesting bird
colonies, including at least one batch of least tern eggs he saw.
Wilson's plovers and endangered black skimmers on Louisiana's Grand
Isle and East Grand Terre islands were threatened by intensive
"The whole entire area in the past two weeks has been
completely crisscrossed by tire tracks. The entire cleanup there
has been entirely sickening," Wheelan said recently of East Grand
Terre. "There are tire tracks from the low tide line all the way
up into the dune vegetation. Not an inch of that frontal beach has
been spared from traffic."
Out on the Gulf, BP brought in a super-sized skimmer from Taiwan
- the "A Whale" - capable of sucking up 20 million gallons of
water a day, aiming to corral huge quantities of oiled water at
once. Like some of the other methods, it had never been tested and
scientists worried that it could cause serious damage.
"It will suck in a lot of biology," said James Cowan, a
Louisiana State University fisheries scientist.
Coast Guard officials questioned its effectiveness, noting that
it would be better for attacking a single huge slick than for the
countless smaller pools that the dispersant helped create.
Authorities announced last week that the massive ship was dropping
out of the spill operation.
Forrest Travirca has seen the cleanup's side effects up close as
a land manager for the Wisner estate, a public land trust that
includes Fourchon Beach and a large marsh area that has seen some
of the heaviest oil so far.
On an airboat cruise through marsh, signs of the messy cleanup
jumped out. Reddish-brown and sticky tar coated the blades of marsh
grass behind a beach lined with sand baskets brought in by Army
dump trucks. Absorbent boom lay washed up against shorelines. Crews
had staked down shade tents every few hundred yards.
Almost as soon as he stepped onto the sand, Travirca saw
something he didn't like: Two ATV tracks meandering carefree across
the sands. Someone with the cleanup had strayed from designated
"This really upsets me," Travirca said, standing over the
fresh set of tracks. "They're not supposed to be driving back
here. They've got to drive along the front of the beach. Birds nest
He walked a few paces away and pointed out another set of ATV
tracks he discovered a few days before. "This track here was
inches from a tern nest with eggs."
At least now, more than three months after the spill, the
cleanup is becoming more organized.
In the beginning, he said, the beach "looked like the