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Gulf Oil Blowout and Gusher: Environmental Catastrophe or Much Ado About Nothing?

The blowout accident is just one more in a seemingly endless string of environmental insults and injuries. Life on the bayou gets harder each year and a rich and unique heritage is slowly eroding away.
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I saw an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Just not what I'd expected.

With the
Deepwater Horizon
and reports that the
, I decided it was a good time to visit the area to examine it first-hand. So some colleagues from Duke's Nicholas School and I spent a few days in the gulf, snooping around, taking samples, and meeting with locals.
One of the many waterways lined by marshes we explored.

We viewed the affected areas from helicopters and boats, and visited with folks like:

One of the people I met with is Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

  • Jamie Billiot, of the Dulac Community Center, which services a roughly 50-percent Native American rural community on Bayou Grand Caillou (where the median income is less than $9,000/year) and is associated with the state's only Native American United Methodist Church;
  • Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace, a nonprofit organization that works with five poor bayou communities in lower Terrebonne Parish;
  • Cindy Brown, a graduate of Duke's Nicholas School and the director of the Gulf of Mexico program for The Nature Conservancy;
  • Several of us from Duke's Nicholas School met with Jamie Billiot (of the Dulac Community Center, far left) and Rebecca Templeton (from Bayou Grace, second from left).

  • Jim Pahl, manager of Applied Research and Development at the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration; and
  • Numerous folks working on various aspects of the cleanup, including Ricky Galjour, a fisherman who took us hither and yon in the gulf in his boat, and Preston, a school bus driver now being paid to transport workers to and fro.
  • Here's what I found.

    Spill Not Over Yet

    First of all, there's still a lot of oil out there. We found oil slicks and badly oiled marshes that workers were painstakingly (perhaps futilely) trying to clean using essentially vacuums.

    We even stumbled upon a new accident with a couple of Coast Guard boats sitting helplessly by while oil spewed high into the air. The accident occurred when a barge ran over a wellhead last Tuesday morning. (At last report the oil was still gushing but barges were to be deployed to the region Sunday.)

    But Not That Bad (on the Surface)

    Even so, the situation was not nearly as bad as I'd expected -- at least as far as the naked eye could see. Huge stretches of coastline and marshes appeared to be unscathed by the Deepwater Horizon oil (like the marsh in the picture at the top of the post). We saw abundant wildlife -- egrets, brown pelicans, porpoises, crabs, and alligators.

    Our boat captain is a fisherman who had just caught lots of red fish and eaten it.

    There also appear to be lots of fish. Ricky, our boat driver and water guide, who is part of the Plaquemines
    Parish Inland Waterway Strike Force
    , said that he'd caught lots of red fish in the gulf a few days earlier. When I asked if he'd eaten them, he said, sure -- "they were so aggressive they have to be healthy" -- although he admitted his son refused to take a bite.

    We also came across some recreational fishermen returning from the gulf with big smiles and a bunch of speckled trout in tow -- the fishing was great, they said.

    The economic impact on the region, at least for now, is also mixed, not that great but not nearly as bad as I'd expected. Sure, lots of fishermen are out of work, but many, including our guide Ricky, have been hired on by local governments or BP to work on the cleanup, sometimes for a very tidy sum.

    Shrimp boats laying boom.

    The sight of shrimp boats towing booms (instead of nets) to skim the oil from the surface was ubiquitous and perhaps emblematic of this accident and the response.

    These fishers, at least for now, are not suffering financially. However, their long-term fate is very much in question. Will the fisheries recover or collapse? The reports of fishing success noted above suggest a good outcome, and commercial fishing for fin fish and shrimp was reopened in parts of the gulf as of July 29, but no one can predict for sure what will happen and these fishers are all too aware of their uncertain fate.

    Preston, otherwise out of work, has been hired to transport workers involved in the oil spill clean-up.

    Other folks like Preston, who was otherwise without work, have been hired on and provided food and lodging. And at least in the affected areas near New Orleans, the hotels are full with workers and doing a nice business. Once BP leaves, a very different story may emerge.

    While lots of folks were being paid by BP, they were almost uniformly angry at their new employer. Not only for BP's carelessness -- many would say negligence -- that led to the accident but also for what they saw as foot-dragging, incompetence and outright dishonesty in the company's response.

    For example, Ricky was convinced that the reason we were not seeing that much oil on the surface was that BP had been using lots of dispersants -- even after the federal government had ordered them to cease -- to make it look a lot better than it is. At the time I was skeptical, but Ricky's story was corroborated in yesterday's New York Times.

    But Not So Fast

    Even so, I did find a major environmental catastrophe, perhaps America's worst.

    Wetlands loss is an ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. The patchiness and brown color of many of the marshes are a sign that they are breaking up and dying.

    We were over at Bay Jimmy focused on the marshes that have been thoroughly oiled, when Ricky made an offhand remark. "You see that water over there?" he said, pointing in the opposite direction from the oiled marches. "That used to be land, now it's all gone."

    I looked at the huge expanse of water that Ricky was pointing at, and, of course, I thought, the gulf's real environmental catastrophe didn't start with a single oil spill; it's been going on for decades. It's the slow-moving, ongoing destruction of one of our most valuable natural resources -- the Gulf Coast's wetlands.

    The construction of levees and diversions on the Mississippi River, the extraction of oil and gas, and a host of other environmental missteps, combined with natural processes, are causing the marshes to subside and the ocean's salt water to intrude; as a result, the gulf's marshes and wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate [pdf] -- from about 39 square miles a year between 1956 and 1978 to its current rate of loss of about 10 square miles a year. By one estimate by 2040, an area equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island will have been lost.

    The people of the bayous are amazingly resilient, gracious and friendly. To a person they treated us with a smile, warm hospitality and an open heart.

    Two Nicholas School board members and myself, meeting with the managers of two nonprofits in Houma, Louisiana (from left to right: Jamie Billiot, Bill Chameides, Lynn Gorguze, Rebecca Templeton, Tom McMurray).

    But the slow loss of their wetlands weighs heavy, presenting a constant hardship. For example, Jamie Billiot of the Dulac Community Center described how her town is flooded out two or three times each year because there aren't adequate marshes to protect them from storms. Jamie's people have been in Dulac for more than 100 years; she left Dulac to go to college but she's back there now to run the community center and to cling to her heritage. But she has yet to figure out how to build a life when she knows it's just a matter of time before a flood washes away her family's things.

    A huge amount of oil spewed into the gulf from the Deepwater Horizon. It's likely that the full impact of all that lurks beneath the surface, in the ocean and the coastal sands. Perhaps it will eventually explode into a devastating trophic cascade and ecological disaster. We'll have to wait and see.

    But the people of the bayou don't have to wait. They know -- and have been seeing the loss of wetlands first-hand for decades. The blowout accident is just one more in a seemingly endless string of environmental insults and injuries. Life on the bayou gets harder each year and a rich and unique heritage is slowly eroding away.

    On the drive out to Dulac, Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace motioned to the right and said, "My grandfather raised cattle right over there." When I looked, I saw that "right over there" was now nothing but open water.