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Tarballs and Long Hauls

'It's not a vacation place anymore. It's a ground zero.'

In February, Grand Isle is supposed to start looking a little more life-like. Birds and tourists are scheduled to make their annual flock to the Jefferson Parish barrier island to seek refuge before the their natural habitat in the North comes back to life.


To clear the way, BP and town officials hoped to have the beaches cleaned by Feb. 1.  But there's a potential stain that seems destined to throw a wrench in those plans.


As they did last May, during the Big Oozy's initial onslaught, globs of oil began washing up on the beach.


At that point, their presence spawned two presidential visits, and globs of media attention. Months later, the reaction is far more muted.


The Lafourche Parish-based Daily Comet penned an article this week, in which Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts encouraged people to hit the beach.


But the founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to tracking oil pollution doesn't find the coast to be so clear.


“We haven’t seen this much damage since the beginning of the spill, and we don’t know what it means," said Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which, like so many state environmental groups, has ramped up efforts since the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. "The weather could’ve held the tar balls away from the shore until now, or maybe there’s another spill. The fact is we just don’t know. BP hasn’t been looking as hard as they should, because they’ve willfully buried their head in the sand to avoid more public attention."


A summary report released last month by the federal government titled
“Sub-sea and Sub-surface Oil and Dispersant Detection: Sampling and
Monitoring,” suggests significant amounts of oil on the seafloor can only be
found within ten miles surrounding the wellhead, and not elsewhere. BP’s
Mike Utsler referenced this report when he stated the beaches, the water,
and the seafood are all safe.


The report, however, did not address other studies that used deep-diving
submarines and other technologies not used in the federal report, which
found “tar mats” and “oil pudding” covering parts of the seafloor far from
the wellhead and closer to our shores, effectively killing coral reefs and
other bed-dwelling life.


Officials now speculate the “tar mats” found in shallow waters may be what
form the tar balls found on Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island, and Fourchon Beach.
Still, no one is certain what the arrival of these tar balls means past an
ugly, black reminder that the Gulf is far from clean.


As far as cleaning the beaches, the exact progress of what BP has done remains unclear and highly debatable. NoDef contacted the Coast Guard's Joint Information Center, which handles communications for the entire oil spill cleanup effort, but calls were not returned.


The company claims it’s cleaned up most of the spill, according to its website. The Coast Guard says 928 miles of beach were hit with oil and fewer than 30 miles are left to clean. At the peak of disaster efforts, over 47,000 people and 10,000 vessels were working on the cleanup. Now, efforts are less intense with about 6,000 workers and 260 vessels.


When oil began washing ashore May 21, a month after the spill began, Grand Isle’s beaches had to close, only to reopen later in the summer.


Businesses reported up to an 80 percent drop in sales that season. Usually when winter comes, most businesses are closing up after a busy summer.


To apologize for last year’s failed tourist season, the company will provide $30 million (in addition to the $15 million it has already given) to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism over the next three years to support the marketing of Louisiana as a tourist destination, according to its website.


But Rolfes said that's not enough.


“This is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, and the company
responsible for it has yet to be held accountable.”


Still, the question of how to clean up remains a difficult one to answer.


Rolfes heralded the familiar declaration of a tragic good fight.


“We need to open dialogue,” she said.


But that hasn't proven effective thus far. Like trying to tell a cold-shouldered significant other, “We need to talk,” what can you do when the powers-that-be don’t want dialogue?


Rolfes answered: “I recognize that saying ‘We need to open dialogue’ seems
esoteric, but BP should be held accountable in a way that local players,
like the shrimpers, see fit.”


“Local officials in Grand Isle where oil washed up just this week are saying, ‘Oh no, it’s over, let’s not mention this because we got to get ready for tourist season,"’ she said. But they’re clinging to a past reality. We need to adjust to a new reality. And BP has to pay for that new reality.”


She said the restoration should feed the economy. Increasing numbers of people to do testing and cleanup would insure pollution is minimized, and create jobs in the meantime, Rolfes said.

"It’s not a vacation place anymore. It’s a ground zero,” she said.


Next month, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade will release an extensive report on the health and economic impact of the BP oil spill, which includes over 750 surveys that BP will have to answer.


Unless, of course, they don't.

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