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'Thanks, BP'

On Third Anniversary of Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Disappearing Land and Reappearing Oil in Plaquemines Parish (PHOTOS)

While oil globs in Bay Jimmy and the occasional sheen continue to serve as chemical reminders of the Big Oozy, some of the most damaging effects of the 2010 disaster three years later are revealed by what can no longer be seen.


About 40 minutes by boat west of Port Sulphur in Plaquemines Parish, near Barataria Bay, three small spots of land are all that remain of what was once a much bigger barrier called Cat Island. One is a small, lifeless hook, easily found only by those who remember when the barrier island was five acres. A second, only slightly larger in size, is a vegetative graveyard, populated only by the bases of dead mangrove trees and bits of trash.


“This island was covered in oil,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said Thursday, standing just a few feet from the waters of Cat Bay. “Year after year we’d see deterioration in this island, but it was always green.”



Once, the mangrove trees rose eight feet overhead, and pelicans nested around the springtime. When the oil came up from the deep in 2010, the area became the environmental ground zero. After checking up on the island, Parish officials rushed Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert to the area to take some of the first photographs of oil-covered brown pelicans. For those waiting nervously to see just how bad the disaster would be, there was no more potent symbol than the state bird of Louisiana covered in crude. Three years later, however, there is no sign of birdlife.


“This is the first year in the history of these islands that we will not have nesting,” said Parish Director of Coastal Zone Management PJ Hahn. “Thanks, BP.”



Disappearing Act

In coastal Louisiana, no player in the ecosystem is a lone actor. For humans, fishing and energy industries exist side-by-side, with many of those who were most affected by the 2010 disaster having worked in the oil industry.


The islands that serve as a prime nesting point for pelicans, egrets and spoonbills, is virtually surrounded by oil rigs and platforms in the distance. But the natural protection against erosion and the breeding ground of beautiful birds wasn’t only washed away by a single disaster.


Over the years, Cat Island and others have been starved of natural sediment deposits. In the 1930s, the island was 360 acres. But it depleted to five acres even before the Big Oozy. The depletion was caused first by the decision to divert the Mississippi River to keep it flowing into the Atchafalaya River, then by the numerous canals constructed by the oil industry in the middle part of the 20th century. With less sediment deposits and rising sea levels, storm surge from hurricanes and other erosion gradually cause the islands to whither away. If the islands were a prize fighter, they would be on the ropes, waiting for the final punch. Covering the island in oil and killing off vegetation could prove to be the knockout blow.



Hahn, who is also a photographer, found the island shrinking from five acres in area to one acre in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Now, there are just a few swaths left, which is also starving out the pelicans and other migratory birds. Hahn estimates there are six bird islands in the area.


“They’re all disappearing,” he said.


The life that a little green will bring was immediately visible on a third island, where hundreds of pelicans and spoonbills were nesting, appearing to fight for space. A fecal aroma accompanied the spellbinding visual.

“That’s how you know there’s life,” said Albertine Kimble, a Parish coastal official.


The island is almost fully submerged, but the existence of green swamp grass and trees that are still living makes nesting possible. The birds frequently take off and land, sometimes in formation. The amateur eye may view it as the messy patterns of nature beautifully convering. But in fact, the spot is overpopulated. Once, the birds spread throughout six islands during nesting season.


“There’s nowhere else for them to go,” Hahn said of the nesting birds.



Despite the dire situation, the remaining life indicates to Parish officials that the islands can still be saved. In 2012, the Parish launched a program to bring back the mangrove trees that are crucial to nesting. Plaquemines-based citrus grower Becnel and Sons are growing mangrove trees, which will later be planted around the islands. But that will take time. In two years, the trees have only grown two feet and they aren’t yet ready to be played, Hahn said. Initial plans called for 40 acres to be restored in Cat Bay through the mangrove program, with Cat Island at the center.


But the parish lacks full funding for the $1.5 million program, as it is not part of the targeted projects contained in the state’s coastal master plan. Coastal restoration money from the disaster doled out by the RESTORE Act, which guarantees 80 percent of the money will flow to the Gulf, has also yet to determine with BP’s trial over negligence still ongoing. Settlement money from the criminal portion of BP's crimes have yet to be doled out. With the first phase of the trial complete, a second phase is still slated for the fall, and a decision that would determine any penalty money would come still later.


“We do not have the luxury of time to wait another year to begin restoring the environment and economy of America’s working coast," RESTORE Act authors and US Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) said in a statement this week. "Nearly a year ago, Congress overwhelmingly passed the RESTORE Act to direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to the Gulf for ecological and economic recovery. While we are disappointed no settlement has been reached, we are hopeful that the civil trial against the responsible parties will be completed as quickly as possible."


Meanwhile, the lack of roots to hold the sediment in place throws the future of the island into question.


“Any kind of storm surge this year…there’s nothing to hold this island together,” Nungesser said. “This island won’t be here.”


Return to the Sheen

The barrier islands also contribute to coastal land loss closer to shore. Salt water moving in and destroying the marsh already contributed to massive land loss in areas like Bay Jimmy. Oil only made things worse, Hahn said.


A sheen was still visible on the Bay as boats pulled up to a spot where globules of oil were still visible. Parish officials say they still frequently see sheen on the water, and Hahn revealed a location where oil is still present in the marsh grass. Lower tide would reveal more oil in the marsh grass, he said.


Plaquemines Parish isn’t the only place where oil is still found. A recent visit to Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish revealed what one might suspect to be tarballs dotting the shore, but appeared to be closer to rocks. Recent research conducted by LSU’s Water Resources Research Institute Director John Pardue revealed that oil was contained in these small rocks, or oil aggregates.


“You would look at this, and you would think, well that is just a rock,” Pardue said in comments provided by LSU. “But on the inside of these aggregates, you can see and smell oil.”


BP pulled up anchor on cleanup operations in the marshes around Plaquemines Parish virtually the moment the oil was capped in September, 2010, Hahn said. While boaters in the area described what was effectively a small flotilla when the Macondo well first started leaking, those crews of skimmers and barges quickly vanished.


A day after the flow was stanched, federal officials and BP held a press conference saying they would remain in the area. The next day, there was a mass exodus of cleanup crews away from Plaquemines Parish. Hahn went out to the neutral ground near Myrtle Grove Marina to take pictures, and within 20 minutes Nungesser was talking about the departure with Anderson Cooper on CNN.


These days, the Parish doesn’t clean up the oil for fear of making the effects worse.


“Just leave it,” Hahn said, when asked about the cleanup. “There’s nothing you can do.”
















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