First Week Review: In Search of Oil


BP Clean Up Workers

BP clean up workers "beach combing the Sargassum weed" at Topsail State Park, Gulf Shores, Florida. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)


Journeys begin in two ways – destination known, destination unknown.  For editors, producers, sponsors and others paying the bills, the first is the ideal journey, it has certainty before you pack your bags.  For the adventurer, the perambulator, the curious kid, the latter holds all the promise – it’s the place of mystery, where serendipity sleeps.

I landed in New Orleans last Tuesday and based on everything read, heard and seen (via the media) I expected to see an oil disaster.  I mean you can’t spew 220 million gallons of oil into the Gulf and not notice.  Three months later, yes you can.  Or at least here in the river delta of denial is where in search for “destination unknown” begins.

I popped out of the airport, raced off eastbound and hugged the Gulf Coast as close as every road would take me en route to the Florida panhandle.  A major focus of this work is for the National Audubon Society, and Florida state coordinator Julie Wraithmell urged my quick arrival there before everyone packs up an leaves; then I would double back to the spill bull’s eye, Louisiana.

An hour later, wading through endless traffic lights on I-90 I was dangerously close to the Mississippi border and the situation looked dire?  Where was the oil – at least the outward alarm bells?  Even a tinkle, something Tinkerbell size, one lone hand-painted sign of protest would help?  Did I fly to the right Gulf?

Stopping in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a 128 miles into the humid Gulf night I checked into the hotel hearing the receptionist calmly, confidently, without breaking stride in reservation preparation, explain to a visiting German family that their beaches were fine, it was “Florida, Alabama and especially Louisiana that had oil.” An hour later in the only non-chain eatery still open I grabbed a pizza and pint and chatted with Laura, my server, same story, “not our beaches” but she quickly added in a melancholy I-haven’t-made-much-in-tips manner, “but people are not coming, it’s really slow.” I felt the need to contribute, my tip exceeded obligation.  Really, no oil? was this filtered down tourism politico-speak for NIMBY?

The next morning my trek eastward along the Gulf Coast continued along the surf worn edge of Alabama as the road alternated through patches of bayou, tiny fishing towns, crowded by shrimp boats with their towering riggings swaying idly – the season or the scare? – and resort hotel jammed tourist strips (I hesitate to call these towns despite the expensively large “Welcome to…” signs proclaiming in each case The Wonderful… or The Greatest…) that caused me more concern for the coast ecology than the spill I can’t find.

East of Pascagoula the coast from Google Earth looks like a giant sea monster took three voracious bites out of the coast just before Mobile Bay.  Land leftovers from those bites form a thin trail of sandy crumbs into the Gulf, at times not much wider than Hwy 193, a long upward arching causeway ends at Dauphin Island – I heard it got hit.

Just as the causeway tilted up docks poked out in to the bay on each side, each circumcised in bright orange and yellow strands of boom.  On the west the boom rested ten feet off a shore of dense reeds and thin margin of muddy beach never more than two feet wide.  Royal terns squawk their mechanical squeaky complaints as they wheeled and dove just in front of the boom.  On the shore, behind the boom, a few willets and sandpipers prodded the sand mud.  On the eastside the brown pelican perch doubled as a pointlessly deployed boom.  Like so much of the boom I saw over the coming few days, it seemed to serve no oil prevention purpose instead like a three-year old’s owie-bandaid was a cheap placebo to quiet the public outcries for immediate action.  A state wildlife enforcement agent pulled in beside me as I photoed the pelicans surfing the boom, he was here “because oil might be.” There had been some, but the island had a “significant response team here pretty fast, so everything was controlled.” Across the causeway bridge parish sheriffs sat sentry to the entrance of a side street designated as a “Oil Spill Response Area”, a couple acre construction site of ATVs, bulldozers and WM green dumpsters – stuffed with assorted opaque plastic bags.  From the outside it appeared there was more packing up than heading out.

Instead of backtracking up and around Mobile Bay I paid the $16 fare on the open deck ferry across to the Gulf Shores-Perdido Keys where Florida takes ownership of the Gulf Coast.  The ferry pulled out of dock with an orange string of oil boom serpentining along the front of the adjacent reeds and inlet, beachfront homes lined the water beyond the boom.

Sailing 40 minutes across the mouth of the bay the roll oil plays  in the Gulf becomes blatantly obvious, there is a correlation between Mobile as in Bay and Mobile and in large oil company (now ExxonMobile).  Rigging and platforms, and container ships and barges litter the waters to the horizon in every direction.  In fact, that has been the one constant driving the Gulf Coast, I have never been out of site of an oil platform in the Gulf.  These aren’t the super rigs like Deepwater Horizon/BP, or the mega-monster-rig like BP’s Atlantis–twenty times the pumping capacity, they are much small shallow water operations, architecturally awkward-looking, like a child’s erector set miscues.  They are part of the 517 club, those less than 1,000 feet deep, off the Obama moratorium radar.  On board a dozen cars, trucks and SUVs, share the ride, most are holidayers, each oil rig warrants a few snaps.  I think the Dauphin Island tourist folks are missing an opportunity here – oil rigs are the big curiosity, with a couple sightseeing boats they could be making a killing.

After a brief landing in Alabama the highway becomes Florida’s and threads its way along Perdido Key – where in reality a road should never have been.  This section of the Gulf Shore, like those stretching east, is a narrow sand strip, barely above wave crest, not above hurricane surge.  Sands have piled into dunes and stabilized where the oat grass has wrapped its tenacious roots around enough sand grains to call the place home.  If the pounding Gulf doesn’t issue foreclosure a pine seed or two take up residence and in time a hummock or other sand island community of plants creates the illusion of permanency.  Resort developers are quick to follow.  In their wake chain stores, gas stations, marinas, gaudy seafood restaurants and faux tropical bars.

On a map, Google or otherwise, the panhandle shows long green stretches of coast reaching eastward to Panama City, cartography slight-of-hand.  The color should be concrete grey, beachfront pink, and some sun-washed tone of aqua – and by night, neon; God help a misguided sea turtle seeking nesting opportunities in this carnival of lights.

Thursday morning I met up with Julie, graciously breaking from her overworked schedule of lobbying, conservation  planning, disaster mitigation issues, and marketing media opportunities born out of the spill; BP has conveniently doubled her weekly workload, unfortunately none of it, or the other Gulf Audubon folks will be making a BP disaster claim for the overtime.  They, like thousands of others in wildlife and coastal conservation, are here long after the disaster clamor quiets – like shrimpers and oystermen, they live here.

We begin the morning at Camp Helen State Park, it was a clean up staging area, most of that has dissipated.  A few lone ATVs  full of BP contractors patrol the beach.  Julie wants me to see the “berm”.  The problematic pile of sand blocking the “outwash” from the freshwater coastal Powell Lake.  In this case a berm is simply a bulldozed pile of sand choking off the flow of water from Powell to the Gulf.  It shuts off the natural exchange, an ebb and flow, a delicate dance of nutrients which seabirds and others are dependent.

The thinking was a berm would prevent oil from “backing” into the outwashing lake waters.  The Florida panhandle has the only stretch of these rare coastal lakes in the US – definitely worth protecting.  Yes protecting – I look at Julie and ask the obvious, “So, this rare lake habitat has house all around the backside?” It’s just the first in a day of rhetorical questions and follow up smiles regarding Florida’s real commitment to the Gulf environment.

This and the three other berms we saw were the hyper-reactive, knee-jerk political solution by BP and local officials to look like they were on proactive, taking action, they were on the job and doing something.  In reality the berms are cosmetic, like most of the clean up activity I would see in the panhandle.  If the public, that herd-mentality mass were a species, it would have died out long ago.  The cause?  Stupidity.  The mass wants to feel good (berms and booms), regardless how poor and inappropriate – stupid – the solution.  So if a berm is good, berms and boom are better.  Since Obama declared this a war on the spill I couldn’t help think of author Jim Frederick’s words on war, “Human organizations are flawed because humans are flawed. Even with the best intentions, men make errors in judgment and initiate courses of actions that are counterproductive…”

Julie and I eventually found oil, sorta, “tar balls”.  Really they were just thumbnail-sized bits breaded in beach sand – as Julie described it, “Have you seen cat poop in a litter box? That’s what you’re looking for.”  Over the next two days that about summed it up – cat poop.  On the other hand, BP had mobilized enough heavy machinery and bodies to excavate the entire panhandle, bag it, and take it away.  Despite blue t-shirted wildlife overseers contracted (also by BP) to slow the traffic and protect seabird nests and chicks, the beaches were turned into freeways of traffic.  One could only ponder the impact.  And wonder if these beaches would have been better off with a “wee bit-O-poo.”

It’s now Sunday morning approaching 9AM and already the humidity is climbing, dragging the heat with it, both are hirer than the sun in the sky.  And that sky is a bright powdery grey-white over the south end of Magazine Street in New Orleans.  On the porch of Luna’s Coffee House a circular fan spins in desperation, joined by an occasional sympathetic breeze from the south.  Droplets of sweat race in a half-dozen tracks down my torso and merge in my shorts.  A few other folks share the porch, engrossed in coffee conversation, equally sweating profusely, their shirts dark stained, apparently sweat-unaware.  They do have the “southern wipe” which separates the them from the “y’all.”  My wipes of sweat are purposeful, directed, obtuse.  The N’awlinders have experience, born on youthful summer days, practiced on prom nights, and refined at dinners with the family.  N’awlinders have practice.  They brush sweat way, like it was a dab of light perspiration, not the torrent that now courses down my chest and forms a canal large enough to deserve its own levee.

From the view off this porch there was never a spill.  At the cross streets of Magazine & Nashville business at Cafe Luna is doubling every fifteen minutes and so too the traffic – New Orleans is waking up to a world no different than that of Sunday April 18th before eleven people died 50 miles out in the Gulf from here and the mystery of 5 billion barrels of crude caused a nation to pause, before slipping into the passing lane and re-accelerating.  The only difference in those two Sundays it seems is the sweat soaking my shirt.

So where  is the disaster?

I mean you can’t spew 220 million gallons of oil into the Gulf and not notice.  It doesn’t work that way, despite what BP execs and the President Obama would like to pretend.  Somewhere there is enough crude working it’s way through the food chain to breach all the best berms constructed around the down stream effect.  It’s not conspiracy theory at work, it’s web-of-life theory at work.  That’s where this journey travels.

And then my iPhone alerts me to an incoming email, it’s from David J. Ringer, Mississippi River Initiative Communications Coordinator with the National Audubon Society, he’s forwarding an article on Algae choking Breton, Chandeleur Sounds.  It quotes,  Sibel Bargu Ates, an LSU professor and algae specialist, “It’s a little unusual to see this type of algae — a dinoflagellate — in the summer, but it’s definitely algae, not oil,”.  Four months into it, is the food chain beginning to react?

Tomorrow out into the Barataria Bay and Grand Isle – into the bull’s eye.

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