Oil soaked Louisiana wetlands may have to be burned to be saved
by Staff Writers
Venice, Louisiana (AFP) May 20, 2010
The thick globs of oil now coating delicate grasses along Louisiana's
fragile coast threaten a slow and painful death for countless
waterfowl, wildlife and their wetland habitat.
Cleaning up the maze of marshes, where there's nothing to stand on and
shallow-bottomed boats are needed to navigated the narrow channels, is
a logistical nightmare.
Unlike a beach or rocky shore, crews can't just drive up with a backhoe
or a mop. And there are plenty of places for frightened wildlife to
hide from rescue workers as the oil slowly smothers them.
Experts say the best options may be to simply leave the oil there or,
if the clumps are too thick, burn it off.
"When you start moving all the grasses and marshes around you might
actually cause more damage than letting it biodegrade on its own,"
LuAnn White, director of Tulane University's Center for Applied
Environmental Health, told AFP.
"Exactly what will be done really depends on how much really gets in
there and how much damage is being done and I don't think we know that
Favorable winds and currents have kept the bulk of a massive oil slick
from reaching the coast in the month since the BP-leased Deepwater
Horizon sank spectacularly some 50 miles (80 kilometers) offshore and
set off one of the worst ecological
disasters in US history.
But with some 49 miles of shoreline now affected, Louisiana Governor
Bobby Jindal said more action must be taken to hold back the black tide.
"This spill fundamentally threatens Louisiana's way of life," Jindal
said after inspecting the thick black oil pushing its way into his
state's fragile wetlands. "The oil is here and the time to act is now."
Jindal is seeking permission from the US Coast Guard to build "sand
booms" to protect barrier islands and has been begging for more boom to
be deployed along the coast.
Officials have already been dropping sandbags and building temporary
dams to protect sensitive areas.
The area houses 40 percent of the nation's wetlands which are a major
stopping point for migratory birds and provides prime breeding grounds
for the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that support a 2.4 billion
dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry.
Coast Guard Captain Edwin Stanton downplayed the current impact as
"little" and on a "very small marsh."
"It's not going to kill the marsh for ever," he told AFP.
The coast guard plans to place containment booms in the marsh, use
low-pressure water to flush out the oil and capture the mess using a
skimmer and other equipment.
As a "last ditch effort," the coast guard was considering burning the
affected marshes, Stanton said.
"We've done that before, that's an acceptable tactic to remove oil from
the marsh, but you can only do that once," he said. "So you want to
have a lot of oil before you do it. The marsh grass will regrow."
Local leaders and environmentalists were beginning to despair.
"Twenty-four miles of Plaquemines Parish is destroyed. Everything in it
is dead," Billy Nungesser, head of the parish in southern Louisiana,
told US cable news station MSNBC. "There is no life in that marsh. You
won't clean it up."
"We've been begging BP to step up to the plate," said Nungesser. The
slick is "destroying our marsh, inch by inch," and will keep on coming
ashore for weeks and months, he said.
Greenpeace campaigner Lindsay Allen was equally despondent as she
collected samples from a bayou near Venice, Louisiana where thick brown
oil coated the shells of crabs and the stems of grasses.
"There is no way to cleanup all this mess," she told AFP. "It's too big
of a problem."
A typical recovery rate for oil spills is about 20 percent. Given how
dispersed the oil is in the Gulf most experts expect the recovery rate
on this spill to be far lower.
BP succeeded Thursday in increasing the rate of oil being siphoned from
the burst pipe some 5,000 feet below the surface to 5,000 barrels per
day, but it could be weeks before the leak is finally capped and the
total amount gushing into the sea could be many times that.
"This spill is significant," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the
US Fish and Wildlife Service. "In all likelihood it will affect
wildlife in the Gulf and the North American continent for years."