Sheila McNulty Oil hits Louisiana wetlands, confirming worst fears of locals

Louisiana’s wetlands are quiet except for the sound of the occassional bird or spash of a fish or other animal along its marshy banks. The grasses are high, making it difficult to spot prey and, therefore, a good hiding place for the shrimp, crabs and other animals that grow up in the maze of waterways that run through it. And for weeks now PJ Hahn, director of coastal zone management for the local government in Plaquemines parish, has hoped the oil from the leak in the Gulf would float ashore at a sandy beach somewhere far away instead of the state’s vulnerable wetlands. But this week his worst fears came true:

The oil is here now. It’s in the marsh. The side of the marsh with oil is quickly turning brown as it dies, even as the other side is green with life. The oil is toxic. It’s killling the marshes instantly. It’s so delicate. It’s so fragile.

Once the oil comes into the marshy and grassy wetlands, Edward Overton, Jr, Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, said that is where it can do the most damage, as those areas are filled with “critters’” that support the entire life in the waters. It has been a toss up whether to use dispersants on the oil offshore and expose animals to the chemicals or not to use dispersants, which would mean more likely exposure of the fragile wetlands to the oil. Given that virtually all of Louisiana’s shoreline is marshy and grassy – the worst environment for an oil spill – most, he said, believe it is better to go with offshore impacts than onshore impacts.

The dispersants do not make the oil disappear but rather make more available to natural degredation, which might break it down before it gets to the shore. That is why it is used if the water is deep enough, as it was in this spill. But the negative is that the oil is dispersed into the water column, where animals can be exposed to it. It is unclear at this stage what damage – if any – the dispersants are doing. But Robert J Gordon, an attorney with Weitz & Luxenberg, who is representing 500 commercial fishermen suing for the loss of income from the spill, said the firm is examining the dispersants being used to see whether its use will become another part of the claim. “We are concerned that the cure may be as bad as the injury,” he said.

Indeed, the US Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued a directive requiring BP to identify and use a less toxic and more effective dispersant from the list of EPA authorized dispersants. The directive requires BP to identify a less toxic alternative – to be used both on the surface and under the water at the source of the oil leak – within 24 hours and to begin using the less toxic dispersant within 72 hours of submitting the alternative. If BP is unable to identify available alternative dispersant products, BP must provide the Coast Guard and EPA with a detailed description of the alternative dispersants investigated, and the reason they believe those products did not meet the required standards. From the EPA news release:

While the dispersant BP has been using is on the agency’s approved list, BP is using this dispersant in unprecedented volumes and, last week, began using it underwater at the source of the leak – a procedure that has never been tried before. Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use. We reserve the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits.

Nonetheless, Ruth Hathaway, a member of the American Chemical Society Division of Environmental Chemistry, said she believes it is worth it to use the dispersants to break up the oil and keep it from endangering potentially more wildlife. She likened it to how cancer patients use chemotherapy and radiation: “Most people would take the risk and go through it if they could have a longer life.”

Regardless of the use of dispersants, the authorities are bracing for major impact. From US Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Rowan Gould:

This spill is significant, and in all likelihood will affect fish and wildlife resources in the Gulf – and across the North American Continent, for years, if not decades, to come.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has sent more than 200 personnel into the Gulf region to respond to the leak, conducting aerial and ground surveys to assess the damage, and recovering oiled or injured wildlife to be cleaned, healed and released in safe locations. It believes there are 25 national wildlife refuges at risk. And these are home to dozens of threatened and endangered species, including West Indian manatees, whooping cranes, Mississippi sandhill cranes, wood storks and four species of sea turtles.

So far the authorities say 30 birds have died from the spill, 13 oiled birds have been cleaned and, of those, four have been released. There has been one confirmed death of a dolphin, but the autopsy has not been completed so its cause is unclear. And the Fish and Wildlife Service said it expects the number to increase, noting birds can be exposed to oil as they float on the water or dive for fish through oil-slicked water, losing the ability to fly, and they can ingest the oil while preening. Sea turtles, such as loggerheads and leatherbacks, can be impacted as they swim to shore for nesting activities, the service said, adding turtle nest eggs may be damaged if an oiled adult lies on the nest. Oil has the potential to persist in the environment long after a spill and have long-term impacts on fish and wildlife, the agency said.

This explains why the local governments have not been content to let the federal authorities handle the leak for them. On Wednesday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal joined Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser took a boat off the coast of Plaquemines Parish, where they observed what they said was “substantial oil impact on Louisiana’s wetlands.” In the words of Mr Jindal:

We saw some heavy oil stranded in the wetlands. The oil is no longer just a projection or miles from our shore. The oil is here. It is on our shores and in our marsh…To put this in perspective, our state has already lost 2,300 square miles of coastal lands since the 1930s. This is like losing the entire state of Rhode Island or Delaware.

He is pleading with the Army Corps of Engineers to issue an emergency permit to dredge sandbooms along the coastline to preserve what is left of Louisiana’s fast-disappearing wetlands. While the state has been working aggressively to reverse this trend of coastal land and wetlands loss over the years, he said that progress is in danger, with the oil having the potential to stop and reverse the progress. Hurricanes, it seems, are no longer the biggest threat to Louisiana’s wetlands.