Oil on Freetown: checking up on the Bravo tanker spill

When the news broke on another tanker allision and spill on the Mississippi River 4 PM we at GRN thought it was worth keeping an eye on. After an after-hours bike ride to the berth of the Creole Queen near Spanish Plaza presented me with a tar smell, probably from crude oil that had escaped the Bravo and had been swiftly sped into the Gulf past New Orleans on a high Mississippi River, we decided to follow up on the scene.GRN, for the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, had quickly identified the Bravo as the 816 foot tanker near Convent, using the live Marine tracker, and found its location, moored and not under command, near Freetown St, St James Parish. RiverKeeper confirmed the vessel. We used online maps to find an accessible, public batture area where we could view any oil that might remain downstream from the Bravo on the riverbank. River conditions were high, so we knew we’d only be able to look for oil at certain locations–we picked a mowed clearing near a dock by Chatman Town, a mile downriver. We woke at dawn to collect our gear and drive to the river parishes. A morning fog rolled over the levee and into a kids’ basketball game across from the massive Bravo. The tanker, only half-visible in the clouds–even 500 feet away, was moored awkwardly at the small dock for barges.Sure enough, the quarter-mile area of low- energy batture we surveyed was swirling with brown oil, attached to grey and rainbow sheen. The low visibility meant that we were probably the only ones finding sheen–the haze meant that the normal shine of oil was not visible unless the water was viewed personally. Although we couldn’t smell tar or the gas-station smell of benzene, we knew it was being masked by the water and damp all around us–the river, the batture, the fog. We took our location and photographs and started to work on a report to the National Response Center–location, description of the material, wind and water conditions, and how to drive to the scene. We drove up to the dock where the Bravo was tied–OMI was on scene with a few trailers worth of boom–but we decided we needed to report this material to expand the scope of operations, at least to the wetland batture. If we had had more time, and not been occupied with our regular work day, we could have searched other downstream, low-energy areas where oil was likely to float and collect, or used the Public Lab oil testing kit to find more obscure contaminants. Reportedly, Coast Guard conducted an additional search for oil on the river shorelines above New Orleans because of our report.By the time we drove into work, news outlets were beginning to announce that all oil spilled had been contained; but we know that our government can be too quick to say that everything is ok. It’s not coincidence, it seems, that allisions happen when both the captain’s and our fact-checking eyes in the sky at Skytruth are clouded by the fog rolling off a springtime river. This spill was limited; but the smell passing New Orleans at night, and the tickle in my throat was reason to think that additional eyes would be needed.The Gulf Coast is the nation’s oil sacrifice zone–even without a river fog, there’s a lot of damage that passes unseen. There never seem to be enough eyes on the industry to ensure full compliance with the law, and to keep the water clean. If the real impacts were ever really documented, the science might interfere with the easy money industry makes on the river. We’re glad to have added to the massive, unfinished work to keep the river clean, and other throats tickle-free.Scott Eustis, M.S. is GRN’s coastal wetland specialistPictures from the trip can be view on GRN’s flickr page.You can learn about spills ireported n your area by signing up for Skytruth’s alert system.

Scroll to Top