Oil on the Front Lines

Oil, spattered across our Front Lines of Defense Cathy Norman, Secretary Treasurer of the Edward Wisner Donation, speaks to me about the presence and persistence of oil on Fourchon Beach and throughout the Wisner donation. The sandstone Cathy holds are mottled with brown, degraded oil from the BP disaster.On Tuesday Jonathan and I traveled to Fourchon Beach, on the Wisner Donation Property, to meet with Cathy Norman and Forrest Travirca of Wisner and discuss the trials and tribulations of maintaining this important front line of defense against storms, despite the impact of BP’s oil and the clean-up response. Much oil from the Macondo blowout remains on the beach, turning one of Louisiana’s treasures into a solid waste disposal site. Some of the mechanical processing of oil has accelerated erosion of the beach to the point of no return. BP’s disaster has halted the ongoing restoration efforts necessary to sustain the island, in a critical time when the island is disappearing before our eyes. At many locations along Fourchon Beach, amid nesting least terns and feeding sandpipers, clumps of oil wrapped in sand clumps like “oil geodes” litter the beach every few feet. Additional oil can be found by scraping down only inches into the sand. Although from a glance, this may look like a lump of clay, the telltale smell of fresh asphalt confirms that this black and brown goo is degraded oil. Although the island has been rapidly degrading, losing an average of 46 feet of shoreline a year (more than 20 times the national average), and has lost many of its historic Oak ridges and much of its dune elevation, the beaten barrier beach continues to protect the marshes and population behind it. It remains a critical feature in the protection of Port Fourchon, the nation’s gateway to offshore oil production, and the LOOP pipeline, a 3-foot pipe carrying only about half of the United States’ domestic refinery capacity. Although oil rigs and shrimp vessels dominate the horizon, the beach provides a critical refuge for birds–resting areas for those migrating on the Mississippi Flyway, and nesting areas for many Least Terns, and the threatened Wilson’s Plover. Gulf Sturgeon overwinter in Caminada and Belle passes on either end of the island, and the protected marshes beyond shelter the shrimp, crab, and fish species we know and eat. Restoration of Fourchon Beach was delayed by BP’s disaster, and every year of delay will increase the project costs exponentially. In this location, heavily eroded from wave action, storms, and from truck and heavy machine activity from BP’s clean up, the alluvial mud underneath the sand is exposed to the Gulf of Mexico. In this spot, Fourchon Beach is a beach no more. Oiled, heavily oiledThe oil that remains is very telling of our misunderstanding of the growth and life of the islands and how that misunderstanding can destroy them. Much of the oil washed ashore during tropical and subtropical events, immediately followed by the large amounts of re-suspended sand that accompany such events. The sand mixed with and covered the oil and the oil was layered into the ground very rapidly, during a time period when clean up crews were evacuated from the site for safety reasons. Even the small storm Alex was enough to inundate the weakened beach. Resuspended oil and sand is mixed and over-layered so that oil can be found several feet below the top of the beach. (PHOTO CREDIT: NOAA) Site Investigator Forrest Travirca scrapes away only inches of sand to find layers of oil. The Roseau cane patch growing over the oil patch has few new sprouts this spring. close up of roseau cane growing through layers of oil and sand, exposed by the tideA Haunting Reminder (note: disturbing images)Although we traveled to the beach to talk to the landowners and managers about the oil itself, and its impacts upon the beach, we were met with a haunting reminder of the oil’s toxic effects, and the immense weight of the task that lies before us. Restoring the Gulf from this one event will take the rest of our fleeting lifetimes. As if to show us this, an eight-foot dolphin washed ashore just as we returned from the western edge of the beach. At first, we thought the animal could be alive. But after several harrowing minutes, we relented our search for signs of life. The LDWF station on Grand Isle was called, and a rare truck was allowed to scour more sand from the beach so that our fellow mammal could be transported to the wildlife station and autopsied. .Moments like this fill one with rage, but also a profound humility. We wish those who push for more and unregulated drilling offshore could witness this beach and this lost animal, that they might know that their greed has deathly consequences for us all.At the very least, our presence on the beach Tuesday will result in an autopsy to determine whether BP’s oil, or an effect of BP’s changing the very biogeochemical nature of the Gulf, is to blame for the animal’s death. On the eastern part of the property, a couple of other dolphin carcasses showed us the fate of most dolphin strandings: if not detected early enough, their bodies are too rotted for autopsy, merely sampled and left for the crabs. a large dolphin carcass, one of a pair left to decompose on the eastern portion of the beach. According to Forrest, this crime scene is seven months old. Despite the carnage, despite the remnant oil, the Unified Command response is pushing Wisner to certify that this beach is “NFT,” no further treatment. We beg to differ.

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