Gulf coast oil slick headed for Grand Isle, Louisiana

By By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. — It has become an epic contest between water and oil along the Gulf Coast. Government officials have now opened wide the Mississippi River outlets — what they call the diversions — in a desperate attempt to overwhelm the massive oil slick approaching the ragged shoreline of Louisiana. This hydraulic defense employs snowfall from Montana, floodwater from Tennessee. The mighty river drains half the country, and every creek and stream and seep from the Rockies to the Appalachians has been enlisted in the battle.

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But still it appears the oil is winning.

A steady wind from the southeast is blowing the oil ashore and into coastal bays. The forecast by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration projects a massive landfall Sunday to the west of the Mississippi River. The heaviest patch of oil is taking dead aim at Port Fourchon, which has boomed thanks to the proliferation of deepwater drilling.

Already the slick has polluted some of the biologically richest waters in America. Even worse damage could take place this week as oil soaks the beaches and passes through the feeble barrier islands to the inland bays, marshes and estuaries — the nurseries for shrimp, oysters crabs. The names of these places will be in the news in the days ahead: Terrebonne Bay, Timbalier Bay, Caminada Bay and Barataria Bay. "All the diversions are wide open," Myron Fischer, director of a research lab for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Grand Isle, said of the river. "Just trying to push."

But a prevailing current near the mouth of the Mississippi flows east to west toward Texas, and it has caught the oil. An eddy appears to be forcing it directly toward Port Fourchon and Grand Isle.

What is poised to be a major disaster for fecund ecosystems ranging from brackish marsh to deep coral reefs in the darkness of the continental slope comes on top of decades of man-made stress: The gulf coast fisheries have long been threatened by the slow-motion crisis of coastal erosion.

For at least a century, the natural landscape has been pummeled by heavy industry and human engineering projects. With the river largely imprisoned between high levees, the natural floodwaters are no longer allowed to feed sediment to the marshes. Moreover, the oil companies cut canals for pipes and drilling rigs in the marshlands. All of this made it easier for salt water to invade the brackish estuaries. The grass died. Marsh became open water. Barrier islands began to erode. Hurricanes blasted them further.

The result is that Louisiana is vanishing. The state has lost 2,300 square miles of land since the 1930s, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said this week.

"If a foreign country tried to take this land away from us, we’d fight them," he said.

Jindal has joined with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser in a campaign to win a permit to dredge a new set of barrier islands — what Jindal calls sand booms — as the first line of defense against the oil. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not granted the permit, and Nungesser has grown increasingly exasperated.

"We can’t lose this war. Because we’ll never recover," Nungesser said.

The most vulnerable part of this ecosystem is the grass, the "canes," that give purchase to larval shrimp and other organisms that float in from the open gulf.

The marsh can’t be cleaned, officials say. Trying to clean it will only kill the roots and push the oil into the muck, said Jeff Dauzat, an environmental scientist with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. "If we can keep [it] out of marsh, we’ll have a terrible year, but we’ll rebound. But if we get a lot of the thick stuff in the marsh, it may hamper us for years," said Windell Curole, director of the South Lafourche Levee District. Meanwhile the gulf’s "dead zone" is already forming, said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. The dead zone appears every year in the deep water where fertilizer from the middle of the country flows out of the Mississippi River and incites a massive plankton bloom that depletes much of the oxygen in the water.

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She said she didn’t know how the oil spill will affect the dead zone.

"We’re in uncharted waters," Rabalais said.

"You cannot have that much oil on the surface of the water over such a large area without affecting the organisms that live on the upper water column," she added. "It’s the plankton, the fish larvae, the fish eggs, the marine mammals that live out there, the sea turtles, ocean birds."

Here in Grand Isle, locals fear the destruction of what they consider a fishing paradise. Buggie Vegas, owner of Grand Isle’s Bridgeside Marina, the home base of the Labor Day Redfish Rodeo, said of the oil slick: "It’s like a big hurricane out there, just drifting around. Where it’s going, we don’t know."

To the east is the Mississippi and its long, clawlike delta that seems to point to the site where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank. In Plaquemines Parish, the river is hidden from sight behind the levee. The top half of a great ocean freighter, studded with smokestacks, will pass slowly on the other side of the grassy berm and suggest an unseen waterway of immense scale.

Over countless millennia, the river juked and weaved through South Louisiana and built the delta, abandoning old channels, finding new routes to the sea. Now the river is a giant canal with the sole purpose of navigation. It has been dredged and lined with coarse stones known as riprap. The riparian zone has nothing so wild as an overhanging tree. The Father of Waters is now effectively a drain at the bottom of the country.

A few days ago an old man climbed to the top of the levee in Empire, a fishing town on Highway 23, the road that runs along the final stretch of the river before it reaches the gulf. The current looked strong, rushing south toward the spill.

"That’s what’s saving us — the river’s up," said Lawrence "Brother" Stipelcovich.

He is 82 years old, born right here, a fisherman all his life, the grandson of Croatian immigrants. He can boast that he got the croaker industry going, the pompano industry, the mullet industry. Along the way, everything changed.

"In 1935, the oil companies came down here to Plaquemines Parish. Then we noticed the land started sinking," he said.

Three feet the land subsided, he figures. Marshland vanished before his eyes. Where his father once dug a narrow canal for boats to reach a nearby bay there is now wide-open water.

He’s worried, though not for himself, because his time is limited.