Where are all of the Gulf’s heroes now?

SEP 19, 2010

Back in May, on a fishing boat touring Brenton Bay, Herald photographer Joe Rimkus and I saw those first red tendrils of oil washing into Plaquemines Parish.

Blackened stands of Roseau cane seemed a harbinger of the catastrophe that would soon scourge the shorelines of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and, we thought with particular dread, Florida.

An intense drama was unfolding on the bay. An armada of shrimp boats trolled the surface, outriggers hung with absorbent booms, sopping up what oil they could. Eventually, 3,500 boats were pressed into the naval campaign to save Louisiana’s marshes.

And nearly every evening, parish presidents and other local pols made like local folk heroes, going on TV to rip BP and the feds.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal harangued the White House into approving his $360 million project to dredge up 40 miles of sand barriers out in the gulf — despite objections from marine scientists.


Now, 153 days later, the leak finally plugged, it turned out that oil-devouring microbes were the actual heroes (with help from lucky winds and favorable currents), staving off the coastal damage we had all imagined. (Bobby Jindal has spent $80 million so far building the first six miles of his boondoggle berm).

No one quite knows how the deep water ecology will be affected by 200 million gallons of oil and 777,000 gallons of chemical dispersants. Surely it’s a catastrophe. Just not the catastrophe we envisioned that day on Brenton Bay.

But the Deepwater Horizon spill was always a disaster within a disaster.

Sea life lost around the wrecked oil well only adds to the environmental havoc in the gulf.

Scientists might theorize that the BP oil spill killed marine life, but they know that agricultural nutrients and farm waste, flushed into the gulf from the Mississippi River, creates a giant, ever-expanding dead zone. Marine scientists have been watching this oxygen-depleted, fish-killing blob since 1972.

This summer they warned that it now encompasses 7,722 square miles — a fishless, algae-infested area nearly the size of New Jersey.

“The oil spill was such a visible disaster. I’m afraid it has diverted attention from the gulf’s problems as a whole,” worried Robert J. Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and an expert on the hypoxia phenomenon threatening the gulf and other coastal waters, including Florida Bay. Diaz knows that repairing the dead zone would mean taking on powerful agricultural interests whose fertilizers and waste runoffs pollute the Mississippi River basin. Without the kind of media interest roiled by the BP disaster, the gulf clean-up hasn’t attracted so many political champions.


 As the fleet of shrimp boats working frantically to keep oil out of the marshes, I kept thinking about the peculiar disconnect between their work and another man-made calamity — the re-plumbing of the Mississippi River channel to accommodate oil and shipping interests.

The Louisiana Office of Coastal Management estimates that the resulting erosion destroys a football field’s worth of coastal marshland every 38 minutes. It was as if the marshland was saved from oil only to be devoured by the encroaching sea.

But dead zones and coastal erosion are long festering, less dramatic disasters. With costly fixes. With damn few folk heroes clamoring for attention on the nightly news.

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