Coastline Slowly Suffocates from BP Oil Spill

by Doug MacEachern

Storms were predicted for soggy, marshy Plaquemines Parish, La., this weekend, which means the odds are good that another layer of oil will be swept up out of the Gulf of Mexico and deposited onto another 10 feet or so of the parish’s grassy marshes.

In about a week, the thick, globby oil will have started suffocating the grass, transforming it to a sickly and dead glistening brown, just as it has been transforming hundreds of feet of marsh following the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which loosed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Everything living in the doomed marsh grass, of course, will suffer the same fate as the grass itself, unless someone acts quickly to clean the gelatinous mess from the hapless birds and beasts. If not quickly cleansed, a spot of oil on the breast of a pelican in short order becomes a death sentence, breaking down the bird’s natural protective oils coating its feathers. Formerly an aquatic garden of coastal life in all its forms, the marshes of Plaquemines Parish today reek with the chemical stench of rot and death.

The world has moved on from the infamous, accidental spill of oil that pulsated uncontrollably out of the BP-operated well. We have heard the reports that much of the oil has evaporated or otherwise magically disappeared from the Gulf waters.

We got comfortable with assurances that pelicans and turtles and dolphins were no longer in grave jeopardy and that the Louisiana seafood industry would survive. And we would be wrong on all counts.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was nothing compared with the lingering effects of the BP oil spill.

Earler this month, parish President Billy Nungesser traveled to Colorado Springs to take part in a symposium on homeland-security issues sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

What he reported was not reassuring. Not regarding the economic and environmental prospects for Plaquemines Parish. And not regarding the capacity of the American federal behemoth to react effectively to a large-scale crisis with anything remotely like efficiency.

“We are continuing to see a deterioration of the marsh from the oil spill of April 20, 2010,” said Nungesser. “And today, I still can’t tell you who is in charge of the cleanup.”

Nungesser tells a heartbreaking story of oil-devastated marshland, dead and dying beasts by the thousands and a shellfish industry whose once-bountiful catch is still struggling with contamination issues. Bad as the environmental havoc is, though, the real heartbreak is in the counterproductive, confused and destructively slow response of federal authorities, who Nungesser believes “were protecting BP from day one.”

Much of the bureaucratic failure that followed the Deepwater Horizon spill is well-documented.

Privately owned “jack up” boats with vacuum systems that could effectively suck out the oil were sent back to port by the Coast Guard. Thousands of volunteers who flooded southeastern Louisiana to help clean the shore and save wildlife were turned away from the beaches. Seemingly effective oil-skimming devices like the one brought to Plaquemines Parish by actor Kevin Costner were warehoused.

Good intentions gone awry help explain a bit of the incompetence.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a response to the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, placed responsibility for an ocean-spill cleanup largely in the hands of the oil company, in this case BP. Unlike the land-based bureaucratic havoc Louisianans faced following Katrina (which reserved authority for control of emergency operations with a slow-footed governor), the response to Deepwater Horizon by law was headed by BP, for good or ill.

But the tragic short-sightedness that even now is killing Plaquemines Parish is even worse than that. For almost five years, Nungesser and other parish officials had been fighting for a permit to restore a series of coastal sand berms that had eroded away. Had those berms been in place, a lot less oil would have found its way into the marshes.

Like so much else in disaster-plagued Louisiana these days, help came late.

Nineteen days after the Deepwater Horizon platform blew up, spewing millions of gallons of oil toward the Louisiana coast, the bureaucracy finally issued a permit alllowing Plaquemines Parish to build its berms. Once again, the bureaucratic cavalry arrived just in time to issue regulations and restrictions on burying the dead.

Originally published in The Arizona Republic