FOURCHON BEACH — At first glance, this wide, windswept stretch of sand at the southern tip of Lafourche Parish looks just as it should.
Seabirds skim above marsh grass and skip along the surf, pausing to dip their beaks into the water or peck in the mud-colored sand that sits atop the remains of a ridge formed by Bayou Lafourche sediment thousands of years ago.
Don’t be fooled, said Forrest Travirca, an inspector and caretaker of sorts for the 9.5-mile stretch of beach owned by the not-for-profit Wisner Donation, a private land trust.
Oil is everywhere
It sits beneath the sand in layers, left there when crude began washing up after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010 and later covered by the wind and waves that constantly reshape the beach. Mats of oil snared in marsh lie just below the waterline a few feet from shore. And when the innocuous-looking balls of sand that constantly wash up are broken open, a smell akin to fresh asphalt wafts out.
“It looks clean, but you don’t know what’s underneath, that’s the problem,” said Travirca, who has been documenting the spill’s impact on the beach for the Wisner Donation nearly daily for a year and a half. “There is oil under this sand. Tropical Storm Lee showed us it is there.”
Frequent re-oilings related to BP’s Macondo well blowout will plague areas like Fourchon Beach, Grand Isle and other parts of the state’s coast for years to come, state officials and scientists say.
“I would think there’s a lot of oil in the bottom of the sediment,” said Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program based at Nicholls State University and a former member of the state’s oil-spill response team. “We’re going to see oil showing up on the beaches for quite some time.”
The Coast Guard, charged with monitoring BP’s cleanup of coastal Louisiana and other areas affected by the spill, insists that last month’s shift to the Shoreline Cleanup Completion Plan, which lays out a new framework for pronouncing oiled areas clean, doesn’t end BP’s responsibility from removing future oil that washes up.
But state and local officials, as well as Cathy Norman, secretary-treasurer of the Wisner Donation, remain skeptical of the job BP has done cleaning up some oiled areas and refuse to endorse the plan.
Critics say the plan fails to provide a program for long-term monitoring, will make it harder to get BP to respond to new oil that washes up and takes local and state officials out of crucial decisions affecting the state’s coast.
And the plan, which doesn’t require state approval to be implemented, renders a prior agreement reached between local parishes, the state, BP and the Coast Guard obsolete.
“It really seems like a scenario where BP wrote the plan, BP came up with recommendations, and the Coast Guard rubber-stamped it,” said Garret Graves, head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
“First and foremost, BP is not off the hook,” said Chief Petty Officer John Edwards, a Coast Guard spokesman. “This Shoreline Completion Plan was six months in the making. This is part of the natural progression of cleanup.”
In areas “deemed clean” according to criteria established by the Unified Command, active cleanup can cease, Edwards said. Any oil that washes up in the future will be reported through the Coast Guard’s National Response Center, as before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It will be tested to ensure it came from the BP well before BP is ordered to deploy crews to clean it.
St. Pé said the oil should still be identifiable as coming from the Macondo well even as it ages. “Oil is a very complex mixture of organic chemicals. Certain oil from a certain formation or a certain well has a distinct fingerprint,” he said, adding that “there’s almost no chance that another oil has the same components in the same proportions.”
St. Pé said the transition makes sense.
“It’s not very efficient to have a whole bunch of cleanup workers standing around doing nothing,” he said. “It’s a fact in Louisiana. We have thousands of spills a year. … It’s a possibility that fresh oil could wash up and it’s not BP oil.”
However, Graves said reverting to the Coast Guard’s legacy oil-spill response when about a million barrels of BP oil remain unaccounted for in the Gulf makes no sense.
“In areas with oil, you need to keep those areas in active response. In other areas with repeated re-oilings, you need to have some type of response capacity in place,” he said. “You can’t just go back into legacy response. That’s not sufficient capacity.”
Graves cited two recent instances in which he said the Coast Guard was called to investigate reports of oil on the water and showed up without a boat.
“That’s their legacy response,” he said. The new plan also includes exceptions that allow BP and the Coast Guard to unilaterally waive the cleanup standards if they choose to do so, he added.
Graves said the state wants the Coast Guard and BP to follow the transition plan coastal parishes and the state signed in 2010, which, among other stipulations, requires parishes to be consulted before any change in response levels is implemented.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a contract they signed, and we’re going to hold them accountable,” Graves said. He says state officials are pursuing talks with Coast Guard officials in Washington, D.C., to put the brakes on the new plan.
“There’s a degree of common sense that’s missing in this case,” he said.
CUT OUT OF THE PROCESS?
Norman said the Wisner Trust has spent considerable sums of its own money to monitor BP’s Fourchon Beach cleanup. And while BP has told her the company is 80 percent finished, an independent review says otherwise, she said.
BP and the Unified Command have set different cleanup standards for different types of oiled areas. Despite the fact that it had been open to the public before the spill, though without vehicle access, Fourchon has been classified as a “non-residential, non-amenity” sand beach, which means a more-lenient standard for what constitutes clean. The new Coast Guard plan defines that standard as “less than 1 percent visible surface oil and oiled debris” and “no subsurface oil exceeding 1 1/4 inch in thickness,” or “as low as reasonably practicable considering the allowed treatment methods and net environmental benefits.”
Determining what less than 1 percent visible surface oil means amounts to basically “eyeballing” the beach, Norman said.
Wisner’s contracted study shows Fourchon Beach has more oil than that and, as a result, requires more active cleanup, Norman said.
“We have hired our own independent scientists who have determined they have not met those standards,” she said.
The Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique teams, which are hired by BP and hold much of the decision-making power in deciding when areas are sufficiently clean, failed to look for much of the oil that remains buried on the beach, she said. Markers that note where oil has been found beneath the sand and under water near shore were placed there by Travirca, not by BP workers, who have also left bags of oily debris half-buried in the sand.
“There’s so much power in the SCAT teams, and the SCAT teams are paid by BP,” she said.
THE BEACH NEXT DOOR
While the Wisner property has been closed since the spill, the beach at neighboring Elmer’s Island has been open to the public since Memorial Day and was packed with visitors on Labor Day weekend.
A week before Thanksgiving, an unoccupied excavator was parked near the waterline. It had been digging a shallow pit that exposed black, oily sand buried beneath the surface, emblematic of what Wisner officials says is also buried along their beach.
Asked if BP has a plan to remove buried oil on Fourchon Beach, a spokesman, Curtis Thomas, said the company is finishing up cleaning the oil uncovered by Tropical Storm Lee.
“We have a maintenance and monitoring plan that will allow us to monitor the area for as long as is deemed necessary,” he said. “While it is not anticipated that significant amounts of (BP) oil will surface, if future weather conditions cause residual (BP) oil to surface and impact the shoreline, the Coast Guard has indicated that it will follow long-standing response protocols established under the law and will contact the responsible party.”
For Norman, the new plan does little to inspire confidence in getting her beach cleaned up, since there’s oil buried that BP never saw come ashore and won’t look for.
And no one will make the company do it, she says., adding that Wisner sued BP earlier this year.
“They’ve excluded us from the process completely, the Coast Guard especially,” she said. “They’re going to try everything they can to avoid further cleanup on our beach. They’re certainly not going to consult us about it.”
The “fox” is again in charge of the henhouse, she added.