Oil still in Louisiana's marshes two years after start of Gulf Oil Disaster [w/Video and Photos]

Oil remains a major threat to Louisiana’s wetlands, impacting wildlife and exacerbating the erosion of the state's coast

04-10-2012 // Craig Guillot

Two years after the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, killing eleven men and spilling 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, oil remains a major threat to Louisiana’s wetlands. Biologists and wildlife advocates say the disaster is far from over -- oil can still be found beneath the surface in marshes and it is impacting wildlife and exacerbating the erosion of the state's coast.

NWF believes the most important step in restoration is the passage of the RESTORE Act, which would put the billions of dollars in fines that BP and the other responsible parties will pay to work on the damaged areas of the Gulf Coast. From sediment diversions to marsh creation and barrier island restoration, there are many projects that could significantly rebuild the wetlands if they only had the funding.



Oil still heavy in Bay Jimmy

On March 29, 2012, an NWF team ventured out into Barataria Bay and Bay Jimmy where they found evidence that the oil disaster is far from over.

On at least one small marsh island in Bay Jimmy, the NWF team found heavy oil just beneath the surface. Oil oozed to the surface with almost every step. Still liquid, the crude oil appeared just as it did when it washed along Louisiana's coast in April 2010. NWF had visited the area and rediscovered oil the week before.

“When we first got there it looked okay, but when you moved around, oil would come bubbling up from just below the surface of the marsh. It was all over,” said NWF coastal scientist Alisha Renfro, Ph.D.

Renfro said while oil may remain below the surface during the winter, it can emerge in the spring and summer when the heat softens it up and liquefies it. This was discovered in the summer of 2011 when many places that were previously thought “clean” saw new oil emerge to the surface.

When oil first hit the marshes in the spring of 2010, it covered the leaves of marsh grasses and smothered the plants. Now, in addition to the oil just beneath the surface, some remains on the surface and has become a hard thick layer that prevents sunlight and oxygen from reaching the roots of the grasses.

“Nothing can penetrate the surface mat, and everything starts to die. Below the surface, you don’t get the natural influences like sunlight and some kinds of bacteria that would otherwise break it down,” Renfro said.

As the oil heats up and rises to the surface in the summertime, it can again impact wildlife such as fiddler crabs, pelicans, terns, fish and any other species that comes in contact with it.

If so much oil can remain beneath the surface of the marsh, it leaves one wondering how much could be buried beneath the surface of other bays, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2010, a research team led by Penn State University biologist Charles Fisher found a colony of dead and dying hard coral species at a depth of 4,500 feet. Even now, boaters report finding oil on their anchors in Louisiana bays where the average depth may only be fifteen feet.

Twenty-three years after the Exxon-Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, oil can still be found beneath the surface. Biologists have long said that “sub-lethal” effects could linger for years in the Gulf of Mexico.

Critical nesting islands eroding

At Cat Island (also known as Pelican Island) in Barataria Bay, NWF discovered dying mangroves and dwindling populations of nesting pelicans. David Muth, Louisiana State Director of NWF’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration campaign, didn't have access to satellite photos and topographical maps but estimates that the island has lost half of its size in the past two years. While it has been battling erosion for decades, the oil’s impact on the shrubbery has exacerbated the problem.

“This is one of the spots where heavy oiling came through two years ago. It appears that the oil has had an effect on the health of the mangroves which hold the island together,” said Muth.

Muth said such small islands are critical nesting habitats for birds because they are free from predators and offer complete isolation. Whereas larger islands often have predators such as raccoons and coyotes, small marshy, mangrove islands usually offer the birds ideal nesting habitat. Often not much larger than a football field, these islands can provide habitat for thousands of pelicans, terns and spoonbills.

Due to erosion, such islands are quickly disappearing along the entire coast of Louisiana. Less than a mile from Cat Island, the NWF team visited the remnants of a small island that has actually vanished in the past year. Muth said in the spring of 2011 the island still had a few shrubs and a few species of herons and terns utilizing it. Now, other than the skeleton stubs of a few mangroves breaking the surface, there is barely a sign that the island ever existed. What was dry land last year is now open water.

“It’s nothing but a shoal now. The mangroves are dead. This is just systematic of what is happening all over the Louisiana coast. One by one these islands are starting to disappear and we are running out of places for these birds to nest,” said Muth.

Unless action is taken, Cat Island will also likely shrink and disappear within a few years.

Clean Water Act fines needed for restoration projects

BP is estimated to face as much as $20 billion in fines for violating the Clean Water Act during the Gulf Oil Disaster of 2010. NWF and environmental advocates say the RESTORE Act, which is still awaiting passage in Congress, is desperately needed to put fine money directly to work in restoring the Gulf Coast. The RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunity and Revived Economics of the Gulf States Act of 2011) would invest 80 percent of fines by BP and other parties directly into areas affected by the disaster.

Unless the legislation is passed, the collected fine money would go into the Federal Treasury where it is highly likely that they will be used for non-disaster related things like deficit reduction. While many have determined that trying to remove more oil from marshes could do more harm than good, most wildlife advocates agree the solution is widespread marsh restoration in Louisiana.

With funding, Muth said there are many things man can do to help stem erosion and slowly rebuild Louisiana’s coast. The NWF team visited Lake Hermitage, where a $38 million marsh creation project is estimated to create almost 500 acres of marsh in the next 20 years. The marsh will be created by building a retaining dike then pumping in sediment and material from the Mississippi River.

Sediment pumped on the bay floor will rise until it becomes shallow enough to support marsh grass. Natural processes will then take over.

“They are going to rebuild marsh here to offset marsh that was lost in the area. It is a proven technique and we know it works. The master plan which is now going to the state legislature lets us spend up to $20 billion over the next fifty years on these types of projects,” Muth said.

Muth has long advocated the use of the Mississippi River as a way to more rapidly rebuild and restore Louisiana’s deteriorating coastline. He said using diversions and channels to send some of the river’s waters into the wetlands can help deposit rich sediment and rebuild what has been lost over the past decades. Before man encased the river with levees, it was a natural process for the Mississippi River to annually overflow its banks and replenish the wetlands with sediment. The prevention of that natural process, along with thousands of miles of channels cut through the wetlands by the oil industry, has rapidly increased the rate of erosion.

NWF, along with other supporters of the RESTORE Act, strongly believe that Clean Water Act fines should be used on projects which have a proven ability to restore wetlands and natural habitats. It may be the only hope for a natural wonder which is becoming a vanishing paradise.

“If we can get the RESTORE Act passed and get some funding for the state’s master plan, it can be a whole new era for the wetlands,” said Julia Hathaway, director of the NWF Mississippi River Delta Restoration program.

When visiting Bay Jimmy, NWF Louisiana Coastal Organizer Amanda Moore was shocked that there was so much oil in the marshes two years after the disaster. Moore said the oil, and whatever unseen oil may still be in Louisiana’s wetlands and waterways, is impacting the ecosystem, wildlife and local economies.

“This isn’t going to clean itself up. It has been two years and this is what we are seeing in the wetlands of Louisiana. We need to make this right. We need Congress to act,” Moore said.

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