Oil spill update from the field: Looking for a war zone, finding oily rectangles
Elmer's Island, Louisiana - May 17
Our search for oiled birds begins in the hunting section of Walmart. At 8:30 a.m., southern Louisiana is already hot and humid but the cavernous store has an AC chill. There are bouquets of plastic flowers, racks of underwear and blackberry pies; a burly customer at the gun counter cradles half a dozen boxes of ammunition.
I drove from Brooklyn to Louisiana to cover the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and have just met Melanie Driscoll, the sandy haired leader of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative and David Ringer, the curly haired communications director for Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative. The sleep-deprived but oddly energetic pair has been on scene for two weeks, amassing a volunteer army, courting media and determining how best to protect bird habitat. We are at Walmart because they have the permits we need to access a bird-rich barrier island Melanie and David are worried about; apparently dump trucks and military Humvees have invaded the beach to create a barrier of dirt and rock that will prevent oil from entering interior marshes. An ornithologist at the Louisiana Bird Resource Center has just emailed me a desperate message concerning the site: “I hear it is like a war zone.”
Deepwater gushes a suburban swimming pool’s worth of oil every few hours but little of it has washed ashore. Absent also are the flocks of oil-smothered birds seen in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Still, more than two dozen oiled birds have been recovered, a tiny fraction, many experts say, of the overall number. And the oil keeps coming, spewing toxins into a rich marsh ecosystem that literally feeds the nation. More than half a dozen Important Bird Areas are threatened by the spill. “This is not like Exxon Valdez,” says David. “What we’re dealing with here is something subtler.”
Walmart is out of permits but we get them at a bustling camping gear store then take a two-lane road south, paralleling a tea-colored finger of water that thousands of years ago was the main channel of the Mississippi. It is lined with shrimp boats, seafood shacks and small stilted homes with green yards and white picket fences. Melanie fields a continuous stream of cell phone calls. “Black vulture,” David whispers to me, as a massive black bird with white wingtips swoops from a branch.
Southern Louisiana’s environmental nightmare began long before the oil spill, and thousands of miles away, in places like Minnesota, New York, and Montana. Dams along tributaries to the Mississippi trap the sediments that once rushed down the engorged river each spring. When floods abated a rich silt was left behind, building natural levees and creating new land. As old river routes became blocked by their own sediment drops new channels formed. Over thousands of years, the Mississippi has meandered continuously, a process known as lobe switching which has created the fungus-like spew of spongy land that is southern Louisiana. But lobe switching no longer happens.
Not only do dams starve the river for sediment; in the past century we have straightened and dredged the river for shipping, heightened levees to protect homes and gouged wetlands to lay pipe for oil. New marsh is no longer being formed; old marsh succumbs to the sea. For the last seven thousand years the Mississippi added an average of one square mile of land a year to southern Louisiana. In just the last 90 years the region has lost some 2,300 square miles of land. “There is tremendous hopelessness and disempowerment in southern Louisiana,” says David, as we pass through Leeville, a jumble of rusted buildings abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. “People are resigned to watching their way of life disappear.”
The collapse of Louisiana’s marshes will not just doom local fishermen, it will starve the nation. Of U.S. seafood caught in the Lower 48, a third of it comes from this relatively small state. Melanie, who grew up on the Chesapeake, still remembers the day she learned many of their famous blue crabs were actually shipped in from Louisiana. Part of her long term job is to make the country understand the value of the region. “These wetlands provide services for an entire nation,” Melanie says, “and the nation has not paid back.”
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