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Gulf spill is really a river of oil, environmentalists say

By Bob Marshall, The Times-Picayune, April 29, 2010

To understand the gravity of the danger facing Louisiana's coast from the oil that began washing ashore Thursday, pollution clean-up veterans offered this starting point: Forget the word "spill."

"This isn't a spill," said Kerry St. Pe, who headed Louisiana's oil spill response team for 23 years. "This isn't a storage tank or a ship with a finite amount of oil that has boundaries. This is much, much worse."

Boats put out oil containment boom in Coast Guard Cut at the mouth of South Pass south of Venice on Thursday. (Susan Poag / The Times-Picayune)

It's a river of oil flowing from the bottom of the Gulf at the rate of 210,000 gallons a day that officials say could be running for two months or more. If that prediction holds, much of the state's southeastern coast will become a world-watched environmental battleground that hasn't been seen in the United States since the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska 21 years ago.

For residents of coastal communities and the vast fleet of commercial and sports fishers that call those wetlands home, that fight will become part of the daily scene. Coastal scientists and clean-up experts say the source and volume of the pollution combined with seasonal wind directions and tides have the potential to push oil deep into local estuaries, bringing the army fighting the oil and its miles of containment booms to much of the marsh. And, it has the potential to spread to every state along the Gulf Coast.

"Oil floats on water, so it goes where the water goes," said Roger Helm, chief of the Environmental Contaminants Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is going to be big, very big. They have announced it's five times the release they originally thought, and that release will go on for some extended period of time. Do the math."

The timing couldn't be worse, Louisiana clean-up experts said, because the warm weather months will bring stiff southerly breezes, which can push the oil deep into the long, shallow estuaries.

A complete list of coastal wildlife at risk from an oil spill

"In a lot of places tides are the key for moving oil but we have very small tides here -- a 2-foot tide is a big deal to us," said St. Pe, who now is executive director of the Barataria-Terrebonne national Estuary Program. "So wind is everything in Louisiana. A stiff southeastern blow will defeat a falling tide here. And we're going into the season when we get strong southeasterly winds.

"So, if we've got a steady flow of 210,000 gallons a day and southerly winds pushing it, it's going to get over the marsh into a lot of areas."

Given the volume and the extended flow period, St. Pe said he would expect oil sheets to invade the marshes on the east side of the river north into the Delacroix area, the western reaches of Lake Borgne and most of the Bird's Foot delta. If stiff winds blow more from the east, the oil could flow to the west of the river, and quickly invade the wetlands in Barataria Basin, already battered by erosion, canal dredging and subsidence.

"If this thing comes west into Barataria, there's nothing really to stop it," he said. "The area from Buras to the (Barataria Seaway) is pretty much just open water now."

St. Pe said the public should not expect containment booms to keep all oil from the wetlands.

"Oil gets through, especially in rough weather - it just washes over these things," he said. "With the volumes we're talking about here, and the length it will be coming into the coast, you can see that almost every area in the southeastern coast could be impacted.'

Birds, fish and shellfish will feel the effects, St. Pe said.

"If you get a thick sheet of oil over a large area, the first thing that happens is it cuts off the oxygen exchange with the water column," he said. "You get low dissolved oxygen in the water, so the fish respond by coming to the surface to try to get oxygen, and of course they get their gills coated with oil, and they die."

Birds become fouled with oil by diving on food in oil-slicks, or wading and walking through contaminated areas, then preening feathers, further spreading the oil.

And while birds, fish and marine mammals are the victims most noticed, there is even more damage going on below the surface, St. Pe said. "Shrimp die and crabs die and oysters die, but they don't float to the top. You just never see them, but the damage is often severe."

And in this case, the impact could be long-lasting.

"The worst spill I ever worked was a 10,000 barrel spill in 1997 that was inshore in Lake Barre, and that was terrible," he said.

"But that was a spill. This is worse. This isn't one spill. It's a constant flow for months. This is something a lot of people will be living with for a long time."


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