A brief note: Some of the people quoted in this diary are currently at work studying the effects of the Gulf oil spill on the estuarial environments of South Louisiana. Their work is often linked to state, federal and industry funding. For this reason, I have elected to refer to them by pseudonyms or otherwise obscure their identities and positions.
I recognize that this makes this account more hearsay than journalism. You may choose to treat it as you wish. I stand by my story.
Addendum: Any transcription errors in notes and quotes are entirely my own.
Trying to get hard data on the effects of the spill is maddening. Government bodies like the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Department of Health and Hospitals, the federals Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and NOAA have been releasing a lot of information, but much of it is redundant or vague.
Two examples: Every day, Wildlife and Fisheries releases updates of state and federal waters closed to fishing, but they will not say whether oil or dispersants have been detected in closed areas. Yesterday, on Garland Robinette's WWL radio show, Capt. Ed Stanton of the Coast Guard went into great detail about the types of planes being used to spray dispersants, but it wasn't until I called and asked that he would say how much had been used. The figure he cited, 300,000 gallons, was later disputed by a caller who quoted an EPA source who'd used the number 500,000 gallons. The frustrating thing is that both numbers could be correct, as Capt. Stanton didn't specify whether the 300,000 gallons were air-sprayed, underwater-deployed or both.
In this environment, those of us seeking to get a realistic understanding of what's happening in our aquatic back yard yearn for experts we can talk with, whom we trust to give us the facts as they know them. Yesterday, I realized I knew one.
When I think of my friend DB, it's almost always in the context of music or family ties. He is a fine player and pretty well known in their field. He's been kind enough to cut some tracks for me and I've enjoyed watching his band. Most people, however, know him through his day job, researching the coastal environments of southeast Louisiana. I called him yesterday afternoon to get some perspective on our ongoing marine disaster.
On the overall question--how bad?--he gave me the honest scientist's answer: we don't know, though he offered some cause for optimism. "So far, we're looking at about six million gallons, very cohesive. We've had favorable currents which have kept the mass largely in a generalized pool, with extending lateral arms. That's been good for the coast, as it's given us time to set up some protective measures to keep it out of the inland marshes, where it could do the worst damage. So far, not nearly as bad as I feared, but they have to get it capped soon."
I asked about Fishgrease's critiques of the methods used to boom the coastline. He agreed, but stopped short of a verdict of "fucking useless." "They're doing some good. Except for the Chandeleur Islands and a bit of Breton Sound, so far, they're doing an okay job of keeping the oil out of where it will do its worst."
He sighed. "The loss of the Chandeleurs is a bigger deal than most people realize though. The diversity on the east side of the river is remarkable. I've spotted sooty terns on the Chandaleurs. It's reasonable to say that that kind of diversity will be gone there now."
He surprised me when he told me he's more concerned now for bird populations than fish. "You're going to see hugh colony failures. These near-shore waters are their foraging grounds. Even if you can keep the oil out of the marshes, they fly out to the outer waters to fish. It's going to be pretty bad for some species."
When I asked about the sea turtles that had washed up in Mississippi, he gave me another surprise. "I looked at the reports from those exams. Not a drop of oil or dispersants in them. As best we can figure, they were probably killed by shrimpers who were eager to get a catch while they could. With shrimping areas closing and prices high, they likely were caught in shrimp nets that had had their TEDs disabled. If you really wanted to stretch, you could say they died of the oil spill, but it's not literally true."
(TEDs, or Turtle Excluder Devices, are basically turtle escape hatches at the back end of shrimp nets. They have been required on all US trawlers since 1987.)
I asked which was the greater danger to marine life, the oil or the dispersants. True to his tribe, he responded, "That's not a simple question. The dispersants are much more toxic, but they break down much more quickly." He said that the use of dispersants was probably excessive, driven by PR considerations. "Oily beaches make great TV, but not for BP."
He told me to hold on and leaned out of his office to call to a colleague. "You probably should talk to Dr. A about the dispersants. It's definitely in his field of expertise." (God, I love academia.)
"Dr. A" was similarly cautious, saying that the biggest problem with predicting the effects of the dispersants is that we don't know which ones are being used. "They're obviously using the Corexits, but they're pulling a lot of stock that hasn't been used in years, anything they can get their hands on right now. It's a long list." He said that, if we see a die-off in the oyster population, it could last as little as 3-5 years if the dispersants stay in the water. "If they get into the sediment, long-term toxicity will be a problem."
DB concurred, adding, "Probably the same time scale with the brown shrimp. Two years, maybe three or four." He added the caveat that the brown shrimp are so important in the food chain that it will be hard to predict what effects the oil and dispersants will have. "You could get concentrations too small to kill the shrimp, but then they get out in the tuna feeding grounds. High-lipid fish like tuna concentrate toxins. They're in some danger of buildup."
The conversation ranged afield, as DB mused on the larger meanings of the spill. "I know it sounds strange right now, but we're getting off easy. We're looking at Katrina and this spill in the space of five years thinking, 'This is awful,' but, so far, we're barely even paying interest on the geological bills we're racking up. Until we start thinking in terms of how long it takes to make the resources we use, the prices are only going to escalate.
"It took the river five thousand years to make the delta. Our flood control efforts are eroding it in less than a century. It takes hundreds of thousands of years to cook plants and animals down to oil, but we use it like an annual crop. If events like these can make us rethink our relationship to these resources, then we will have gotten a bargain."
A bit of lagniappe: I cannot recommend highly enough Ian McNulty's latest column from Gambit Weekly on Louisiana seafood and just what is at stake right now.