Special Report: The BP Gulf Oil Disaster
There are all kinds of reasons to feel outrage and fear about the worst environmental catastrophe in American history, maintains Ted Williams, Audubon’s longtime “Incite” columnist. But, he says, there are also reasons for hope.
Until I got to coastal Louisiana in mid-June, covering BP’s oil gusher was an assignment I’d have loved to pass up. Like all fish and wildlife advocates, I’d been sickened by what I’d read in print and seen on television. I wasn’t looking forward to subjecting myself to the mess in person. And how was I supposed to come up with material the American public hadn’t been fed ad nauseam?
What I found is another toxic gusher, one of misinformation spewing from politicians puffing and preening for voters, alleged experts with questionable credentials vying for the limelight, and talking heads reporting or concocting news depending on availability. Much of my research involved unlearning things I thought I knew.
For example, the Obama administration—pilloried by the media for allowing its Minerals Management Service (MMS) to literally climb into bed with the oil industry—turned out to have been implementing reforms. Other federal agencies depicted as incompetent and disinterested, if not corrupt, turned out to be performing heroically. Although the spill was ongoing, the cleanup was Herculean. Finally, the enormous loss of fish and wildlife seems likely to be compensated for, eventually at least, by major habitat restoration. As depressed as I was when I left Louisiana, I was less so than when I arrived.
My unlearning process began with bird rehabbing. I had it from multiple sources that virtually all oiled birds die and that the humane and economical thing to do is put them out of their misery. On May 6 Spiegel Online’s international edition quoted an “expert” from Germany as follows: “Kill, don’t clean [because] according to serious studies [none cited], the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent.” And on June 10 the Associated Press quoted unnamed critics as calling bird washing “a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time.”
It’s pure bunk, as Nils Warnock, Audubon Alaska’s new executive director, explained to me when I interviewed him a week before he’d left his position with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California-Davis. African penguins get clobbered by oil spills off South Africa, he told me, and their long-term survival has been heavily researched. The most comprehensive study sets the average annual survival rate of de-oiled adults at 79 percent, only two percentage points lower than for unoiled birds. Nineteen percent of the entire breeding population has been attributed to rehabilitation.
Of course, there are no penguins in the Gulf of Mexico (though BP has pledged in its oil-spill response plan to protect the walruses it imagines live there), and there are not a lot of data on the main victims—brown pelicans, northern gannets, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, and late-migrating shorebirds. So Warnock looked at work done on similar species. “The cape gannet [off South Africa] is closely related to our northern gannet and has a similar life history,” he said. “Good, long-term studies with large sample sizes show very high one-year survival rates for washed birds—from 84 to 88 percent. A study of western gulls [along the Pacific Coast] found that rehabilitated birds did just as well as the unoiled control group.” And while there are no studies on the Wilson’s plover—in major trouble along the Gulf Coast—Warnock found an encouraging statistic for snowy plovers: Seven of the 17 oiled birds captured in Oregon after the February 1999 New Carrissa spill were observed breeding after they’d been washed and released, a survival rate not much different than for non-oiled plovers.
Brown pelicans don’t fare quite so well. Still, Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC)—contracted by BP to rehab oiled birds—estimate a 50 percent to 85 percent long-term survival rate for the pelicans they’ve worked on in the past.
On bay islands I saw pelicans, Forster’s terns, snowy egrets, great egrets, black-crowned night herons, tricolored herons, and roseate spoonbills, some oiled, few catchable. The vast majority, though, were fine. Some species may wind up losing a large percentage of the birds born this year. But as Bruce Reid, director of conservation outreach for Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative, notes, “It’s hard to think that any species won’t be able to recover.”
That said, only a small percentage of birds fouled by BP oil are being captured. Of the hundreds being brought to the three rehab centers, most are brown pelicans. Many have to be euthanized.
I worry less about birds than other marine life such as the plankton that fuels the entire ecosystem; the five species of sea turtles, all flirting with extinction and turning up dead in unprecedented numbers; and the critically depressed western population of bluefin tuna, which, as far as we know, spawns only in the Florida Straits and the Gulf in the vicinity of the rig. Jeff Wolkart, a light-tackle fishing guide normally booked almost solid from March through November but whose clients had canceled for the rest of the year, told me about the badly oiled bottlenose dolphin he’d encountered on his third and last charter of 2010. “He kept coming up to the side of my boat and spitting oil out his blowhole. I’d move 100 yards away because he was scaring the fish, and before I’d know it he’d be next to the boat again, two feet away. In all the years I’ve fished I’ve never seen one do that. It seemed like he was asking for help.”
Birds are more easily captured and rehabilitated than marine mammals or sea turtles, but that doesn’t mean the job isn’t difficult and exhausting. “If we don’t think a bird is going to make it, we put it down,” U.S. Geological Survey vet Dan Mulcahy told me when I caught up with him at the bird rehab center in Fort Jackson, 70 miles south of New Orleans. “We don’t declare a Code Blue and get out the paddles.” Mulcahy works in Anchorage, Alaska. As soon as he learned about the wildlife crisis in the Gulf he started pushing his agency to send him there—and there he was, unacclimated and sweating under the merciless Louisiana sun. “First, I’m a citizen of the U.S., and this is a national disaster,” he said when I asked him why he’d come. “Second, I’m a wildlife vet with unique skills that I can apply here. Third, I’m a federal employee, and the federal government is responsible for overseeing this response. Everybody thinks feds are pokey. Well, when it comes to this, they move. I haven’t always been proud to be a federal employee, but I can tell you that right now I’m damned proud.”
I asked Mulcahy about the U.S. Coast Guard, depicted as seafaring Keystone Kops by such pundits as Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser, who, committed as he is to the cause of his fellow victims, has a talent for saying the wrong things to national audiences. Nungesser has even proclaimed that Admiral Thad Allen—the Coast Guard’s smart, tough, straight-talking incident commander, who has been dealing with oil spills for 40 years—“has failed at almost every step” and should be fired. Mulcahy said this: “We’re releasing birds where they’re not likely to crowd existing populations and far enough away so they won’t quickly return and get re-oiled. The Coast Guard [which transports the birds by plane] has been absolutely fabulous! If we say ‘release flight,’ they bend over backward. Were I a younger man, I’d enlist.”
I witnessed the same passion and dedication inside the fan-cooled rehab center—converted from a warehouse—where experienced professionals from Tri-State and the IBRRC were working long, brutal shifts, massaging birds with solvent, washing them with detergents, rinsing them with high-powered sprayers, drying them, and wrapping them in blankets to carry them to their outside pens. The center of the building was taken up with 25 ten-foot-square, 4.5-foot-high plywood boxes, full of pelicans and gannets, most waiting to be processed. A steady procession of workers carried washed, wrapped birds to outside pens. Other workers, hefting platters of smelt, shrimp, and capelin, bustled around like harried waiters. The intensity, noise, and scope of the operation called to mind a Detroit assembly line.
Of all the bird victims, the grossly oiled ones are often the luckiest, because they can be captured and, in many cases, rehabilitated. State and federal rescuers don’t attempt to capture lightly to moderately oiled adults for several excellent reasons, not the least of which is that it can’t be done. They’d fly away. Then the juveniles, unshaded by adults, would be cooked by the sun, and the disturbance would send clean ones into the oil.
It’s hard to do nothing when the world is yammering at you to do something—anything, even the wrong thing. This was a lesson I relearned on the humid, 100-degree morning of June 15 when I visited bay islands with Reid and his Audubon colleagues Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, and Karen Westphal, Atchafalaya River Basin program manager.
The saddest scene we encountered—up close, from Wolkart’s 24-foot Ranger Bay boat—was the royal tern colony on Queen Bess Island. Ringing the oil-stained mangroves was red hard boom and, just inside, white sorbent boom. Such barricades offer partial protection at best. Only about 10 of some 300 adults had been oiled, but virtually all the estimated 150 chicks were covered. “If we do nothing, they could die,” said Driscoll. “They’re at risk of overheating and sunburn, hypothermia if they get wet. But if we evacuate them, they won’t be taught to fend for themselves, and they’ll probably die, too. The thought is that now that they’re close to molting they’ll drop their oiled feathers and a few will make it. I don’t know if that’s a good theory, but we’re in a situation where there’s no good decision. The best decision is not to have an oil spill.”
A hundred yards to our south, the tireless Michael Carloss, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, was launching a pirogue from his 23-foot Mako while two other boats stood by. It took Carloss half an hour to rescue a laughing gull chick. We’re not going to run out of laughing gulls. Was this a good use of response-team time? Yes, because Carloss and his crew were there anyway, and the next victim might have been a species we are running out of. Moreover, it was the decent thing to do.
Audubon is seeking volunteers experienced in handling seabirds and asking them to sign up with response leaders. But at this writing there aren’t so many oiled birds that state and federal recovery personnel can’t handle the job. Therefore, qualified volunteers are being told to stand by in case they’re needed. The very last thing Gulf Coast birds need are well-meaning amateurs crashing through nesting habitat.
But that’s not the message America is getting. In an interview with CNN’s Gary Tuchman, the American Birding Association’s Drew Wheelan declared: “I cannot see any reason why they would not want as many people here as possible.” And in a later CNN broadcast he and Anderson Cooper spoke of “experts” who supposedly possess the power to pluck birds from the firmament, a feat impossible for any human save Harry Potter. Cooper, goosing Wheelan along: “Right now they don’t have the expertise to go after birds that are in flight, which people can do who are experts. . . . Basically, you’re saying they’re just going after the birds who are completely covered in oil and unable to move, and these are the birds that are likeliest basically to die. . . . So birds that maybe have less oil on them and can fly, they’re not going after those birds because it’s too much effort and too difficult.”
Wheelan: “Yeah, they just don’t have any expertise in that area. . . . There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be 50 people down in Grand Isle . . . going out at dawn, trying to capture these birds.”
Cooper: “It seems there are a lot of volunteers and a lot of bird experts who would love to be down here and love to be helping.”
Wheelan: “Absolutely. . . . I know the Audubon Society has over 17,000 people that have signed up to volunteer on this effort, and so far they’ve not received a single phone call. . . . They just don’t want to allow any help.” (Wheelan issued a retraction on his blog after Audubon explained to him that the best way volunteers can help is to wait patiently until they’re contacted.)
Due to the nature of the oil and the monumental cleanup effort, visible damage was not as bad as the public imagines or the media have depicted. Occasionally we smelled oil, but although goop and tar had washed up elsewhere, we saw only light sheens. The Gulf isn’t Prince William Sound, where natural refrigeration has preserved Exxon Valdez oil for two decades and where birds with oil spots no bigger than a quarter were killed by frigid water. Deepwater Horizon oil is different. It is highly volatile, and nearly half evaporates immediately. In the intense heat, bacteria consume other fractions. Also, the leak is almost 50 miles at sea, giving dispersion and natural breakdown processes more time to kick in. Finally, much has been learned about boom laying and skimming, and operations are massive and intense. The Myrtle Grove Marina—now gated, guarded, crowded with orange-clad, helmeted cleanup personnel, and chockablock with barges, airboats, and piled boom—had taken on the appearance of a secured D-Day beachhead. In Barataria Bay we observed an armada of vessels laying boom. In the pass north of East Grand Terre Island a flotilla of shrimp boats skimmed oil.
But not all efforts have been sensible or effective. At East Grand Terre Island we saw a recently constructed sand berm that is supposed to protect beaches and marshes. No one with even rudimentary knowledge of sediment deposition, erosion, and wave action would attempt to interdict oil with berms. That leaves politicians. Hounded by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Nungesser, and other state and local officials desperate to do something, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has okayed 45 miles of 300-foot-wide, six-foot-high berm—this despite warnings from the Interior Department, the EPA, and coastal experts. Estimated cost: $3.8 million per mile. And the state has requested an additional 83 miles.
“Berms create trenches where waves build, causing erosion in some areas and starving downdrift in others,” remarked Karen Westphal as we idled off Grand Terre. “The decision to build berms was made by non-scientific people. The scientists haven’t spoken up loudly enough, and the media tend to latch on to any idea they hear without evaluating it. The richness of our ecosystems is built on water movement,” she said, pointing to dolphins herding fish in heavy current. “If you shut off that movement, the oxygen, and the rich flow of nutrients, it’s going to kill things. It’s going to do more damage than oil.”
Led by Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative director, Paul Kemp, the scientific community is recommending a simple, practical, and far cheaper plan that really will help keep the oil at sea—increase the flow of the Mississippi River by releasing water from upstream dams.
At this writing the Obama administration isn’t giving Kemp’s plan the attention it merits, perhaps because it is so busy ducking criticism, little of it deserved, much of it brought on by its own inept PR. Of all the noise issuing from media pundits, none has been more absurd than the tirade against President Obama for failing to help out with temper tantrums. “Have we gone mad?” inquired Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, citing Democratic strategist James Carville’s call for presidential “rage.” But Obama bought into it with his Yosemite Sam–like vow to look for an “ass to kick” after Today show host Matt Lauer informed him that that’s what his critics want him to do.
The day Deepwater Horizon blew up—even before it sank—Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was telling the world that the accident was somehow the fault of his MMS. But it’s now clear the accident was the result of human error rather than the agency’s inadequate regulations. Even with those inadequate regulations there hadn’t been a drilling blowout in U.S. waters that spilled more than 500 barrels since 1970. “Are you happy now? I told you the f---ing thing would blow!” one BP engineer screamed after the explosion.
The MMS had basically been a branch office of Big Oil, but within weeks of taking office the Obama administration had moved aggressively to fix it. The first thing it did was to implement new ethics rules. The next and best thing it did—in July 2009—was to hire as MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum, former general counsel for the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers. Birnbaum, with whom I worked closely when I served on the board of American Rivers, could not have been more qualified to reform the agency. She’d repeatedly demonstrated to me and my fellow board members her intelligence, good judgment, and commitment to fish and wildlife. Equally impressive had been her earlier performances as counsel for the National Wildlife Federation’s Water Resources Program and counsel to the House Committee on Natural Resources. What’s more, as President Clinton’s associate solicitor for mineral resources, she’d had extensive experience in minerals management.
Birnbaum immediately set about cleaning the Aegean Stables. She helped draft safety-system regulations (now being finalized). She got the National Academy of Sciences to review inspection procedures. She started work on desperately needed regulations for cleaning up abandoned drilling equipment from leased property. In an effort to put the environmental staff on equal footing with the leasing staff, she brought in a new science adviser—Alan Thornhill, the director of the Society for Conservation Biology. She held meetings at all regional offices to lay out her high expectations. She built trust. People began coming to her and telling her what needed to be fixed.
Birnbaum is a good soldier, classy enough to fall silently on her sword, even when pushed. But I have it from a high MMS source that when Salazar felt the heat he began distancing himself from Birnbaum. First he ordered her not to attend the May 27 hearing of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, despite the fact that she was on the witness list. If she didn’t show, she’d look terrible. If that was the idea, it succeeded. Salazar’s statement that Birnbaum resigned “on her own terms and on her own volition” is not quite true. He asked her to resign after she’d mentioned the possibility.
Next to throw Birnbaum under the bus was President Obama himself, with his June 15 statement to the nation that the pace of reform implemented by his MMS director, who’d been on the job all of 10 months, had been “too slow.”
But to his credit, Obama appears ready to authorize habitat restoration that could more than undo the damage done by BP oil. The need for that restoration became even more apparent to me when Hap Endler flew me over Louisiana’s coastline and islands in his Cessna 182. Endler volunteers for SouthWings, a nonprofit that provides reporters and resource managers with otherwise unavailable views of insults to the planet. With us was John Lopez, coastal sustainability director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
We saw oil but, again, only light sheens. Of greater interest to me were the missing wetlands. Now waves swept over what had been rich marshland as recently as 2005, when Audubon first sent me here to look at storm damage. Upstream dams have robbed the Mississippi River delta of marsh-building sediment, and the levee-constrained river has shot sediment out over the continental shelf. Since 1932 Louisiana has lost about 2,300 square miles of wetlands to waves, rising sea level, land subsidence, oil and gas canals, and levees. And that loss has rendered fish, wildlife, and people far more vulnerable to hurricanes and oil spills.
In the summer of 2008 Lopez had shown me some of about 70 coastal restoration projects that have restored 100 square miles of wetlands, and I’d quoted him in my September-October Incite column as follows: “It’s a good program but not on the right scale. To really make a difference you need major river diversions [levee breaches that return life-giving sediment to the delta].”
Now, thanks to public alarm provided by BP, those major river diversions seem likely to happen. On June 15 Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund sent a letter to President Obama, stating that “a minimum of $5 billion of the proposed $20 billion escrow fund should be set aside to support the immediate launch of large-scale restoration efforts.” And since the spill, the White House has indicated that major wetlands restoration will be a priority.
“We would hope that some good will come out of this tragedy,” declares Audubon’s Bruce Reid. “We know how to mimic what the river used to do. We can put holes in the levees and have controlled, seasonally adjusted flows of sediment. And we know how to get sediment out of the north.”
If major diversions reconnect the river with its floodplain, if one of BP’s two relief wells succeeds, and if the gusher has been plugged by the time you read this or soon thereafter, fish and wildlife will eventually gain more from new habitat than they lost to BP oil. Otherwise the story you’ll read in Audubon will be entirely different. And if I’m asked to write it, I’ll undertake it with even less enthusiasm than I felt when I approached this one.
Read other stories from this special report:
Marine Life: Toxic Brew
Blog: Dispatches From the Field
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