Special Report: The BP Gulf Oil Disaster
When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and oil began pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, it was quickly clear that a disaster of epic proportions was in the making. Audubon sent reporter Justin Nobel to the area, and he has been filing regular blog posts since then, documenting how the spill has affected not only the marshes and beaches, the birds and mammals, but also the people of the Gulf Coast, whose lives have been upended.
The Morning After
Elmer’s Island, Louisiana
I drove from Brooklyn to Louisiana to cover the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I have just met Melanie Driscoll, the director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, and David Ringer, the communications coordinator for Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative. The sleep-deprived yet energetic pair has been on the scene for two weeks so far, amassing a volunteer army, courting the media, and determining how best to protect bird habitat.
Today they’re worried about Elmer’s Island, part of a sausage link–like stretch of barrier islands that provides bird-rich habitat and rare beach access on an otherwise marshy coastline. Here laughing gulls float on evening airs, sanderlings drill for food in the surf splash, and brown pelicans ride an invisible highway inches above the sea’s surface. But their sandy beach is marked with deep tire tracks: Dump trucks and Humvees dispatched by the Coast Guard are hauling sand and rock that will be used to build an obstruction meant to keep the oil out of the interior marshes.
Closing channels could save countless birds down the line, but right now Elmer’s Island looks something like an avian war zone. “People can cancel their vacations and stop eating food from the Gulf, but the birds can’t see it coming,” says Driscoll (above, and Ringer beneath), as she spies on a colony of least terns in the sand dunes. “No one gives them fair warning.”
Farther along we spot a glistening orange blob no larger than a grape. Oil. A rectangle drawn by cleanup crews marks the spot. In the fading sunlight, we look down the beach and see many more rectangles. As dusk settles, a new light appears offshore from a giant sawhorse-shaped structure on the horizon—just one of the Gulf’s thousands of oil rigs.
Living on the Edge
Grand Bayou Village, Louisiana
Trace the Mississippi River along its homestretch south from New Orleans, turn right after a large cow pasture, and follow the gravel road until it ends. The air is thick, the land rich, and something about the style of signs and the gait of the folk indicate you are entering a place on the edge. And you are. This is Grand Bayou Village, home to the Atakapa-Ishak Indians, a dark-skinned tribe that lives only here, their homes reachable only by boat.
The Atakapa-Ishak have survived smallpox, Manifest Destiny, and a millennium of hurricanes, but the oil spill is a big unknown, says tribe member Rosina Philippe (above). She and the other Grand Bayou residents live off the environment around this remote spindle of marsh, many earning a living catching oysters. The mud bottoms are owned by the state and then leased out in patches to tribe members.
As oil continues to gush, fishery closures shape-shift like an enormous gyrating amoeba, and boom is laid by the hundreds of miles. No one really knows what long-term effects the spill will have on Louisiana’s marshes and the people who rely on them. But what’s certain, at least for the Atakapa-Ishak, is that there is literally nowhere left to go. “We’re looking at the potential for cultural genocide,” says Philippe.
Cat Bay, Louisiana
It’s about to rain as we motor toward a mangrove island where at least one pelican is on death’s doorstep and a wildlife crew is working to save it. Birds pack the island: gulls, roseate spoonbills, yellow-crowned night herons, ibises, and about 1,500 nesting pairs of pelicans—part of a breeding population of about 10,000 pairs in Louisiana, according to Michael Carloss, a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries biologist and our guide. The shoreline is etched in oil, and the waters specked with small patches of slick. On shore, oiled pelicans continuously preen, a futile attempt to remove the goop and smooth out their feathers. Birds can become dehydrated by obsessively trying to remove oil and can starve to death if they’re too oiled to fly.
Stuck with fishing line to a gnarled mangrove is the dying pelican, slightly oiled. Its would-be saviors wear white suits and walk slowly toward the bird through oil-soaked muck. As they near, hundreds of birds dart into the sky, abandoning their nests. This is one reason wildlife rescuers are reluctant to retrieve oiled pelicans in colonies—their intrusion upsets other nesting birds. And removing an adult pelican from a nest can also put that bird’s young at risk, because the adults hunt and guard the home. Yet an oiled parent can also harm its offspring. No scientific formula exists for just when to rescue an oiled adult that is nesting or when to let it be, but Carloss and his team are working hard on creating one. “This is one of those times,” he says. “You just do your best and try and figure something out.”
After the crew places the snared pelican into a cardboard box, they'll take it back on land, where it will be inspected. Later they’ll either release it or bring it to the wildlife rehab center in Fort Jackson. Though this bird may live, Carloss worries that many others are dying unnoticed. Pelicans are easy to spot, unlike birds such as least bitterns and clapper rails that live deep in the marsh grasses that cloak the mouth of the Mississippi like a jungle. Right now the area is getting slammed with oil.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I sacrifice my left middle finger, dipping it slowly over the edge of the fiberglass boat and into a seam of oily water. Drops scatter and it disappears. The feeling is unlike what I expected. The oil is soft and warm on the outside, where it has soaked up the sun, and cooler on the inside, where it’s in contact with the water. It clings to my skin but isn’t sticky until I pull my finger out. Attached is an orange glob, no longer pretty and shape-shifting; now it feels like poison. I quickly wipe it off. “Where we’re floating at,” says the boat’s captain, Carey O’Neil, “I shrimp right here.”
At this moment the government estimates that 30 million gallons of crude oil may have gushed from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead and that nearly 900,000 gallons of chemicals have been pumped into the Gulf to disperse it. And thousands of people like O’Neil have lost their livelihood. He grew up in the surrounding marshes, near Venice—a town owned largely by oil companies but a mecca to shrimpers and fishermen. Each September Morgan City, a few parishes to the west, hosts the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. The festival’s symbol is a giant shrimp with a hard hat clasped around an oil rig. After high school, if they don’t start work before then, many kids here face a career choice: shrimp or oil. Hard workers can make $60,000 a year right off the bat in either. I ask O’Neil (above) why he chose shrimp. “Some guys just can’t get it, some guys do,” he says. “I’m no lawyer, I’m no plumber. I’m a shrimper.”
We come upon pontoon boats with white tubing coiled across their decks like an immaculate beast’s disemboweled intestines. This is absorbent boom, and each day O’Neil’s childhood friends are paid by BP to lay it out. Many worry that the job is hazardous to their health, but they don’t have much choice.
Waiting for Obama
Port Fourchon, Louisiana
A group of truckers dine in a cafeteria in Port Fourchon, a city of heliports and ship sheds where barges and 18-wheelers unload goods, and choppers and offshore supply vessels carry them out to the rigs. Nearly 15 percent of the country’s foreign oil comes through a nearby port. It’s the underbelly of an industry that fuels the nation, and yet few people even know it exists.
I sit down with Toothpick and Little Rookie, two men who have just hauled in pipe from Morgan City. They’re watching CNN, which is showing footage of orange blobs of oil suspended below the sea. President Obama is due to speak any minute.
“Now the whole Gulf is probably f---ed up,” says Toothpick. “At least for my lifetime.”
“Hurricane season’s fixing to start up end of next month. Hopefully they clean this up, or that’s gonna be some s--t,” says Little Rookie.
“That’s another thing,” adds Little Rookie. “They mess around with permits and all that s--t to okay it. Well, let’s okay it now, permit later!”
“Exactly!” says Toothpick.
Ninety minutes late, President Obama appears, speaking at the Coast Guard station in Grand Isle, a beach town just down the road from Port Fourchon. “I give people in this community and the entire Gulf my word,” says Obama. “We are going to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.”
Toward the end of the short speech he mentions, for the third time, that local folks can get updates and seek help by logging on to Whitehouse.gov. I ask a worker known as Bedrock if he has email. He doesn’t.
Down a Black Hole
Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana
We see plenty of dolphins frolicking in pods of six or eight, some with newborn babies. They chase schools of fish invisible to us and communicate through trills and clicks inaudible to us, a language we try and capture with a hydrophone. Is the oil a threat? I ask Louisiana State University graduate student Allison Manning, who is surveying bottlenose dolphins in Terre-bonne Bay, some 100 miles from the Deepwater Horizon spill site. “Think about it this way,” she says. “They closed fishing and shrimping here to humans. And dolphins are at the same level of the food web as we are.”
Manning is the only scientist in Louisiana studying the populations of these cetaceans. Her survey will be the first in-depth population assessment of dolphins anywhere in the state in nearly a decade. In some spots, like at the mouth of the Mississippi River where oil is thick, dolphin numbers are entirely unknown, creating a black hole of data. Without accurate population numbers, we won’t know how many were affected by the spill.
Forty-two dolphins have stranded since April 30—well above average—but there may be countless more that will never be recovered. NOAA must analyze tissue samples taken from the stranded ones to determine if they succumbed to oil. How exactly oil kills marine mammals is unclear, but it can burn the mucous membranes around the eyes and mouth. Inhaling its fumes can cause pneumonia, ulcers, and liver and kidney failure.
Nearby, a group of barges and shrimp trawlers unload immense coils of boom. In calm seas boom can block oil at the surface though not the oily plumes underwater, where dolphins spend most of their time. “It’s critical to figure out how many dolphins are out there,” says Manning. “How else are we going to know what harms them?” The answer is, we aren’t.
Fort Morgan, Alabama
Oil has washed ashore in Alabama and Florida, so after five weeks of tracking the spill across Louisiana, I hit the highway toward the Alabama coast. What I find is frightening: Without tourists or seafood, businesses are shutting down, and wildlife managers are forging their own solutions—with potentially dire consequences.
In Fort Morgan, Alabama, I stop at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a necklace of protected white beaches and barrier woodlands with nearly 400 species of birds and four types of sea turtles. Last Friday the oil arrived. “It kind of had a crimson color, like [someone] just threw red Jell-O up on the beach,” says refuge spokesperson Jim Burkhart. “It was chaos.”
We walk down a boardwalk to find trucks thundering along the scorching white beach. Crews couldn’t remove the oil quickly enough by hand, and the tides have buried it in the sand. The only way to collect it now is with heavy equipment. Caterpillars scoop beach into dump trucks, which pile the refuse in a clearing in the pines. There, other Cats scoop it into more dump trucks, which bring it to a landfill in Chastang, Alabama. The plan has worked for now, but with oil still lurking just offshore, Burkhart is worried. “If you keep hauling sand off the beach, you’re going to get a cliff too sharp for sea turtles to come up,” he says.
In July and August loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles cross this beach to lay eggs. The sand is riddled with minor valleys and ridges from the constant traffic, although it will be smoothed at the end of the day. Tar balls stripe the water’s edge. “A lot of us are still learning this stuff, and that’s problematic,” says Burkhart. “It’s just hard to believe when you’re standing here what a disaster this is.”
Grand Terre Island, Louisiana
Hurricane season is just beginning, and Alex was an ominous test run. The storm made landfall in northeastern Mexico, more than 600 miles from the Deepwater Horizon site, but it brought the slick to new places like Texas’s coast and Lake Pontchartrain, re-oiled beaches like this one, and halted cleanup efforts. A direct hurricane hit “would be devastating upon devastating,” says Coast Guard petty officer Ryan Johnson (above). Each day he and other Coast Guard workers scout the beach, noting new oil and calling in affected wildlife. “We are the eyes and the ears,” says Johnson. They’ve saved five pelicans and a turtle to date. But Alex has kept them away for three days, and they’re worried about what they might find.
Johnson knocks a clod of brown sand in half, revealing the congealed black goop of a tar ball. “Asphalt,” he says. “The volatiles are gone and it is easy to rake and shovel, but if you miss it, it will just sit here and sit here.” On Grand Terre, tar balls as big as pineapples have washed ashore.
Absorbent booms and oil-soaking pompoms, once neatly aligned, litter the beach, blackened. “This means the stuff is doing its job,” says Johnson. Large trash bags also line the beach, stuffed with oiled debris and soiled white Tyvek suits worn by cleanup workers and discarded at the end of the day. (Waste like this, as well as oiled debris and vegetative matter, boom, tar balls, and tar patties recovered during cleanup in Louisiana are taken to state landfills that accept solid industrial waste. Spent boom is cleaned and the oil and water separated. The oil goes to processing facilities, the oily water to a disposal site.)
On the beach, beside two kiddie pools, workers are setting up a "decon" station, where workers clean up after being in the field. More than six of these speck the island. They were taken down before the storm and must be assembled again. “Instead of getting the tar balls, they are rebuilding decons,” says Johnson. “It’s frustrating—three steps forward, one step back.”
The Coast Guard men are tired, having worked for a month without a break. Heading back to the dock, petty officer Alex Olbert radios in a report: “Sporadic oiling on GT-1, sporadic tar balls, marble-sized to pancake-sized. Also, oil came in 100 to 200 feet beyond the water line. The entire beach is now a hot zone.”
To read more of Justin Nobel’s posts, or others on the oil spill, click here.
Read other stories from this special report:
Birds: Black Bayou
Marine Life: Toxic Brew
Back to Top