Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sloppy, BP, very sloppy

Photo(from left): Senator Julie Quinn(LA), Councilman John Young(Jefferson Parish, LA), Allen Gaudet(a local fisherman), and Chris Hernandez(Grand Isle Street Superintendent)

After the Press conference yesterday Ginger and I were sitting with Chris waiting for the room to empty out when we were approached by Louisiana State Senator Julie Quinn and Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young. Quinn asked Chris if he could bring her to see the frozen pelicans, then asked if we would like to join them. We drove to the eastern end of the island where the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife had tents set up for oiled bird intake.

As it turns out, the BP beach clean-up is not the only operation on this island that is cloaked in mystery. When Quinn asked to see the oiled birds she was refused and given a story about how they were shipped to another cleaning facility, that this was only intake. She asked again, this time about where they were kept until they were shipped out. Well it turns out that there were birds in the next tent over, but we couldn't see them because they would get stressed out. Ok, well that makes sense, but could we see the dead birds? No, no, they were also transported away. Every time Quinn asked a question, even if she was asking the same one twice, she got different stories and it seemed like the guy we were talking to was getting confused by his own story. One thing he was pretty sure about was that they had a 90% success rate with their oiled bird rehabilitation program. Really? It really seems as though he might have had less to hide if they were doing such a good job. After she had enough of these stories, Quinn told the guy that if he wouldn't show her the birds there, then she wanted to go out to Queen Bess Island to see them for herself. He said he would need a high level of clearance for that to happen, so she asked him who and got on her phone and called the people herself. And just like that we were waiting for a boat to bring us out to Queen Bess.

While we waited another boat dropped off an oiled pelican in a carrying case. The Senator and I were close enough to go take a look. The pelican, which naturally has brown markings anyway, was a solid shade of mousy brown. It looked disoriented and subdued. Quinn was trying to take pictures when a Fish and Wildlife official noticed and told her to stop. He claimed that the flash was startling to the bird. She offered to turn off the flash, but at that point she was told that in truth they just weren't allowing anyone to take pictures. Why not? She is a SENATOR! I think that what is even more startling than having a flash go off in your eyes is having your FEATHERS COVERED IN OIL! just a thought.
Queen Bess Island is important to Louisiana because it is one island where the population of brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, has really been thriving. Brown pelicans, the Louisiana state bird, were all but extinct in Louisiana in the 1960's due to DDT and habitat loss. Population restoration efforts have brought the pelican back, with Queen Bess Island standing as a model for effective repopulation.

Queen Bess Island is located just north east of Grand Isle. Because of its importance as a bird breeding habitat, this island was designated to have booms completely encircle the island to prevent further oil damage. I say that because it has already been hit by oil. In the photo above you can see the booms that have been set up. The orange boom forms the outermost ring and is supposed to act as a barrier. As you can see, the reddish brown oil is gathering there. Any oil that manages to splash over this barrier is then supposed to be caught by the second white boom, which is made up of some sort of absorbent material. While we were out on the water we saw numerous boats moving around oiled and fresh booms to and from large supply vessels which normally service the oil rigs in the gulf. These booms are supposed to be replaced several times a day but there were several stretches where the booms were completely soaked with oil.

To learn more about this island, check out this video of Rachel Maddow looking at this same island:
Rachel Maddow at Queen Bess
As you can see, the manner in which these barriers are maintained is incredibly sloppy. These white booms should be stretched out, but instead they are all clumped up here. We also saw several twenty meter long booms stretched out in the bay. They were not attached to each other or to anything else. They did not create a perimeter around anything. They were just sitting out there bobbing in the waves. Effective? I think not.
And neither did these folks. Here we have Chris, Julie Quinn, and John Young looking out at the sloppiness of the booms surrounding Queen Bess Island. It was truly unbelievable how terribly maintained this perimeter is. Young kept saying how proud the state was when the brown pelican populations rebounded, and this island is the poster child for that effort.
Here are workers going through the motions of reconnecting the booms. As you can see, there was a forty meter gap in the booms that Allen Gaudet told us just opened up that day. The workers on these boats were resting until our boat came alongside, at which point they finally mobilized. There were several other gaps in the perimeter booms, and many more places where they were deployed in such a haphazard way that they were functionally useless.

We went out there to see how the oil was affecting birds on Queen Bess, and we certainly saw that. But what we saw most clearly is that not much is being done to reduce the amount of oil damaging the island. The barrier island restoration efforts, which include restructuring islands and reintroductions of native plants and animals, are now essentially a wash. The oil that is in marshes will kill them. A local fisherman told me that he tried wiping the oil off of some marsh grass and it was impossible. When the plants die, the land cannot be stabilized and it will be lost.

The slack attitude that is evident in the way BP is trying to mitigate the effects of the oil is truly outrageous. If you are reading this right now and are getting as pissed off as I am, please let me know if you have ideas about how to stop this sloppiness. I am trying my best to think clearly about how to best effect change here. Grand Isle is on the news every day even back in Mystic, CT. How is it that a place with so much media attention can be managed so poorly by BP?

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