Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana — The French-born helicopter pilot zooming low over the Gulf is focused on two things: Whether he can find more fuel in Venice and whether or not the brown streaking we’re seeing north of the Chandeleur Islands is oil or just the transition of muddy Mississippi River water mixing with salt water.
It’s his first day flying out of Plaquemines Parish and, with maps piled on his lap, he admits to being a bit confused by both the landscape zipping past below at 100 mph – over solitary oil rigs, marsh and sand islands and a half-dozen shrimp boats trailing skimmers — and just how deeply the oil has penetrated up the mouth of the Mississippi.
From five hundred feet above sea level, with a mid-afternoon sun streaking in the window, it is admittedly hard to distinguish oil from muddy water. But when veteran Gulf photographer Gerald Herbert, riding shotgun, points worriedly below, it’s clear we are seeing a new stain heading inland, which we estimate to be about 12 miles long.
Everywhere you look in this area where Gulf waters meet fresh water, looking west towards the town of Grand Isle and the entry to Barataria Bay, you see oil.
My goal though is the Chandeleur Islands, about 50 miles off the coast. I want to parallel the length of the small island chain to see just how much oil has surrounded its 50-mile length. The Chandeleurs are the only bits of land standing between the still-gushing oil and landfall and for the past decade, thanks to storms and erosion, have been disappearing at a rate of about 300 feet a year. Now, thanks to the BP spill, the long-ignored islands have become a kind of secondary ground zero in the fight between locals and the federal government over how best to slow the spread of oil.
%Gallery-98231%It’s not a great leap to think that if energy had been put into building the islands up over the years to act as better barriers against big storms they’d also be better prepared to act as blockades to all this oil.
Governor Bobby Jindal, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nunsegger and several other top Louisiana politicos have sent cranes to the islands – which are federally protected wildlife habitats – and not the kind that swoop and soar but the kind that trench and roar.
The federal government has already stopped the plan a couple times, concerned that any hasty digging, sucking and relocating of sand has the potential to do far more harm than good; the locals, led by an increasingly vociferous governor, argue that doing something – anything!! — Is better than doing nothing.
The local’s plan, to be paid for initially with state funds since neither the fed nor BP is backing it, is to suck sand off the bottom of the Gulf and pile it at the ends of the islands, extending their blocking ability. But the Interior Department, as well as several Louisiana environmentalists, contends the work is being done at overly sensitive sections of the island and that building up one end of the island will only weaken the spot where the sand is being taken.
My instinct as we fly over the islands at 2,000 feet – we’ve had to climb since this is federally protected air space – is that with evidence of oil having arrived yesterday on Lake Ponchatrain in New Orleans (80 miles up the Mississippi River) it seems that the oil has already evaded the barrier islands. Louisiana government statistics suggest that 337 miles of its coastline are now oil-inflicted. Maybe the hundreds of millions Louisiana is attempting to spend to try and block the oil could be better spent on coordinating its clean up.
But Bobby Jindal and team seem to be in a building frenzy; the fed has yesterday stymied another effort to build rock jetties or dikes in the shallow ocean in front of Grand Isle; 75 barges piled high with boulders sit parked on the Mississippi River, waiting the outcome of another squabble. The concern regarding the dike building is what will happen to them once the spill dissipates. If it ever does.