From the Shores of Louisiana: Morning in Sulphur Grove

Sulphur Grove, Louisiana – At 4:30 a.m. a pair of sport fishing boats being launched on the edge of Barataria Bay on a humid morning – where fishing has been banned for more than two months — is made more odd thanks to the backlighting of a partial lunar eclipse.

P.J. Hahn, a one-time Texas cop turned Louisiana politician, steps down out of his pick-up truck lugging a waterproof box filled with camera gear and a plastic bag full of clothes to protect against sun and wet, but not oil.

Before his feet hit the ground, he’s storytelling. “I dove into the sea just days after the spill began,” he starts, “and was cleaning oil out my ears for three days afterwards. The wetsuit I wore that day? I took it home and soaked it in my bathtub for a day trying to get the oil out of it, but ended up throwing it out. I would never have gotten the oil out and it smelled like hell.”

The very hands-on Director of Coastal Restoration for Plaquemines Parish – the 80-mile long peninsula jutting into the Gulf south of New Orleans — has no hesitancy plunging hands, feet, even his head into the oily mess that continues to grow in the complexity of marshes that stretch for miles to the Gulf. He only wishes there was more he could do.

“Why are we the only people out here at this time of morning, when the seas are calm?” he wonders out loud as we motor down a canal towards the sprawling bay. “Most of these workers wait until the sun is high before they come out to work.” Citing a lack of federal government leadership, he insists the clean-up is going as well as it can “but I’ve never seen as much incompetency as I’ve seen on the federal side here.”
As the fishing boat slides quietly through no-wake zones, its massive 250 hp engine overkill for the kind of floating inspection we are planning for the day, P.J. is on a roll. We pass barges laden with piles of brand new orange and yellow boom, absorbents and waste bins ready to receive plastic bags filled with dirty versions brought in by clean-up crews. A line of a dozen airboats are parked at the edge of the marsh grass; normally used for tourists and fishing, like every boat on the bay these days they are being used in the clean-up effort.

His early morning tirade is in part motivated by the fact that just the day before the federal government had shut down the tens of millions of dollars dredging project Governor Bobby Jindal, a favorite here in Plaquemines Parish, had launched in spite of its opposition in the Chandeleur Islands.

The fed – specifically the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Army Corps of Engineers – had discouraged the dredging project since it was first proposed, as too little too late and potentially more harmful to wildlife than oil. Jindal proceeded anyway, making him a folk hero in conservative circles across the south for standing up to the national government.

While Jindal has been the most outspoken of the four Gulf State Republican governors in his criticisms of the fed’s response to the oil gusher, his state has not exactly made spill prevention or clean-up a priority … until April 20. In the past decade the staff of the state’s oil spill coordinator’s office has been cut in half and in the past year Jindal had cut the unit’s budget in half.

Still, P.J. and many others in Plaquemines Parish feel trying something is better than sitting around doing nothing.

“Billy (Nunsegger, Plaquemines Parish president who has become the go-to guy for Anderson Cooper and other national media talking when they need a local voice of outrage) seems to think Obama really cares. I’m not as convinced,” says P.J., but when pressed he admits there’s no precedent for this mess, thus no clear path.

His real concern this early morning is the lack of activity. “If this is really a war, us against the oil, where is everybody? Now is the time to start working, when it’s calm, before the winds pick up. Why are we the only people out here on the bay?

“With this kind of attitude, the oil will definitely win.”