From the shores of Louisiana: What fuels energy change?

Born in the Natal province of South Africa, Ivor van Heerden has been an adopted Louisianan for more than thirty years. During his years here he’s been head of the state’s coastal restoration program, on the staff at LSU, co-director of the state’s hurricane center and a head of Team Louisiana, which investigated the hows and whys of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

Also along the way he’s been branded everything from an expert to a gadfly, an egomaniac to a Cassandra. While he predicted the damage a Katrina-like storm would have on New Orleans several years before it happened – thus his charge to investigate after the hurricane – when he came out very publicly pointing fingers at the Army Corps of Engineers for “shoddy engineering” his job at LSU was suddenly eliminated (“budget cuts” said university officials; he’s still suing to get his job back).

He’s stayed in Louisiana since he was let go from LSU more than a year ago because he’s invested so much time studying its coastline and because he truly loves the state and its wildernesses. Since the Gulf spill he’s been up and down the coastline and in the air above it, consulting with clean-up efforts.

When I find him in his gravel drive in a small town outside Baton Rouge he’s packing his car for Houma, home of one of the spill’s command centers. Despite a reputation as a nature lover he’s no fuzzy romantic and is calmly outspoken on everything from big hurricanes to big oil. He’d spent the day before on two flights over the Chandleur Islands, where oil had just come ashore.

%Gallery-95432%”This is absolutely the last thing we need, being the most important part of the year in Louisiana ecologically. Our wetlands are already in such sad shape and now we’ve got hurricane season approaching. It’s the growing season for the grasses and wetland plants that suck energy out of the surge, which help protect us from storms. And of course this is the time of year when the birds are breeding and the fish larvae are starting to enter the bays and estuaries.”

How bad was the view from the air? “It was truly impressive. Some of the slicks are huge – one we looked at was 10 miles by 2 miles, about a mile off the coast. If something like that came ashore it would be devastating.

“A worst case scenario would be that a tropical storm spins out next week and we have five, six, ten feet of surge and it drives that oil in and totally fouls a huge part of coastal Louisiana. In some ways we’re lucky it’s happening now rather than during the height of hurricane season, which is when we expected such a catastrophe to happen because a drill rig had been knocked over.”

Given his ongoing fight with LSU over his job – his request for a trial was turned down just a week ago, though he is appealing – I wonder if he might temper his outspokenness regarding assigning blame for the spill.

“Obviously BP, or Transocean are at fault since it’s their equipment that failed. Whether it was malfunction of equipment or human error, they are ultimately responsible. But we Americans share a fair amount of the blame. Most of us are in denial about the whole energy situation in this country so it is our fault as much as anyone else’s.

“But BP or Exxon or whoever else is not going to go drill in one-mile deep water if they can’t make money. It costs them billions of dollars to sink just one well. But they can make money because of our energy policy. If we could suddenly change it so that we all had solar panels on our roofs, use solar heating and so on, we would reduce the demand for this oil and it would become uneconomical to go into these deep waters and we could eliminate some of these problems. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, I honestly don’t. I think we’re just going to continue down this road until we have a major energy catastrophe when we are all of a sudden forced to change.”

From the shores of Louisiana: through the eyes of an environmental chemist

New Iberia, Louisiana — Traveling around southern Louisiana with Wilma Subra can be both enlightening and depressing. A chemist by training and environmental activist by choice, on every corner, at every railroad crossing, each empty lot and even in the air she sees – rightfully! – either a toxic wasteland or one on the verge. Better than anyone in the state she understands the long-term effects of putting chemicals into air and water.

During the past five-plus weeks her limits as both environmentalist and human have been tested on a variety of fronts. She’s appeared before dozens of community groups trying to explain the health risks of the spill, been interviewed by journalists from around the world, participated in high-level talks with government officials, all with the goal of trying to help them understand just how bad the ongoing spill is for both the environment and human health.

When I find her at home on a Sunday she is clearly happy to see an old friend, but exhausted from more than 35 long days and sleepless nights. Sixty-six years old, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant a decade ago for her work on community environmental fights.

“You never get used to this level of emergency. When you come home at night you can’t separate the science from the social impact on these communities.

“But you take it day to day. You get up in the morning and start again, no matter how many hours of sleep you get. Because so much of what I can do helps those communities … so I need to be there when they need me. And right now they desperately need me.”

When the Deepwater first exploded she was as caught by surprise as most in Louisiana. “We always suspected something like this could happen, but assumed there would be enough preventive measures that it wouldn’t turn into something this major . We could never have predicted something this huge.

%Gallery-95432%”When the rig sank, on Earth Day, it quickly became clear the spill was going to wreak havoc all along the coast. How bad is it? It’s just unbelievably bad. Decisions are being made now – the burning of oil off the surface, the spreading of chemical dispersements – that will have huge, long-term impacts. And not just on the marine environment.

According to Wilma a combination of heavy winds and high seas whip the floating oil into an aerosol of hydrocarbons, which when blown ashore are making people as far inland as New Orleans very sick, complaining of headaches, vomiting, rashes and burning eyes.

Her immediate concern post-spill was the health of the fishermen being hired to help with the clean up. “At first BP tried to get them to sign an agreement which basically took away all their rights to protection of human health, their rights to sue, their rights to get damages. They were basically saying ‘If you are going to apply for damages then you can’t apply for this job.’ So we took them to court and got all of those clauses thrown out. The following day we took them to court again because they weren’t providing the fishermen with protective gear. We’d taken it upon ourselves to give the fishermen respirators with replaceable, organic cartridges, goggles, gloves and rubber sleeves protectors because when you pick up a boom covered with oil you get it on your skin. But we wanted BP to provide it to all their workers out there.

“We don’t want the fishers, glad to get the job, to go out there and get poisoned and for the rest of their lives have human health issues because they desperately needed this job to take the place of the fishing jobs they lost because of the spill.” She likens it to the workers who helped clean up after the World Trade Center collapsed and later got sick from the toxins in the air.

I ask who she blames for the mess. “You have to start by looking at who’s in charge. And apparently BP is in charge. The MMS, EPA, Department of Interior are all saying ‘We are at the command center, we’re making decisions,’ but the truth is if BP wants to try something or not try something no one can tell them no. BP is running the show and the people along the coast are the ones suffering. Right now the oil industry is clearly winning, not the communities.

“You understand, this is the end of the fishing communities in south Louisiana, for many, many decades to come.”

Hilton joins Florida hotels in offering “Beach Satisfaction Guarantee”

As the oil spill crisis continues to spark concern in the Gulf, travelers are becoming increasingly worried about their vacation plans. However, Florida hotels are working to offer guests ‘guaranteed satisfaction’ deals that help alleviate some of the worry. Just in from Hilton Hotels: Beach Satisfaction Guarantee.

Here’s how it works:

The “Beach Satisfaction Guarantee,” ensures that guests with reservations at any of Hilton Worldwide’s hotels from the Gulf Coast to South Florida that are beachfront or within a 20 minute drive to the beach will not be charged if the stay is in any way affected by the Gulf oil spill.

The guarantee is in effect through July 31, 2010. If you change or cancel a reservation at Hilton hotel because your stay will be negatively impacted by the Gulf oil spill, cancellation fees will be waived and Hilton will help you make new hotel arrangements at the same hotel or at any hotel within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio of brands for another date. These brands include: Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels, Doubletree, Embassy Suites Hotels, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Hotels, Hilton Grand Vacations and Homewood Suites by Hilton.

For more information on Hilton Worldwide’s “Beach Satisfaction Guarantee” and applicable hotels, you can check out more details at