Louisiana Bay Jimmy
Gulf oil spill: Six months in
By RICK JERVIS
BAY JIMMY, La. — It’s hard to imagine that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis is over in this small body of water about 40 miles south of New Orleans.
Workers in hazardous materials suits balance themselves on small boats and use industrial vacuums to suck shiny black crude from the banks of marshes. Swaths of fresh oil flatten miles of marsh grass and cane weeds. Teams of inspectors motor around nearby islets and barrier islands, determining the best way to get rid of the oil.
Much of the Gulf Coast has returned to normalcy since the Macondo well 50 miles offshore of Louisiana was permanently capped last month, ending the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. But in marshy areas such as Bay Jimmy, where the oil had some of its strongest impact, the fight against the crude onslaught continues, even as fewer workers fight it.
In one recent 10-day period, more than 32,000 gallons of oil were sucked out of Bay Jimmy’s marshes, according to the DRC Group, a BP contractor orchestrating the cleanup there.
“People think it’s over – but look around,” P.J. Hahn, Plaquemines Parish’s coastal zone director, says during a recent tour of Bay Jimmy’s blackened marshes. “It looks like the first day it hit.”
The crisis began in April with the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 crewmembers and unleashed more than 100 million gallons of light crude into the Gulf. BP, which leased the rig and owns the well, is responsible for the spill and its cleanup. The Coast Guard has overseen the response.
No new oil has arrived from the well since it was capped. But recently, a low tide and northerly winds, common this time of year, has pushed the water level down around southern Louisiana and revealed more oil, Hahn says. Barges plying the Mississippi River leave dark ribbons of crude in their wake, and oil lingering under the surface has washed up on marshes, he says.
The Bay Jimmy marshes, which received the brunt of the spill, underscore the challenges faced by regional and BP officials who continue to battle the spill, even as much of it has disappeared from sight and BP demobilizes its army of workers. The number of overall workers involved with spill cleanup has dropped from 47,800 at the height of the spill to 16,200, according to Coast Guard figures.
“There’s so much oil out there you begin to wonder, `How can it all be picked up?’ ” says Richard Angelico, a DRC Group spokesman.
Signs of progress
The amount of “heavily-oiled” shorelines, those with at least half an inch of oil in them, has decreased from 54 miles in early July to 28 miles today, says Ed Owens, whose firm, Polaris Applied Sciences, is the main shoreline consultant to BP. That’s a small fraction of the more than 7,000 total miles of Louisiana shoreline, he says.
In many places, the soiled Louisiana marshland has cleaned itself up, thanks to microbes gobbling up oil particles, Owens says.
In places like Bay Jimmy, however, the oil remains.
The amount of Louisiana shoreline with any oil remaining has actually increased from 287 miles in early July to 320 miles today, Owens says.
Scientists are conducting tests with degreasers such as Citrisol to help pry the oil from marsh roots to where it can be cleaned up. As the weather cools, the oil will thicken and become harder to extract, Owens says. It will be several more months before the oil breaks down enough to be collected, he says. “We’re working just as hard as we ever have been,” Owens says.
BP scaling back work
On a recent afternoon, several boats bolted with large vacuum tanks anchored off a stretch of marsh in Bay Jimmy. Workers raked oil-blackened marsh grass and poked vacuum hoses into the muck.
Douglas Gamso, a boat captain contracted by DRC Group, says he has seen oil steadily attack marshes in Bay Jimmy and other stretches of Barataria Bay even as BP continues to shrink its workforce. His boat’s vacuum tank holds 450 gallons of crude, which his team filled two or three times a day, offloading the oil into a nearby floating barge. But that barge was demobilized by BP, forcing them to travel 30 minutes to empty their tank, Gamso says.
Some local officials, such as Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, say they sense BP is scaling back as quickly as possible to declare victory and head home. The less oil workers collect, the smaller the crisis, he says.
“They want it all to just go away,” he says, “and we’re not going to let them do it.”
The main task ahead is figuring out a way to loosen the oil from the marshes so it can be more easily collected, says Owens, the BP contractor.
“It’s harsh to say BP’s trying to pull out,” Owens says. “What we’re trying to do is the right thing.”
source: WCSH6.com | Portland, ME | Gulf oil spill: Six months in