Oil pours into Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, threatening one of America’s most vital watersheds

By Cain Burdeau, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

Oil spill spreads in La.’s big, rich Barataria Bay

BARATARIA BAY, La. — The sand dunes and islands of Barataria Bay, a huge expanse of water and marsh on Louisiana’s coast, have become the latest casualty of the environmental disaster spewing from BP’s offshore well. And fishermen are bitter.

Oil-caked birds, stranded sea turtles, globs of gooey brown crude on beaches, coated crabs and mats of tar have been found throughout the inlets and mangroves that dot the bay. The oil has coated the water with a rainbow sheen and is threatening the complex web of wetlands, marshes and bayous that make up this ecological and historic treasure.

Everything from crabbing to bait fishing is shutting down, and the anger on the bayou is palpable.

“It’s scary, you know, man,” marine mechanic Jimmy Howard said from his hurricane-battered fishing shack, a cigar stub stuffed in his mouth. “I see them doing what they can, you know. All the boats going out, all the boom. I’m hoping they can contain it.”

Barataria teems with wildlife, including alligators, bullfrogs, bald eagles and migratory birds from the Caribbean and South America. There are even Louisiana black bears in the upper basin’s hardwood forests.

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, oyster and shrimp boats plowed through these productive bays as fishermen snapped up speckled trout and redfish within minutes of casting their lines.

Now it resembles an environmental war zone. Many of the bay’s nesting islands for birds are girded by oil containment boom, and crews in white disposable protective suits change out coils of absorbents to soak up the sticky mess.

“The whole place is full of oil,” said fishing guide Dave Marino. “This is some of the best fishing in the whole region, and the oil’s coming in just wave after wave. It’s hard to stomach, it really is.”

At the entrance to Barataria, dredges and bulldozers are building sand berms on barrier islands to intercept the advancing oil. National Guard helicopters drop sandbags into breaches smashed through the islands by hurricanes, and local officials are moving in barges to use as makeshift barriers.

Shrimp boats have been enlisted in the skimming effort — the Coast Guard says about 2,450 barrels of oily water have been picked up. But it’s bittersweet work for the shrimpers, whose fishing grounds have been shut down.

“We got little otter families that swim in and out, we got ‘coons — all that good stuff, man,” Howard said. “It’s good for the kids out here. Keeps them off the streets. They swim, work on the boats, fish.”

Barataria has played a vital role in Louisiana history. It is where the pirate and Battle of New Orleans hero Jean Lafitte established his colony of Baratarians. The estuary was also the setting for “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. Like other wealthy 19th-century New Orleanians, Chopin spent summers on Grand Isle, to the bay’s south, and made the evocative island a focus of her work.

Barataria was a wild place back then. It was covered in virgin cypress trees, some believed to be thousands of years old. Throughout the marsh and forests, shrimp-processing towns and American-Indian settlements hummed with activity in the bay, which is at the heart of a 1.5 million-acre delta basin formed 3,000 years ago.

But heavy erosion has been pushing the bay closer to the brink of collapse in recent years.

Since the damming of Bayou Lafourche in 1904 cut off a supply of fresh water and nutrients, Barataria has declined rapidly. About 500 square miles of marsh, mangrove, mudflats, sand ridges and cypress forest have been lost to the encroaching salt water of the Gulf. It’s a familiar story in coastal Louisiana, where 2,000 square miles of wetlands have been lost since the 1930s.

Scientists fear the oil may overwhelm Barataria’s remaining defenses, already stressed by erosion.

“There is no good estuary to spill oil in, but this estuary is particularly fragile,” said Mark Schexnayder, marine biologist with the Louisiana Sea Grant program, an affiliate of Louisiana State University.

C.C. Lockwood, a wildlife photographer whose iconic images of the vanishing coast are a coffee-table feature, has been out in the slick capturing its impact.

“It looks to me like the roots (of marsh plants) are pretty much smothered and they will die at the edges,” Lockwood said. “I saw what I counted to be about 1,000 dead hermit crabs. I saw blue crabs with faces covered in oil.”

Scientists generally agree it will be years before the effect of the oil settling into the food chain will be known, but not all see an apocalyptic outcome.

“The idea that all oil coming into contact with a mangrove or wetlands is lethal and will kill it is not true,” said Roy “Robin” Lewis III, a Florida-based ecologist who’s studied oil spills in mangroves for 40 years. “I would not say that you are looking at a doomsday situation.”

Still, death is taking place — most of it invisible to the eye.

“Once the mousse, the floating oil gets in there and oils the seagrass there are many different types of organisms that live in the sediment,” said Richard Pierce, director of the Center for Ecotoxicology at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. “Essentially they will die and that can last for years.”

Local leaders say the environmental damage could have been prevented if decisive action had been taken as soon as the well blew out. Within a week of the rig explosion, parish officials wanted to block the passes, but those plans were stymied by government hesitation and concerns by ecologists.

The oil finally breached into the bay around May 20, a month after the explosion.

Now, the oil is inside — in the marshes and wetlands — and people are angry.

“I’m pissed — and you can print that,” said Donna Hollis, 39, hanging out in a tank-top and with a cigarette at Jimmy Howard’s camp in Wilkinson Canal.

She echoed Jefferson Parish council chairman John Young: “This is a battle. Oil’s our enemy right now. This is going to destroy the livelihoods of these people in south Louisiana.”

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