Oil Cleanup Poses Risks In Fragile Louisiana Marshes

A red-brown oil slick swirls among the water and reeds of the marshes of Pass a Loutre, La. i i

hide captionThe marshes of Pass a Loutre, La., are covered with oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Gerald Herbert/AP
A red-brown oil slick swirls among the water and reeds of the marshes of Pass a Loutre, La.

The marshes of Pass a Loutre, La., are covered with oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Gerald Herbert/AP

The oil spill from the blown-out well off the coast of Louisiana is seeping into marshlands that serve as critical wildlife habitat and as buffers against violent storms. Officials are considering a range of cleanup options — including burning out the oil, and the marshes with it — but some of them may do more harm than good.

At the Venice Marina in Venice, La., the scene on a recent day was one of summer serenity. It was a stark contrast to the sight of petroleum sliming the once-pristine marshes not far from the harbor. That's what was on the minds of the teams of biologists steering their boats back in after surveying some of the damage.

"Right now as you approach the marsh, it almost looks normal, but as you get closer, you see that the bottom of all the canes is coated with brown sticky oil," said Maura Wood, who works on coastal Louisiana restoration for the National Wildlife Federation. "And then you see that on the surface of the water, there are still globs of red and brown and black oil almost as far as the eye can see."

The Threat From Oil

At least 7 million gallons of crude have spilled in the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, fouling Gulf Coast marshland and coating birds and other wildlife.

The thick oil can suffocate the canes, grasses and other flora, and toxins in the oil can also poison the plants, said Doug Inkley, a senior biologist with the National Wildlife Federation.

"With this oil coming in, if it is severe enough to kill the plants entirely, then these plants are going to decay and basically you take away the entire root structure that helps support that soil, and with the waves and the weather coming in, virtually these wetlands disappear," Inkley said.

Flora, Fauna Threatened

  • A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
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    A boat uses a boom and absorbent material to soak up oil in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., on June 28. A tropical storm is expected to hit the Gulf and impede cleanup efforts.
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and wife Carole Rome Crist (right) stand with others during a Hands Across the Sand event June 26 in Pensacola, Fla. The event was staged across the nation to protest offshore oil drilling.
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  • Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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    Oil clouds the surface of Barataria Bay near Port Sulpher, La., on June 19.
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  • Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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    Workers adjust piping while drilling a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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  • A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
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    A dolphin rises up out of the water near Grand Terre Island off the coast of Louisiana on June 14.
    Derick E. Hingle/AP
  • President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
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    President Obama stands with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (right) and Gulfport, Miss., Mayor George Schloegel after meeting with residents affected by the oil spill.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
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    Crude oil washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 12. Oil slicks, 4 to 6 inches thick in some parts, have washed up along the Alabama coast.
    Dave Martin/AP
  • A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
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    A volunteer uses a toothbrush to clean an oil-covered white pelican at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 9.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
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    A shrimp boat skims oil from the surface of the water just off Orange Beach, Ala., as a family enjoys the surf. Oily tar balls have started washing up on Orange Beach and beaches in the western Florida panhandle.
    Dave Martin/AP
  • Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
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    Sand from a dredge is pumped onto East Grand Terre Island, La., to provide a barrier against the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 8.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
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    A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on June 7.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil that has washed ashore from the spill in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
    Eric Gay/AP
  • Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
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    Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican out of the water on Queen Bess Island in Plaquemines Parish, La., June 5.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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    Heavy oil pools along the side of a boom just outside Cat Island in Grand Isle, La., June 6.
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  • President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
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    President Obama walks alongside Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle (from right), U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response to the spill, and Chris Camardelle after meeting with local business owners in Grand Isle, La., June 4.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
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    A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 3.
    Charlie Riedel/AP
  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Do...
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    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the BP oil spill. With him, from left: Stephanie Finley and Jim Letten, U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Louisiana; Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; Tony West, assistant attorney general, Civil Division; and Don Burkhalter, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
    Cheryl Gerber/AP
  • The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
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    The oil slick off the coast of Louisiana, seen from above.
    NASA via Getty Images
  • A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
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    A worker leaves the beach in Grand Isle, La., on May 30. BP is turning to yet another mix of undersea robot maneuvers to help keep more crude oil from flowing into the Gulf.
    Jae C. Hong/AP
  • Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
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    Protesters cover themselves with a water and paint mixture during a demonstration at a BP gas station in New York City on May 28.
    Mary Altaffer/AP
  • Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La.  The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
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    Workers clean up oil in Pass a Loutre, La. The latest attempt to plug the leak was unsuccessful.
    Jae C. Hong, File/AP
  • Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
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    Residents listen to a discussion with parish officials and a BP representative on May 25 in Chalmette, La. Officials now say that it may be impossible to clean the hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands affected by the massive oil spill.
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images
  • An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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    An oil-soaked pelican takes flight after Louisiana Fish and Wildlife employees tried to corral it on an island in Barataria Bay on the coast of Louisiana. The island, which is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills, is impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
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    A sign warns the public to stay away from the beach on Grand Isle, La. Officials closed the oil-covered beaches to the public indefinitely on Saturday.
    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
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    Pelican eggs stained with oil sit in a nest on an island in Barataria Bay on May 22.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
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    A bird flies over oil that has collected on wetlands on Elmer's Island in Grand Isle, La., May 20. The oil came inland despite oil booms that were placed at the wetlands' mouth on the Gulf of Mexico.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
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    Members of the Louisiana National Guard build a land bridge at the mouth of wetlands on Elmer's Island.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
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    The hands of boat captain Preston Morris are covered in oil after collecting surface samples from the marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Hide caption
    Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (center) and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser (right) tour the oil-impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La. "This is the heavy oil that everyone's been fearing that is here now," said Jindal.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
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    BP Chairman and President Lamar McKay (left), with Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (center) and Applied Science Associates Principal Deborah French McCay, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing May 18 on response efforts to the Gulf Coast oil spill.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
  • This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
    Hide caption
    This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has agreed to display a live video feed of the oil gusher on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee's website beginning Thursday evening.
    Senate Environment and Public Works Committee/AP
  • President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
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    President Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the oil spill in Venice, La., on May 2.
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
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    Danene Birtell with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research tends to a Northern Gannet in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. The bird, normally white when full grown, is covered in oil from the oil spill.
    Alex Brandon/AP
  • Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
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    Since the explosion, a third oil leak has been discovered in the blown-out well.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
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    In this aerial photo taken April 21 more than 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
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    Tendrils of oil mar the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this satellite image taken Monday. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are seeping into the Gulf, after an explosion last week on a drilling rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
    Courtesy of Digital Globe

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He said scientists are trying to see what they can do to prevent that. But there's no easy solution. Indeed, several ideas are under consideration by local, state and federal officials, and each appears to have drawbacks.

Soft, mucky, peat-like soils hold Louisiana's coastal marshes together, serving as the Gulf's nurseries for fish, shrimp, crab, oysters and other marine life, and as nesting grounds for pelicans and other birds. The rakes and pressure hoses that were used to clean the rocks and sand on Alaska's shores after the Exxon Valdez spill would tear the Louisiana marshes apart.

Heavy machinery is out of the question, and even people walking into the marshes might do as much damage as the oil.

'No Good Options'

Another idea, Inkley said, is to divert more water into the marshes.

"Flooding of the marshes is one possible option because you can try to lift the oil back up off of the plants and off of the soil to the extent it's not too sticky, but that's also an issue," he said.

Getting enough water to flood the marshes is also an issue.

Some parish officials might try vacuum-like suction devices as soon as this weekend, but there's no clear idea how well that would work.

Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral who heads the federal response to the oil spill, has suggested the drastic-sounding step of prescribed burns to rid marshes of the toxic oil.

But Inkley said burning is risky.

"If it burns too low, during the low tide type of time, then what you could end up with is killing the plants altogether, and that's just as bad as the oil killing the plants because it could destroy the marsh," he said. "So there's no good options for cleaning it up. The best option is keep it out of the marshes in the first place."

But it's too late for that for many of the marshes, estuaries, islands and wetlands on the Louisiana coast, and there will likely be many more waves of oil washing up to them for months to come.

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