Environmentalist: Fate Of Coast Rests With Weather

A shift in wind is blowing more oil ashore in Louisiana, but so far, damage to the coast has been light. Environmentalist and coastal expect Ivor van Heerden says the impact of the oil on the coast, so far, has been exaggerated. But, he says, a hurricane could make things much worse in a hurry.

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Oil from BP's blowout well is spreading further through the Gulf of Mexico. It's now washing up on some beaches in Florida. Southerly winds are also pushing greater concentrations of brown sludge onto the Louisiana coastline.

NPR's John Ydstie visited one of the hardest hit beaches near Grand Isle.

JOHN YDSTIE: Grand Isle is at the very end of Louisiana Highway 1. It's surrounded by water. This is where the state's vast marshland meets to Gulf of Mexico. The town's marina is a launch point for boats carrying cleanup crews onto remote beaches.

(Soundbite of boat)

YDSTIE: But this boat is carrying a small group of journalist. Ivor van Heerden, a famous defender of Louisiana's fragile coastline, is taking them out for a look at the damage.

Dr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Environmentalist; Former Deputy Director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center): Don't be alarmed. The boat is going to vibrate some. There's a lot of Katrina trash, as we call it, in the water. And they hit some this morning with this boat, so it's got a big propeller.

YDSTIE: Van Heerden is something of a hero among environmentalists for his tenacious efforts to protect the Louisiana coast. His strong views recently got him fired from his professor's job at LSU.

Now, he is working on the spill cleanup as a member of a shoreline cleanup assessment team for a BP contractor. The teams investigate areas of reported spills and prescribe the proper cleanup. Today, he's headed for a beach on Grand Terre Island.

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: Let me ask one of them guys where I can tie up here.

Unidentified Man: This looks like the best place right here.

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: There you go.

YDSTIE: There are just a few weatherworn houses on stilts on one side of Grand Terre. They're all that remains of an old state fish and wildlife camp. But the oil is on the other side, the Gulf side, on a long, narrow sand beach.

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: This is new oil. It was reported this morning by our air crews. It came ashore with the high tide late yesterday. And what we've seen is a mixture of tar balls and patties, as we call them. It looks about, oh, 40 percent cover. This would be some of the heaviest oil that I've certainly seen in the last month.

YDSTIE: Is that alarming to you?

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: No, because this can be cleaned up.

YDSTIE: And just up the beach, there's a crew dressed in white and yellow hazard suits doing just that. Twenty-seven-year-old Ian Guidry(ph), a former offshore oil worker is the team leader.

Mr. IAN GUIDRY: The consistency is like peanut butter almost. It's real thick. Right now in these areas, we got about, I guess, it's somewhere around six to eight inches in some spots.

YDSTIE: But the oil is less than an inch thick on the several hundred yards of beach visible from where we're standing.

Mr. GUIDRY: This particular island is about five and a half miles long and it's like that from coast to coast.

YDSTIE: Guidry is down on one knee wiping the oil off the sand with what looks like a thick paper towel. Other team members are using shovels and rakes. It all goes in large, white garbage bags. Guidry says his crew of about 25 are filling around 50 bags an hour but the wind and waves keep pushing more oil ashore.

Mr. GUIDRY: We'll get about 90 percent of this cleaned up before the sun goes down and when we come back at 6 o'clock in the morning it'll look like we didn't do anything.

YDSTIE: Despite what he's seen today, Ivor van Heerden says so far, damage from oil coming ashore has been overstated. That's a bit surprising coming from a staunch environmentalist. But he says in the marshlands, the thick grasses are acting a bit like a protection boom. It keeps the oil from penetrating more than a couple of meters. He says the oil dries quickly and flakes off the stems, apparently not doing the grass any real harm.

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: We've been incredibly lucky, and I say that as a Louisianan. We've had, you know, over 5,000 miles of shoreline and it's only tens of miles that have been oiled, and very, very few areas that have been heavily oiled.

YDSTIE: What's scary, says van Heerden, is the massive amount of oil offshore. And if a hurricane strikes, its surge could push oil over the protective barrier of grasses and deep into the marshland, causing great damage.

Dr. VAN HEERDEN: You know, in Louisiana, we're hoping and praying that - we do it every year - that we don't have any hurricanes and we add in an extra couple of prayers this year about no hurricanes.

YDSTIE: Unfortunately, forecasters are predicting one of the worst hurricane seasons ever for the Gulf this year.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Southern Louisiana.

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