To Fix Oil-Fouled Marshes, Some Say Do Nothing

The sensitive salt marshes of Louisiana line the coast, protecting it from storm surges and providing habitat for numerous wildlife. Now those marshes are endangered by oil. The Coast Guard has laid hundreds of miles of protective boom, and even has workers carefully cleaning individual blades of grass. But some scientists say the best cure is to do, well, nothing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The sensitive salt marshes of Louisiana line the coast, protecting it from storm surges and providing habitat for wildlife. Well, now those marshes are in danger and covered in oil. But what to do about that, if anything at all, isn't clear. NPR's Tamara Keith spent the day touring the marshes by airboat.

(Soundbite of airboat)

TAMARA KEITH: About 150 miles of Louisiana coastline has been affected by oil, much of it marshland, and we're out here near some of this affected marshland.

There's - absorbent boom that they've placed around the marsh grasses, but the oil has definitely gotten in. Around the edges, it's brown and glistening. The blades of grass have oil on them.

There's a crew of workers adjusting the boom. They're all in these white, Tyvek suits, protective suits, with life vests on. And they're taking this boom that looks sort of like a cotton snake, and pushing it up - right up against the edge of the marsh grasses.

Petty Officer JOHN MILLER (U.S. Coast Guard): I mean, actually, over the last few days, there's been an improvement. You can see an improvement.

KEITH: John Miller is a petty officer with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Petty Officer MILLER: And so between the boom, absorbent boom, between the process of biodegration and between the heat - I mean, some of it's evaporating off, too - this is, you know, a small success story.

KEITH: Another thing they're doing on a limited basis is actually cleaning up the most heavily oiled grasses, by hand.

Petty Officer MILLER: We pull the boats as close as is safe, and then you have the workers like, leaning over the gunnels with absorbent pads, cleaning it off grass blade by grass blade, as well.

KEITH: But scientists involved with the cleanup have moved away from that effort, and not just because there are way too many grass blades and way too much oil. In fact, they say it's not all that effective. They say the primary goal of cleanup around marshes is to scoop up the oil before it ever has a chance to get in.

And then there's an element of just letting nature take its course. Professor Denise Reed is a marsh expert at the University of New Orleans.

Professor DENISE REED (Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New Orleans): Originally, you saw pictures of people going out there and wiping the oil off of the grass, and they were probably bending and twisting and destroying as many plants as they were actually doing good by cleaning and - with the trampling and everything. And so now, that's not happening, and that's not happening because it's probably not the right thing to do.

KEITH: There are competing theories about the best way to handle the arrival of oil in coastal marshes. Some say the oil should be burned off. Others say, cut the grasses out. Reed says different methods are right for different areas. It may seem counterintuitive, but she says getting in there and trying to help could slow down the recovery process.

Ms. REED: The good news is, within the marsh environments in Louisiana - that there are a lot of naturally occurring microbes that will degrade this oil. And those processes will take care of it.

KEITH: It could be that when it comes to fragile marshes, less is more.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Cocodrie, Louisiana.

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