Booms Delay The Inevitable; Cleanup Efforts Struggle

The pelican rookery at Cat Island. Brian Naylor/NPR

The pelican rookery at Cat Island is protected by double booms, yet many birds still show signs of oil contamination. Brian Naylor/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Naylor/NPR

While oil has fouled beaches and marshes from Louisiana to Florida, most of it has not reached shore. Still, its effects are readily apparent even where cleanup efforts have been most intensive. South of New Orleans, Barataria Bay is a natural treasure, full of shrimp, fish, birds and mammals — and these days, oil.

Brent Ballay directs his 23-foot skiff across the water, stopping at a spot he describes as a very, very oily marsh. "It's quite nasty — disgusting in fact. It's been just wave after wave of oil here for close to two months."

The bottom few inches of the marsh grass is brown. Resting in the water in front of the grass are long absorbent booms, saturated with oil, looking something like fat anaconda snakes.

The boom "isn't doing much good anymore to keep the oil from moving farther in land," Amanda Moore of the National Wildlife Federation says. "Once it's been oiled like this, it's useless." Moore, who is out to inspect the cleanup, is unhappy about what she sees.

No Escape For Wildlife

The oil is not just on the shores of the marshes. It coats the water, sometimes appearing as an iridescent sheen, at other times as reddish brown spots. Despite all the skimming and boom laying, there is still a lot of oil in Barataria Bay. Yet there is also a lot of life. Alongside Ballay's boat, a pair of dolphins rise out of the oily water. Ballay says it's a mother and baby.

Oil-soaked booms sit on top of a marsh in Barataria Bay.  Brian Naylor/NPR i i

Oil-soaked booms sit on top of a marsh in Barataria Bay. Brian Naylor/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Naylor/NPR
Oil-soaked booms sit on top of a marsh in Barataria Bay.  Brian Naylor/NPR

Oil-soaked booms sit on top of a marsh in Barataria Bay.

Brian Naylor/NPR

It's breathtaking to see them, so close you can hear them breathe, yet it's heartbreaking at the same time. You want to tell them to get away from this oil, but of course they can't; there's no escaping it.

A few miles farther out in the bay is Cat Island. It's not very big, just a few acres, but it is jam-packed with birds, mostly pelicans, some egrets and a few roseate spoonbills. They are nesting, and if you look closely, you can see some of the baby pelicans.

Moore says the sight "conjures up a lot of emotions to look at. It's beautiful and then, at the same time, it makes you kind of upset knowing what they're facing."

The island is surrounded by two layers of booms, but again, they're full of oil and need to be replaced. On the other side of the island, the scene is more disturbing. A number of spoonbills are covered in oil. Ballay says the bird's natural color is pink. These are brown.

On the way back, the weather clears and Ballay and Moore pass several small boats loaded with clean boom heading out into the bay.

A Cleanup Effort With No End In Sight

The Houma Incident Command Post is the heart of BP and the government's response to the oil spill along the Louisiana coast. It had been BP's offshore operations and training center. Some 1,100 people work there now, many of them wearing color-coded vests to signify their roles for colleagues they've never met before in a bureaucracy that was created almost overnight.

Here they dispatch the oil skimmers, determine where absorbent boom should be placed and where oil-burning fires should be set.

In all, there are 13,000 people, including BP employees, contractors and representatives of the alphabet soup of federal agencies involved in the cleanup off Louisiana. The question is whether any of it is doing any good.

Asked about all the oil-soaked booms in Barataria Bay, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris Lee says the goal "is to change it out as quick as it's basically soiled." But he adds a couple of days' worth of bad weather has shut down the operation.

The Coast Guard and BP say they've deployed more than 5 million feet of boom, along with hundreds of skimming vessels and barges to collect the oil. But despite all those resources, Lee admits that until the well is capped and no longer spewing tens of thousands of new barrels of oil every day into the Gulf, the cleanup is an uphill battle.

"We're doing everything we can, with all the resources that we have, to get whatever we can get," he says. Until the source of the leak is plugged, he adds, "We have a growth business. We want to put ourselves out of business, but we can't until that source is secured."

And even under the best-case scenario, that's more than a month away.

There are any number of reasons why the cleanup hasn't accomplished more: bad weather, government bureaucracy, reliance on technology such as skimmers and booms that has barely changed since the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. When the oil finally does stop gushing into the Gulf, it will take years — maybe generations — for places like Barataria Bay to recover.

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