ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The public beach was closed today at Grand Isle, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, as globs of oil washed up on the shore. For weeks now, we've been hearing about the environmental impact of the BP oil spill, but it looks even worse close up.
My co-host, Melissa Block, has been out on the water off the Louisiana coast with two organizations that are assessing the damage.
(Soundbite of machinery)
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A fast boat ride down the Mississippi out into the Delta, where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico, silvery mullet leap from the water, snowy egrets - a startling white - lift off from thick, green marsh grasses.
We're about 50 miles northwest of where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank one month ago. And just this week, oil has started washing ashore in this part of Plaquemines Parish, an estuary called Pass a Loutre. It doesn't take long before we see the damage.
Mr. P.J. HAHN (Director, Coastal Zone Management): You can see every place where the oil has touched. The reeds in the marsh - it's dead. It kills instantly. You can see, all of this normally would be green right now. It's just all brown and dead. And at the base of it, it's just a black, gooey oil clinging to the bottom of the reeds. Pretty nasty.
BLOCK: P.J. Hahn is the director of the parish Coastal Zone Management Department. He reaches to pull out a stalk of rozo cane. It's coated with oil.
Mr. HAHN: So sad when you look around here and you just think of what was here, what's happening to it now, and what's going to happen to it, you know?
BLOCK: What do you think is going to happen to it?
Mr. HAHN: Unless we stop that oil out there, it's just going to continue to keep coming in here and wipe out everything we have. I mean, that's the reality of it. You know, a lot of - BP doesn't want to talk about that part.
But I can tell you right now, there is so much oil that's sitting out there. Four weeks later, it's starting to wash up in this amount - we will not be able to keep up with this when it really starts hitting us.
I think we're just starting to see the first wave of what's really coming, and what's really coming, I think, is going to be devastating.
BLOCK: We head out into open water and soon, the surface gets an iridescent sheen. And then...
Mr. HAHN: Yeah, here you could see it.
BLOCK: Well, this is just filled with these rust-colored blobs...
Mr. HAHN: See it?
BLOCK: ...floating on the surface. Smells stronger, doesn't it?
Mr. HAHN: Yeah, a lot stronger. Yeah.
BLOCK: The boat is surrounded by thick, red clumps, streaks and swirls of oil.
Mr. HAHN: This just makes you sick. I mean, you look out here and, you know, how anybody can look out, you know, and say that this area is not going to be impacted, it's just outrageous.
BLOCK: Who's saying that this area won't be impacted?
Mr. HAHN: The president of BP said earlier this week that there will be minimal impacts because of the oil. And you can see already how much damage just this little bit has done in here. Not a little bit - this is a lot of oil. But this is little compared to what's out there getting ready to hit us. And we know it's coming. We just don't know when, and that's the scary part.
BLOCK: Another boat, another venture into the gulf.
Mr. JAMES HARRIS (Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): That's an oil rig, an offshore oil rig.
BLOCK: And over there?
Mr. HARRIS: That's another oil rig. Another oil rig. Another oil rig. Another oil rig. You'll see more.
BLOCK: We're with biologist James Harris, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mr. HARRIS: We're leaving Baptiste Collette right now, entering into Breton Sound.
BLOCK: We're heading north to the Chandeleur Islands, to Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1904 by Teddy Roosevelt, it's the second oldest refuge in the country - a thin, curved string of barrier islands. And environmentalists are anxious about this refuge, which is nesting ground for tens of thousands of birds. We pull up to North Breton Island.
Seems that island looks like it's just alive with birds. They're just everywhere out there.
Mr. HARRIS: Oh, it is. They are packed in there, just shoulder to shoulder.
BLOCK: Brown pelicans stand like sentinels, dignified and huge. Terns and gulls wheel overhead, with black skimmers and oystercatchers joining in the dance.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
Unidentified Man: Get down. Get down.
BLOCK: We splash our way onto the island. It's ringed with three layers of protective boom, which so far has kept the oil offshore here. This is peak nesting season. And this rookery is considered so precious, so vulnerable that Fish and Wildlife made sure this island got the boom first. It's in the direct path of the oil spill.
James Harris has been working at the Breton Refuge for 20 years now, and he has a particular fondness for the brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird.
Mr. HARRIS: It's special. Brown pelicans were a symbol of Louisiana, that they were this charismatic bird that was so symbolic of so many things coastal.
BLOCK: And symbolic of what's at stake in this fragile ecosystem, the brown pelican had completely disappeared from Louisiana by the 1960s. DDT was largely to blame. It was listed as an endangered species, but then young pelicans were transplanted to these islands, brought in from Florida. Workers fed them painstakingly by hand and gradually, they recovered. Now, there are about 3,000 brown pelicans on this island alone.
Mr. HARRIS: We went from a bird that was, again, totally absent from Louisiana to one that is now off the endangered species list. It represents the return of a coastal symbol. I talked to people that remember when there were pelicans, remember when there were not any pelicans, and now they're seeing them again. And they are thrilled that they're seeing pelicans again - and not just ones and twos, but in large numbers.
BLOCK: I would imagine, though, it's a personal thing for you. You've worked so hard with these populations. It could all be threatened right now.
Mr. HARRIS: It is personal. These are not my birds. These are not my islands. But when you've spent that many years working with something and getting to know it, you can't help but feel an attachment to it. Just a really neat bird.
BLOCK: What would the worst-case scenario be, James, for this island, these pelicans - all these birds?
Mr. HARRIS: Worst-case scenario would be oil moving in on a storm, because then it would overtop the boom, overtop the island.
BLOCK: How worried are you about the real threat posed here? What could come in, especially if there's a big storm?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRIS: How worried am I? The longer it goes on, the more concerned I get. Because right now up to this point, the tides, the winds, everything has been in our favor to keep it out of here. But of course, we're getting into storm season now. So the longer it goes, you know, you're pushing that envelope.
BLOCK: And just down the beach, there is an ominous sign of what could follow. A dead brown pelican, its wings and neck coated in oil.
Officer Raul Sanchez, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, has put the bird into a thick, plastic bag, and he fills out an evidence seizure tag to go with it.
Officer RAUL SANCHEZ (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): That's basically evidence, so I have to make a chain of custody.
BLOCK: The pelican is taken away for necropsy. It could be used as evidence in a criminal or civil case against BP.
So far, the dead bird count has been fairly low in the dozens but the fear is many more birds are dying at sea and won't be found.
For everyone here along the Gulf, there are way too many unknowns: How much oil is out there? Where is it moving? How much longer? As one wildlife official told me, looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, I just want them to turn the faucet off.
In Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, I'm Melissa Block.