Skimming The Surface For New Tar In Louisiana Local officials around Lake Pontchartrain thought they were safe from the oil, but tar balls have arrived. Now local governments are trying out some new ideas to scoop up the oil -- but innovation is expensive.
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Skimming The Surface For New Tar In Louisiana

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Skimming The Surface For New Tar In Louisiana

Skimming The Surface For New Tar In Louisiana

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

When tar balls recently showed up in Lake Pontchartrain it was a shock to local officials. They'd been told they weren't as vulnerable to the leaking oil as coastal areas closer to the Gulf. But St. Tammany Parish on the north shore of the lake, above New Orleans, now finds itself on the front line of the cleanup effort.

NPR's Kathy Lohr visited a contingent on the lake that's getting creative in its fight against the spreading oil.

(Soundbite of a barge and skimmers)

KATHY LOHR: As we head out into Lake Pontchartrain from the Rigolets Marina, we pass a row of barges stacked up at the entrance to one pass. But the real action is farther out.

Unidentified Man #1: How you doing, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: All right. Thank y'all for being aboard.

LOHR: We're escorted onto a barge. It's a local experiment in skimming that works in deep and shallow water. Two fishing boats are out in front, trailing lines of bright orange boom behind them. That boom is funneled back to the barge in a sort of V shape.

Mr. BOBBY PHILLIPS (K and K Construction and Disaster Services): This area here, this is where the oil is being captured.

LOHR: Bobby Phillips is with K and K Construction and Disaster Services. We watch as half a dozen crewmen scan the water for signs of oil.

Mr. PHILLIPS: So the oil comes in, it's funneled in with the boom with the shrimp boats. It gets sent to this area. There is a pan underwater here that keeps it contained.

LOHR: We're in the Rigolets, a narrow passage that runs between the Gulf and Lake Pontchartrain. It's sweltering as the intense sun reflects off the metal barge and off the water.

Mr. KINTE WALKER: It's hot. It's muggy, you know.

LOHR: Kinte Walker from Picayune, Mississippi, used to work on boats that supplied oil rigs in the Gulf, but he was laid off. Now he and three others hold fishing nets on long poles and gaze into the water for hours and hours.

Mr. WALKER: For the last three, four days tar balls have floated up; some size of a baseball, some size of a half a dollar and some size of a silver dime. And I use this net and we just - as we see them coming, we just pick them up.

LOHR: But on this day, the crew didn't find any oil. This is one of several defenses St. Tammany Parish is using to try to stop any more oil from entering this beloved lake. Traditional skimmers also scan the water.

We leave the barge and head to an area where crews have just installed a new kind of very expensive permeable boom. It's supposed to be more stable and collect the oil while letting water pass through. The cost to BP: some $800,000 for just 9,000 feet.

Mr. THOMAS BEALE (Public Information, St. Tammany Parish): To say that any oil has come in is obviously disappointing because you don't want to see any.

LOHR: Thomas Beale works for St. Tammany Parish. He says tar balls recently found here were disturbing and a warning. If a storm in the Gulf kicks up the currents and the wind blows the right way, it's going to be more difficult to stop the oil.

Mr. BEALE: I mean, we don't have a choice. We need to do this. It's far too important both ecologically, economically and to the general way of life of southeast Louisiana not to.

LOHR: Back at the Rigolets Marina, Parish President Kevin Davis says waging this battle is expensive. It costs $16,000 a day in this parish alone. They got a half a million dollar grant from BP, but that hasn't covered all the expenses yet. Davis says he's also worried about the long term.

Mr. KEVIN DAVIS (President, Tammany Parish): What are we going to do about employment issues, certain sections of our economy?

LOHR: Hundreds of commercial fishermen can't work. Tourism is off, too. But Davis says business is down even in unrelated industries, like car dealerships, because he says people are just waiting.

Mr. DAVIS: So what it tells us is people are frightened. They don't know about tomorrow, so what they typically do then is not spend money, which then creates a whole 'nother economy issue.

LOHR: Davis says he and other leaders here they have more ideas for attacking the spill, among them the use of experimental bioremediation technology where microbes are put into the water to eat the oil. He says he's written many letters to BP, but there are no quick decisions.

Davis says as many great ideas as local governments say they have, they can't pursue them because they can't enter into million-dollar contracts the way BP and the federal government can.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, New Orleans.

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