July 2010 / Oil on The Hill, Part One
Leonard Earl Johnson
Emotions along the Gulf Coast have ebbed from panic to despair in the three months since oil from British Petroleum's hole in the bottom of the sea began its ascent up the Hill.
In the vernacular of the sea, "the Hill" is the beach. Everything above sea level is on "the Hill." Hurricane Alex lifted the oil higher.
In Plaquemines Parish -- the parish on the last spit of Louisiana below New Orleans -- Parish President Billy Nungesser, a man of great girth, grit and determination speaks with as much fervor as ever, but now he often modifies his pleas for immediate solutions with modest acceptance that President Obama "gets it," even if he is "not doing it."
The "it" man
What the "it" is is not always the same for everyone.
From the first days after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig fifty-miles south of the Mouth of the Mississippi River, Nungesser has advocated building some kind of berm at sea to hold back the oil he knew was coming. Many think this will not work. Some think it will make the problem worse. Some think it is worth trying anyway.
This Fourth of July, like every day since this story took off running on powerful international legs, Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal has told any microphone that will listen to him that whatever it is not-being done is not being done because of President Obama's poor leadership and not his! Governor Jindal is openly being groomed by the Republican National Committee for potentially new fodder in the presidential power wars.
Not that money will lessen this ecological disaster, but President Obama has secured twenty billion dollars in funds from British Petroleum to pay out to those who have lost their income to the oil gusher. Kenneth Feinberg, who handled disbursements -- from U. S. taxpayers -- following the September Eleventh collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City, has been appointed by Obama to oversee the disbursements of B. P.'s money.
Meanwhile, the oil comes in further on the wings of Hurricane Alex, which took landfall late last week near the Mexican/Texas border, hundreds of miles south of Louisiana's coastline. Yet the entire sea swelled and waves crashed across the Gulf, through the oil, and onto America's Third Coast.
And also meanwhile, The cacophonous panic heard on local talk radio has subsided a little. Mind you, few other subjects get discussed besides the oil spill, but the tone is sadly growing more despairing than excited.
For others the problem is old and simple. Four elderly oil men stood outside the City Diner in Lafayette's Oil Center, a 1950-ish development of strip mall-like buildings housing much of the region's oil-related offices, and the shops and cafes that serve them. With a spanking new Lafayette General Hospital tower rising above it all.
The four retired oil men tell each other how necessary their work has been to the well-being of America.
For the birds
Tell it to the brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, brought back from DDT-related near-extinction. The birds' two rookeries are covered in oil and their future once again grim. Or the Sea Turtles. Or the oyster-fishers-shuckers shutting down from Abbeville to New Orleans.
And now scientists with the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane University have found droplets of oil in the larvae of blue crabs and fiddler crabs sampled from Louisiana to Florida.Recent winds pushed the visible oil slick further towards Texas, too. It is said by those measuring the surface of the plume to now be the size of Tennessee. No one has fully measured the thing under the surface. Remember the dispersant Corexit? One thing Corexit has done is make the full impact less photograph-able. Still it is there and more likely the size of Texas than Tennessee.
Billy Nunguesser has gained some kind of hero status among coastal residents for his criticisms of slow action from Washington, British Petroleum, and Baton Rouge. Nunguesser was first out of the pulpit with the idea of building up sand barrier berms, a kind of levee at sea. The Governor expanded the idea to connecting existing barrier islands with barrier berms.
The image of levees ringing the natural marshlands that once protected us from hurricanes and fed us and much of America's seafood industry is not all that reassuring. In 2005, during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, on-land levees failed us mightily at holding back the sea. Will they work in the sea?When you fly over the leak site you come upon the Enterprise, the vessel collecting oil from the wobbly pipe leading down one mile to the blowout. She is working away in spite of high seas. But smaller crafts, like the shrimp boats fitted out as oil skimmers, have tied up in safer ports. The Enterprise has a huge flame blowing out the ship's side burning off gas gathered along with the oil. When this operation started B. P. claimed it was collecting an amount of oil that oddly matched the amount they had first said was leaking. Of course we all know the figures given out by British Petroleum over the past three months were spun from whole cloth.
Alex took landfall as a force-2 storm and is the earliest Gulf hurricane in almost two decades. Meanwhile, life goes on as usual, sort of.
(This article is reprinted with permission from ConsumerAffairs.com. It is the second part of a series on the Gulf Coast oil spill. For more go to ConsumerAffairs.com)
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Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2010
Leonard Earl Johnson is a former cook, merchant seaman, photographer, and columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, a New Orleans monthly magazine. Post-Katrina, he decamped to Lafayette, La. Columns past, present and future are at www .LEJ. org
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