Bad news for the bayou

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The image says it all: What a mess! With the annual Catholic Press Association meeting in New Orleans, a farsighted editor of America magazine (Kevin Clarke, fomerly of USC; you can read his post here) thought to rent a car to head down to Grand Isle, Louisiana, where most of the clean up operations are based. There the Coast Guard hooked us up with BP subcontractor Polaris Applied Sciences, whose infelicitously named SCAT teams (Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Teams) are the first on the scene to evaluate oiled shoreline and recommend a course of action.

After a short boat trip to Grande Terre, a 4-mile-long barrier island, two members of the SCAT team showed us what tar balls and "mousse" (a disgusting emulsion of oil and seawater) look like, and how they decide what to do. Yesterday it meant 20 guys in exposure suits putting oily sand in garbage bags for $12 an hour (or so the Coast Guard PR officer told me). Most of that ends up in a landfill, although Gary Mauseth of Polaris told me that it could also be turned into asphalt or processed for whatever petroleum could be extracted from it. Or it could be incinerated. Great! It all looked landfill-bound to me, each bag holding a few shovel-fulls of oily sand, sealed with duct tape and thrown on a pile. Even above the high tide mark, there were plenty of little tar balls that the Coast Guard PR officer said would keep coming up again for years. Depressing...

My takeaway, in addition to a bunch of pics that I can't seem to get off my phone yet, is that the shoreline clean up effort is largely for show. Though it looks bad, as you can see in the picture, it's an infinitessimally small amount of oil in relation to what's out there, and watching guys use garden shovels to pick up sand that it fouled again with the next wave looks ridiculous, the purpose of which seems as much to be able to say, "Look, we're doing something..." as to actually clean up the mess.

But even more concerning was the general attitude of the two reps of Polaris, both of whom could have been talking right out of BP's PR playbook though they apparently reflect the common wisdom around here. Their statements could be summarized along the lines of: 1) Louisiana's future depends on oil and gas (though LA's other industry, fishing, is now totally devastated); 2) if you are going to mine, there will be accidents; and 3) spills happen all the time, including millions of gallons after Katrina; we just don't hear about them. One of the Polaris reps basically admitted the best thing to do in fouled marshes is to leave them alone, pointing to mangroves oiled after Katrina that are still doing fine. Trying to get the oil out of them will do more harm than good.

After witnessing a tiny bit of what has got to be among the worst human-generated ecological disaster in history, I can't say I came away with any more confidence than when I arrived. Quite frankly, I'm more convinced than ever that we human beings have to get our act together in relation to how we use the earth's resources, and that means kicking our dependence on petroleum. Unless we really think it's all about us, the integrity of the earth be damned.