Out on the water, it starts as a slight rainbow shimmer, then turns to wide orange streamers of oil
whipping through the waves. Later, on the beach, we witness a vast,
Olympic-sized swimming pool of dark chocolatey syrup left behind at low
tide, and thick dark patches of crude bubbling on the sand.
smell of the oil on the beach is so strong it burns your nostrils, and
leaves you feeling dizzy and headachey even after a few minutes away
According to marine biologist Rick Steiner, my companion
on a boat ride through the slick, this is the most volatile and toxic
form of crude oil in the waters and lapping on to the beaches of Grand
Isle, the area at the heart of the slowly unfolding environmental
apocalypse that has engulfed Louisiana, and is now moving eastwards,
threatening Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.
Fifty-three days after BP's
ruptured well began spewing crude oil from 5,000ft below the sea, the
wholesale slaughter of dolphins, pelicans, hermit crab and other marine
life is only now becoming readily visible to humans.
So too is
the futility of the Obama administration's response effort, with
protective boom left to float uselessly at sea or – in the case of the
Queen Bess pelican sanctuary which we visit – trapping the oil in
vulnerable nesting grounds.
Steiner, 57, a marine biologist from
the University of Alaska and a veteran of America's last oil spill
disaster, the Exxon Valdez, says he is in the Gulf of Mexico "to bear
witness", and for days he has been taking to the beaches and the waters
in a Greenpeace boat gathering evidence.
The first casualties on
Steiner's tour appear minutes after our boat leaves the marina and
moves through Barataria Pass, prime feeding ground for bottlenose
dolphins. Several appear, swimming, eating, even mating in waters
criss-crossed by wide burnt-orange streamers of oil. All are at risk of
absorbing toxins, from the original spill and from more than 1.2m
gallons of chemicals dumped into the Gulf to try to break up the slick,
"They get it in their eyes. They get it in the fish
they eat and it is also possible when they come to the surface and open
their blowhole to breathe that they are inhaling some of it," he says.
Greenpeace crew turn up the throttle and the boat pulls up to the
orange and yellow protective boom around Queen Bess island, which was
intended as a haven for the brown pelican. These birds, until recently,
were on the federal government's list of endangered species and were
doing OK – but now that recovery appears to have been abruptly reversed.
dark tideline of oil encircles the island, and has crept into the marsh
grasses, where the pelican nest. Many, if not most, of the adult birds
had patches of oil on their chest feathers. Nearly all are doomed, says
Steiner, if not now, then at some point in the future. "The risks in
here to birds are not just acute mortality right here right now," he
says. "There is mortality we won't see for a month or two months, or
even a year."
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He points out a pelican standing so still it looks
like it's been made out of a slab of chocolate, another frantically
flapping its spread wings to try to shake off the oil, and then another
manically pecking at the spots on its chest. "He could be a candidate
for cleaning, and he may survive," Steiner says. "He obviously won't if
he's not cleaned."
Rescue teams have plucked hundreds of birds
from the muck. But stripping oil from the feathers of stricken birds is
a slow and delicate operation, and there is no assurance of the birds'
survival. About a third of the rescued birds have died so far.
we pull up to Queen Bess island, two crew boats are at work shoring up
the two lines of defence for the island: an outer ring of orange and
yellow protective boom intended to push the oil back out to sea, as
well as an inner ring of white absorbent material that is supposed to
suck up any of the crude that gets through.
Since oil began
lapping at the Louisiana coast, the government has set down 2.25m ft of
containment boom and 2.55m ft of absorbent material. But local sports
fishermen on Grand Isle complain response crews bungled the protection
zone for Queen Bess because they only put a portion of the island
behind the orange and yellow barrier boom. That turned the boom into
traps which pushed even greater quantities of oil onshore. Steiner
agrees: "I would say 70% or 80% of the booms are doing absolutely
nothing at all."
The efforts on the beaches seem equally futile.
By day workers in white protective suits march along the sands of the
state park on the eastern end of Grand Isle, trying to suck up the oil.
But as the tide goes out there is only more oil to be found, and dozens
of dead hermit crab that have struggled to flee to shore.
says he has seen it all before, after the Exxon Valdez went aground in
1989, and then in other oil spills he has monitored around the world
from Lebanon to Pakistan. There is, he says, a drearily familiar
pattern. "Industry always habitually understate the size of a spill and
impact as well as habitually overstate the effectiveness of the
In the case of the Exxon Valdez, he says, the
environmental impacts persisted for months or years after the tanker
went aground. That catastrophe, which saw 11m gallons of crude dumped
into the pristine waters of Alaska, occurred within the space of six
This spill is much worse. BP's well on the ocean floor has
been spewing greater volumes of crude oil into the water for 53 days.
Even by the administration's most optimistic forecasts, it will keep
gushing until August, and the clean-up could last well into the autumn.
"This is just the start. It is going to keep coming in even if they shut the damn thing off today," says Steiner.