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Scenes from Louisiana, the BP Oil Disaster Part I

by Shawn Carey | September 1, 2010

On April 19, 2010 I, like most people, had never heard of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. All that changed a day later when it exploded and killed eleven men, eventually sinking to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil started to gush into the ocean, my reaction was one of disbelief. I was horror-struck at the thought of how the birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast would be impacted. How long would oil continue to flow? How many gallons per day? For weeks no one seemed to have the answer. Days turned into weeks, then weeks turned into months. It looked as if oil might spew until Christmas! What could I or anyone else do to help?

Almost three months would pass before good friend and fellow photographer Alex Couter and I decided to fly to Louisiana to see the situation for ourselves and document as much as we could. By this time the BP oil disaster had become the largest of its kind in US history. The total amount of oil discharged into the Gulf would be eventually estimated at two hundred million gallons. That is almost a staggering 1,470,000 gallons per day.

Update: Read Shawn’s follow up article »

On July 24th we boarded a plane en route to Louisiana and thus began our documentary trip to that area. Alex was able to stay for five days while I remained for just over a week. We had two contacts who would provide invaluable assistance to us while we were there. One was Charlie Bush, a local wildlife photographer from Houma, Louisiana. The other was Drew Wheelan of the American Birding Association.

For the most part we spent our time in and around Grand Isle which is directly South of New Orleans. There the public has access to portions of Grand Isle State Park. While there, we could observe some of the cleanup efforts underway, but our visits there would also lead to one of the more shocking observations of this trip – more on that later.

The second day of our trip we arrive on Grand Isle and soon find out the local clean up crews have moved out due to a tropical storm that amounted to nothing. We see many signs placed by some of the locals protesting what BP has done to their island and photograph almost all of them. We also stop at a mock cemetery and meet Patrick Shay a local businessman who was responsible for this visual response aimed at BP and the Federal Government. I interview Patrick about why he placed these 100 plus crosses with names like: “Sand Between my toes,” “Seafood Gumbo” and “BBQ Shrimp.” Shay states “It’s my way of putting my fist in the air to BP!” He was resolute in the fact that BP needed to make things right again but worried how long would this really take. As cars passed by many more people stopped to look and take photos of his”cemetery,” it was impossible to miss.

Day four we chartered a boat out of Grand Isle and made our way into Barataria Bay to visit two Brown Pelican rookeries and other small islands which had been heavily impacted by the oil three weeks earlier. By the time we arrived at the each rookery, harbor boom surrounded both islands. Previously installed boom, which had not been secured properly, was washed up into the rookery by a tropical storm. We saw several oiled birds. One, a heavily oiled Night Heron, was unable to fly and was just sitting on the boom as if waiting for help. This four hour boat trip would lead us along the shore of what we were told was Wilkens Island. Over two miles of the shore from low tide line to the high tide line was soaked in oil and not a single person was visible on the island attempting to clean up any of the oil. The dark black line of crude covered almost every island we moved past and, while we did see some cleanup crews in boats working with booms, to me it seemed like not nearly enough people had been dispatched for such a vast area. When downwind of the oil, the smell was strong and distinctive. It was the first time we “felt” the odor and one could not mistake it for anything other than what it was. It was oil. Another observation by the charter boat captain was the lack of birds on many of the islands which he said would normally be teaming with bird life. The only place we saw large numbers of birds in the bay were both rookeries.

After this trip into Barataria Bay it became clear to all of us that if you were in an area that was visible to the public, like Grand Isle, you would see clean up crews. Get off the beaten path or “out of the way,” as we did, and you were less likely to see much, if any, real cleanup taking place.

We would see this again the following day when we chartered a plane out of Houma. We made our way over the marsh towards Raccoon Island, another Pelican Rookery which also hosts many Royal Terns, herons and egrets. As we flew over Raccoon Island, we once again did not see a single person involved with any clean up or rescue effort for birds, despite the fact that we could clearly see some Brown Pelicans who were most likely oiled and in obvious distress. Harbor boom had been flung onto the beach and large rock jetties, doing nothing to protect the island from additional oil which might wash up on shore. Any additional oil that washed up would certainly negatively impact the birds that depend on this island for their refuge. Upon further research, I found that in many cases BP had used the wrong type of boom in their attempt to protect many islands. The use of ocean boom, if properly secured, should have been used in place of harbor boom. In many locations we saw harbor boom it did not do its job properly when Hurricane Alex arrived on June 30.

By the afternoon of July 28, Alex had returned to Boston and I now was solo for most of the remaining trip. That day would lead to two of the more interesting interviews and observations of this trip. That afternoon around 4:30 PM I, along with several other people, gained access to an area of Grand Isle State Park that is not accessible to the public. Leanne Sarco, Interpretive Ranger, Grand Isle State Park took us there on her day off. She had started the Hermit Crab Survival Project on Facebook and wanted us to see what an oil soaked beach looked like after eight weeks! Leanne proceeded at random to pick a spot on this section of beach some two-football fields in size and began digging up to her elbow. As she dug, she was able to easily scoop up very large “gobs” of oil and oil soaked sand. Video of Leanne digging can be seen on my web site along with another interview of her and Drew Wheelan. The amount of oil buried under the sand and now being dug up by Leanne can only be described as “shocking!” This is not something you see on any of the BP ads on TV. Keep in mind that this beach at low tide would be an area migrating shorebirds would use to feed on their way south. Some might very well stay for the winter. With little or no available food resources on these contaminated beaches what will the impact be on these migrating birds?

An hour later I would attend a town hall meeting where local residents of Grand Isle would take their frustration out on the BP representative Jason French. As one local businessman put it, “BP is burying the evidence” when they use the dispersant on the oil. I had heard this many times over the last few days when speaking with some of the locals but at this meeting, when given the chance to respond to these accusations, Jason French had no comment. After the meeting was over I interviewed Dean Blanchard. Dean is a local seafood buyer who had employed 90 people prior to the oil disaster and was at that time down to 8 employees. To see Dean “unload” at this meeting watch the video below posted on YouTube. My interview with Dean, as well as others not yet posted, will be on my web site in the next two weeks.

Upon my return from this trip, it became clear to me that the two groups I am most closely associated with, birders and wildlife photographers, are not outraged or involved enough in this disaster. It is my opinion that we all should be trying to force BP and the government to live up to their responsibilities when it comes to the clean up and the public knowing the truth. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. If we do not care enough to speak out and demand results then why would anyone else? During my week in Louisiana I did not see any wildlife photographers and only a few birders. From my posting on NatureScapes and to my knowledge only one other photographer has contacted me and gone to Grand Isle to see this disaster first-hand. We can make a difference, but you must first get involved. Please do it today, not next month. To see how you can help, check my web site or the American Birding Association. In addition since my return to Massachusetts the media has all but forgot what is taking place in the Gulf yet large amounts of oil still remain and BP continues to run ads on TV touting all the good work they are doing. So my plea to all wildlife photographers is please do not sit on the sideline. That’s the easy thing to do. Get involved, make a difference and help many of these birds we all love to see and photograph.

As I wrap up this article, I want to thank Greg Downing for allowing me to help spread the truth on what is taking place in Louisiana. This week I will be returning on a four day follow up trip to see what progress has taken place on Grand Isle and some of the other places I visited.

To see where I will be speaking over the next three months, listen to radio interviews, access other information about the BP oil disaster or to contact me directly check my web site: www.MigrationProductions.com or send me an email at scarey@avfx.com.

About the Author

Shawn Carey (Migration Productions) lives outside of Boston and has been teaching wildlife photography for Massachusetts Audubon Society for the past 13 years. His photos have been published in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Mass Audubon Sanctuary magazine, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary magazine, Science magazine and many others over the last 10+ years.

Shawn's full time job is Operations Manager at AVFX located in Boston, Massachusetts. He also serves on the Massachusetts Audubon Society Advisory Board and Mass Audubon Visuals Arts Center Advisory Board located in Canton, MA. He is past President and current Vice President of Eastern Mass Hawk Watch, past council member of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and past Board member of the Brookline Bird Club.

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