Scenes from Louisiana, the BP Oil Disaster Part II

by Shawn Carey | October 1, 2010

© Shawn CareyAfter making a one week trip to Louisiana July from 24 to August 1 to document the PB oil disaster it soon became clear to me I would need to return for a follow-up visit. With much of the major media quickly losing interest in this story, I felt compelled to see what, if any, progress had taken place since my previous visit. This time I would be limited to only four full days so I would have to make the best of it while I was there. So, before departing, I made plans with both Drew Wheelan (American Birding Association), who was spending much of his time on Grand Isle, and local wildlife photographer Charlie Bush who lives in Houma, Louisiana.

Read Part I →

The plan was to charter a boat on two mornings. One trip would be out to Raccoon Island which I had flown over on July 28. The other would be a return trip into Barataria Bay to check on Cat Island, one of the largest Brown Pelican rookeries in the area. We would also travel up into Bay Jimmy to see Wilkens Island and some of the other marsh islands in the bay. I also wanted to interview some of the locals like Patrick Shay and Leanne Sarco that I had interviewed on my previous trip. Since they both are on Grand Isle, I wanted their perspective on how the cleanup was going. Obviously, I also wanted to see for myself what was taking place in terms of the cleanup on the island.

On the afternoon of September 2nd I departed Boston and arrived in Houma that night around 9:00 p.m. Very early the next morning Charlie Bush and I were off to Grand Isle for the day to document the clean up effort. We stopped at the home of Patrick Shay to photograph his 101 crosses only this time he has taken them all down and placed them in a pile as part of a new display. In the center is an oversized ladder which, at the top, reads: GREED. Three small crosses near the ladder read: “Making Us Whole”, “Justice” and “Promises.” I would have to wait until the last day of this trip to interview Patrick again.

As we arrived at Grand Isle State Park we noticed only a handful of clean-up workers and saw tar balls washed up on the beach as far as the eye can see. Very soon after we arrived, cleanup crews arrived with these machines that the locals affectionately called “Sandbonis”. They move up and down the shoreline picking up the top inch of sand and all the tar balls along with it. This material is then placed in large piles near the shore. This is where it gets interesting. I was told much of what was being collected by these machines and being deposited in these piles near the shore was being “surf washed”. That was a new term for me. Were they washing the oil back into the Gulf?! This was all the more puzzling because there is a VERY large sand cleaning machine in the center of the island which is where all the oil soaked sand was being taken to back in July. Now it would appear that not all of the contaminated sand was being processed in this machine even though a month earlier BP had claimed this was, in fact, what they were going to do. So, this massive area of beach over two hundreds yards long had all of about six ground workers, three “Sandboni” operators and one large front-loader on it. What was so troubling is I saw many birds in and around the areas which were clearly contaminated with oil. This made me wonder why there were not hundreds of workers out there cleaning this beach!

BP oil spill disaster workers cleaning © Shawn Carey

On the afternoon of September 2nd we get some bad news. The boat we had lined up for the following morning was having some problems and would not be able to go out anytime that weekend. With my time limited, as well as it being Labor Day weekend, trying to find a replacement boat proved to be impossible. We searched in vain for hours calling every lead we had but no boat could be found. Our revised plan was for Charlie and me to drive around the following morning to every little marina outside of Houma to see if we could locate someone that could take us to Raccoon Island on Sunday, September 5. We followed one lead after another until finally, BINGO! We spoke with a charter boat captain who was not only available, but is located as near as you can get by land to launch a boat to Raccoon Island.

On Sunday at 5:30 a.m. Charlie, Drew and I met Darlene Eschete, a local birder and photographer, who would join us for the day. We loaded up our equipment and by 6:00 a.m. we were off in the dark to Raccoon Island. We arrived one hour later as the sun was rising over the Gulf. As we made our way on to the island we found tar balls on the beach in a matter of minutes. Thousands of birds surrounded us and, as I checked my notes later that day, I had noted the following, (3000+) Brown Pelicans, (many thousands) Royal Terns, many shorebirds: (5) Piping Plovers, (6) Blacked-bellied Plovers, (12+) Semipalmated Plovers, (3) Oystercatchers, (12+) Turnstones, (50+) Sanderlings, (1) Golden Plover, (1) Black-necked Stilt, (4) Spotted Sandpipers, (2) Skimmers, (100+) Black Terns, and several long legged wading birds. All these birds were counted in two hours and only on one small section of this island. We also found a large section of what can only be described as “tar mat”, or large sections of oil, sitting on the beach. One of these was some twenty feet long and three feet wide. I also documented the fact that some of the boom which I had photographed on shore back in July was still sitting there doing nothing to protect the island from any additional oil. As we prepared to depart, Darlene showed us a dead Dolphin which she had seen about a week earlier on another trip taken to Raccoon Island. Here again was more evidence of the impact on the wildlife that has taken place over the last four months. Also of note, not a single person or boat that we could see in the area was involved with the cleanup.

Oil in water © Charles Bush

Monday, September 6th, Labor Day, was my final day to document as much as possible. We started by meeting our Charter Boat Captain Jeff on Grand Isle at 6:30 a.m. Drew, Charlie, Holt Webb (Vanishing America), Alycia Daumas and I made our way into Barataria Bay, Cat Island, Wilkens Island and some of the other small marsh islands in the bay. We soon found oil once again covering the shore from high tide line to the low tide line most of the marsh islands we encountered – see this YouTube video:

This was exactly what I had witnessed back on my trip to this bay on July 27. Shoddy boom surrounded some of the islands and in many areas it has been dislodged and was floating haphazardly in the water or washed up on to the marsh. This was, yet again, more evidence that in many instances the various booms deployed in the area were doing nothing to protect these islands and marshlands. At one point Drew and I counted over forty boats which had cleanup crews sent to deal with this disaster, yet we only counted four boats which were actually doing any work. When we approached Cat Island we saw hundreds of Brown Pelicans. Once again, there was old boom sitting up in the rookery among the birds, just as I had seen back in July. I have to wonder what the long term impact will be on these birds and the food sources they depend on. After being out for nearly four hours, we returned to Grand Isle. I was, once again, discouraged by what we had documented.

That afternoon I finally met up with Patrick Shay and interviewed him again. A month after I last met him he had to shut down his business and continues to be outraged at BP and the Federal Government. After our meeting, Patrick gave me the Brown Pelican cross and asked me to show it to people as part of my presentations I will be giving up North. I have had it at almost all of my BP Oil Disaster lectures. It really gets people’s attention!

Bird in flight © Charles Bush

My last meeting of the trip was with Leanne Sarco, Interpretive Ranger at Grand Isle State Park. She had taken me to a large section of beach on the park back in July that, at the time, had oil that had been sitting there for eight weeks. Now, over a month later, we returned and once again Leanne showed me, within less than a minute of digging, oil—lots of OIL! I found it shocking that, after 13 weeks, over three months, this area still had all this oil and no clean up appeared to be underway. As we were about to leave, I asked Leanne how much longer she could tolerate what she was seeing on a daily basis. I just knew that this had to be eating away at her soul. She told me that she hoped to stay as long as possible and see that this beach gets cleaned up. About a week later, I spoke with Drew Wheelan and he informed me that Leanne could take no more and returned home to New Orleans. I, for one, am surprised she lasted as long as she did. I also have to wonder, as do others, how many other concerned citizens have been worn down by the glacial pace of inaction on BP’s part through this entire disaster.

Now almost a two months have passed since my first visit. I have given six lectures in Massachusetts with 17 more to follow over the next two months. I will continue to tell my story for as long as possible to anyone that will listen. Please contact me if you have an organization interested hearing what I have to say about the BP Oil Disaster.

About the Author

Shawn Carey 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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