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Heavier Oil Flow Threatens Louisiana’s Sensitive Barrier Islands

May 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Oil from the Gulf of Mexico leak turned darker on Tuesday, suggesting that heavier, more-polluting oil is spewing out. Tom Bearden reports from Louisiana, where the oil has begun to damage delicate barrier island ecosystems.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: With the situation in the Gulf of Mexico remaining grim and amid concerns that the oil spill may be getting worse, the White House announced today President Obama will travel to the region on Friday. At the same time, internal investigations by BP and by the government raised new questions.

The latest sign of trouble came from live video of the oil spewing a mile below the surface. It appeared darker, suggesting less natural gas and more heavy oil may be escaping into the ocean. That would signal even more difficult days for beaches and marshes already damaged.

But BP played down the change in the oil flow as only temporary. The company’s latest map projections show the oil expanding its spread. A Florida State researcher estimated it’s now as large as Maryland and Delaware combined. And video from 20 miles off Louisiana gave grave testimony to what’s going on below the surface.

Photographer Matt Ferraro made a dive on Monday.

MATT FERRARO, director of photography, Ocean Futures Society: I was surrounded by oil. I thought there would be more fish. And, you know, when you’re traveling across the ocean on a boat, you see all kinds of life — birds, dolphins, things like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, BP said its siphoning operation is collecting much more oil now, after two days of falling totals. At the same time, use of the chemical Corexit 9500 to break up the oil was cut back.

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered BP to find something less toxic. But White House energy adviser Carol Browner said today there may not be many other good options.

CAROL BROWNER, assistant to the president for energy and climate change: As it turns out, there are not as many being manufactured as people thought in the quantities that are needed. What EPA did yesterday was direct BP to use less of this dispersant while they continue to study what other alternatives may be available.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While that search is under way, engineers continued preparing the so-called top kill procedure to seal the blown-out well. BP said it could happen tomorrow or later.

The oil giant also reported its findings on what went wrong back in April, when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, and the spill began. The report pointed at the failure of the blowout preventer, owned by Transocean, and the cementing of the wellhead, performed by Halliburton.

BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, stopped short of directly assigning blame. Instead, he said — quote — “A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early and not up to us to say who is at fault”

Separately, the U.S. Interior Department reported numerous rule violations by staffers for the federal Minerals Management Service in Louisiana. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it “deeply disturbing” and — quote — “further evidence of the cozy relationship between some in MMS and the industry it regulates.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on a somber note, family and friends held a memorial service in Jackson, Mississippi, for 11 oil workers killed on the Deepwater Horizon.

JIM LEHRER: The dangers to the marshlands and the coastline have increased as higher levels of oil are reaching the wetlands around Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.

And that’s where, tonight, “NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden filed his latest report.

TOM BEARDEN: This is one of the many small barrier islands off the Louisiana coast that are threatened by the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Brown pelicans crowd on to the tiny bit of land that stands only a few feet above sea level. The birds nearly went extinct in the early ’70s because of DDT. Their numbers surged after a restoration program, enough to take them off the endangered species list.

But now their nesting ground is in danger. The booms that surround the island are supposed to keep the oil away, but they haven’t been entirely successful.

DAVE CVITANOVICH, resident of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: A lot of pelicans lying over there.

TOM BEARDEN: Dave Cvitanovich spent most of his life in these waters. He’s working with the Plaquemines Parish as a consultant on the oil spill.

Does it look like there’s a lot of oil on shore?

DAVE CVITANOVICH: Yes, sir. Yes, over there on that point. And you can see on this white boom how it’s collected, how it’s become dirty. And these booms, all those white cotton-looking booms, very clean, and these booms were deployed yesterday morning. And they have soaked up very well. The thing about it, how much more oil is coming?

TOM BEARDEN: Pelicans can’t fly when covered in oil. They can drown or die from hypothermia. Eggs in nest that get fouled will never hatch.

As we traveled across the bay, large stretches of water seemed to be oil-free. And then we would hit a big patch.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: This oil here, it looks like — like somebody poured paint. You have got that all the way around through here.

Yes, this oil spill is a three-headed monster. You don’t know where it’s going and where it’s coming from. This is going to get up in that marsh, all in that fragile environment. This is the — the nursery ground of shrimp, fish, oysters. And once — what happens, it — it will get up into the mud and — and the grass. And it will cause it to deteriorate. And it’s not a pretty picture.

TOM BEARDEN: The oil has also coated miles of shoreline where the grasses haven’t died yet. For Cvitanovich, that’s a personal loss. He has a lease on the natural oyster beds that surround this island.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: Look at these small oysters here. They’re probably a few months old. And now is the time of the year for the spawning of the oysters. An oyster attaches to the shell. Well, these have died.

TOM BEARDEN: But Cvitanovich says there’s an even larger threat to the marshes that sustain all of the animals and protect the mainland from the blunt force of hurricanes. They’re eroding into the sea.

We’re in Barataria Bay, one of the most productive fisheries in the United States. That fish camp has been there about 50 years. It used to be surrounded by solid ground. Now it’s in the middle of the bay. The same thing is happening all around here.

These forlorn pilings sticking out of the water are all that’s left of Manila Village, a large fishing camp that once even had a post office. It was abandoned in the 1950s.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: This is deteriorating. It’s disappearing so fast. And that’s what I say. It just rips your heart out. You can see over there you have got slivers of land. And there’s a beach that disappeared. And if they don’t do something quick, the Louisiana that I remember is not going to be here much longer.

TOM BEARDEN: The erosion has been happening for decades, partly because of pollution, partly because the levees on the Mississippi River reduced the amount of silt that was carried downstream and built a delta in the first place.

As the marshes die off, saltwater from the Gulf intrudes further and further inland, killing even more of the grass. Cvitanovich says the spill will just accelerate the process.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: And you watch these islands disappear. Coastal erosion is taking its toll. And, ultimately, now, with this oil getting saturated in the marsh, it’s going to kill the grass. And by killing the grass, your islands disappear. And that’s — you know, it’s — it hits you.

I hope they can be saved, but it’s — it’s going fast. I’m 54 years old. And I can show you maps when I was 20 years old. Areas had marshland, now there’s eight feet of water.

How you all making out?

TOM BEARDEN: Louisiana officials who have been watching all this want to do something to protect their shores. They have long wanted to rebuild some of the eroded barrier islands to provide better protection from storms. In the wake of the BP oil spill, they have asked for federal permission to start dredging sand from offshore to lengthen and add height to the islands that remain.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: The sad part is, Mr. Nungesser and Governor Jindal have got a wonderful idea about pumping up this seashore. We have got to stop the encroachment from the sea.

DENISE REED, Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences director, university of New Orleans: That particular piece of vegetation could die.

TOM BEARDEN: Denise Reed thinks a sand berm in front of the islands might work. She’s the director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences as the University of New Orleans.

DENISE REED: I think it’s potentially a good idea. Some of the concepts behind it are sound. Keeping the oil out of the wetlands and putting it in a sandy environment, where it’s easier to clean up, is probably a good thing.

However, we have to be — we have to think really clearly about how we’re going to place that material and what the effects of it are going to be. We have a very open shoreline that — we have barrier islands at the moment, and the gaps between them, we call them inlets, tidal inlets. Those are really quite wide.

And that’s how the oil with the water goes back and forth every day and gets into places like Barataria Bay. If we start closing those down too much, we will — we will change the natural exchange of water between the bay and the gulf. So, we have to be careful here. We have to be careful not to cause too much other kind of damage to the estuary by taking these actions. At the same time, keeping it out of the wetlands has to be a priority.

TOM BEARDEN: The Coast Guard says it will make a decision on the berms within a few days. But, even if approved, it will take months to move that much sand.

DAVE CVITANOVICH: It has a lot of oil on the — on the east side of that island.

TOM BEARDEN: Meanwhile, the back-breaking efforts to keep the oil out of the marshes continues. Plaquemines Parish has stationed three jack-up barges like this one to act as staging platforms. Local people are using smaller boats to deploy more absorbent booms, in hopes of protecting both their livelihood and their lifestyle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we heard, there are growing questions about BP’s role, the pace of the efforts, and the decisions being made.