Coastal wetlands may be 'doomed'

2010-05-23 19:14
Nesting pelicans are seen landing as oil washes ashore on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests in Barataria Bay, just inside the coast of Louisiana. (Gerald Herbert, AP)

Nesting pelicans are seen landing as oil washes ashore on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests in Barataria Bay, just inside the coast of Louisiana. (Gerald Herbert, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

New Orleans - The gooey oil washing into the maze of marshes along the US Gulf Coast could prove impossible to remove, leaving a toxic stew lethal to fish and wildlife, government officials and independent scientists said.

Officials are considering some drastic and risky solutions: They could set the wetlands on fire or flood areas in hopes of floating out the oil.

They warn an aggressive cleanup could ruin the marshes and do more harm than good. The only viable option for many impacted areas is to do nothing and let nature break down the spill.

More than 80km of Louisiana's delicate shoreline has already been soiled by the massive slick unleashed after the Deepwater Horizon rig burned and sank last month. Officials fear oil eventually could invade wetlands and beaches from Texas to Florida. Louisiana is expected to be hit hardest.

Oil-covered eggs

On Saturday, a major pelican rookery was awash in oil off Louisiana's coast. Hundreds of birds nest on the island, and an Associated Press photographer saw some birds and their eggs stained with the ooze. Nests were perched in mangroves directly above patches of crude.

Plaquemines Parish workers put booms around the island, but puddles of oil were inside the barrier.

"Oil in the marshes is the worst-case scenario," said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the head of the federal effort to contain and clean up the spill.

Also on Saturday, BP told federal regulators it plans to continue using a contentious chemical dispersant, despite orders from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to look for less toxic alternatives. BP said in a letter to the EPA that Corexit 9500 "remains the best option for subsea application".

The EPA didn't immediately comment on BP's decision.

Wetland life

Oil that has rolled into shoreline wetlands coats the stalks and leaves of plants such as roseau cane - the fabric that holds together an ecosystem that is essential to the region's fishing industry and a much-needed buffer against Gulf hurricanes. Soon, oil will smother those plants and choke off their supply of air and nutrients.

In some eddies and protected inlets, the ochre-coloured crude has pooled beneath the water's surface, forming clumps several centimetres deep.

With the sea floor leak still gushing at least hundreds of thousands of litres a day, the damage is only getting worse. Millions of litres have already leaked so far.

Coast Guard officials said the spill's impact now stretches across a 240km swath, from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Over time, experts say weather and natural microbes will break down most of the oil. However, the crude will surely poison plants and wildlife in the months - even years - it will take for the syrupy muck to dissipate.

Challenges

Back in 1989, crews fighting the Exxon Valdez tanker spill - which unleashed over 41 million litres of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound - used pressure hoses and rakes to clean the shores. The Gulf Coast is just too fragile for that: those tactics could blast apart the peat-like soils that hold the marshes together.

Hundreds of kilometres of bayous and man-made canals criss-cross the coast's exterior, offering numerous entry points for the crude. Access is difficult and time-intensive, even in the best of circumstances.

"Just the compaction of humanity bringing equipment in, walking on them, will kill them," said David White, a wetlands ecologist from Loyola University in New Orleans.

Marshes offer a vital line of defence against Gulf storms, blunting their fury before they hit populated areas. Louisiana and the federal government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding barriers that were wiped out by hurricanes, notably Katrina in 2005.

Industry backbone

They also act as nursery grounds for shrimp, crabs, oysters - the backbone of the region's fishing industry. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds nest in the wetlands' inner reaches, a complex network of bayous, bays and man-made canals.

To keep oil from pushing deep into Louisiana's marshes, Governor Bobby Jindal and officials from several coastal parishes want permission to erect a $350m network of sand berms linking the state's barrier islands and headlands.

That plan is awaiting approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

After surveying oil-stricken areas on Saturday, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said the berms were the marshes' last hope.

"It's getting in between all the cane and it's working through from one bayou to the next," he said.

Solutions

Smaller spills have been occurring in the marshes for decades. In the past, cleanup crews would sometimes slice out oiled vegetation and take it to a landfill, said Andy Nyman with Louisiana State University.

But with the plants gone, water from the gulf would roll in and wash away the roots, turning wetlands to open water.

Admiral Allen said that where conditions are right, crews could set fire to oil-coated plants.

Nyman and other experts, though, warn it's tricky. If the marsh is too wet, the oil won't burn. Too dry, the roots burn and the marsh can be ruined.

BP PLC - which leased the sunken rig and is responsible for the cleanup - said on Saturday that cleanup crews have started more direct cleanup methods along Pass a Loutre in Plaquemines Parish. Shallow water skimmers were attempting to remove the oil from the top of the marsh.

Streams of water could later be used in a bid to wash oil from between cane stalks.

In other cases, the company will rely on "bioremediation" - letting oil-eating microbes do the work.

"Nature has a way of helping the situation," said BP spokesperson John Curry.

But Nyman said the dispersants could slow the microbes from breaking down the oil.

White, the Loyola scientist, predicted at least short-term ruin for some of the wetlands he's been studying for three decades. Under a worst-case scenario, he said the damage could exceed the 562km² of wetlands lost during the 2005 hurricane season.

"When I say that my stomach turns," he said.

- AP

Read more on:    bp  |  epa  |  environment  |  us oil slick
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Wednesday Delft - 20:37 PM
    Road name: R300 Southbound
    ROADWORKS - left lane closed at Hindle Road
  • Wednesday Sir Lowry's Pass - 17:57 PM
    Road name: Old Sir Lowrys Pass Road
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Bezweni Road
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Escape winter, head to Mauritius

Escape winter by spending 7 nights in Mauritius' tropical bliss from R13 215 per person sharing. Includes return flights, airport transfers and accommodation. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Get many eggs in one basket!

Gaming bundles: 2 Super Hits games for R99, 3 Disney games for R99 and more + exclusive accessory bundles only available on kalahari.com. While stocks last. Shop now!

25% off bestselling books!

The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes, Jeffrey Archer’s Be Careful What You Wish for, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frank and many more titles. Shop now!

Up to 25% off electronics

Buy top electronics and save up to 25%. Such as kalahari.com’s 1# selling product the gobii eReader, Patriot X Porter flash drive, Asus Nexus 7” 3G tablet, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Lenovo G580 Notebook and many more. Shop now!

DStv HD PVR Decoder now R949

The DStv HD PVR Decoder has further revolutionised the television experience with lifelike viewing, sharper images, more vibrant colours and precision picture quality. Now R949, save R550. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 30% off appliances & homeware

Save up to 30% on appliances and homeware this Easter! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

BlackBerry Bold 9780

BlackBerry 6 Engage your world with BlackBerry 6 OS on the...

From R3049.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

You may find yourself fascinated by something which could draw you in to obsessively exploring this subject in depth....read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.