In Louisiana, damage from the oil spill can be deceiving

By Bonnie S. Berkowitz
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- I guess I expected the oil spill to be laid out like a museum: blackened beach, first floor. Goop-covered marshes upstairs. Smelly blanket of crude in the lobby. All I'd have to do was show up to see it.

Instead, when I arrived in Louisiana on Wednesday to report on the cleanup, I found that much of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is in the water rather than on it -- always moving, rarely showing up where you expect it.

I have no doubt that out near the wellhead, the flow of oil is abundant and overwhelming. The environmental tragedy has been well documented, by my colleagues who have been there as well as by other journalists. But within 15 miles of the shore, the worst oil spill in U.S. history is like a really suspenseful horror movie: scary because you can't see the whole monster but you get enough glimpses to know that it's around.

In the past few days I've visited Venice, Cocodrie and Grand Isle and water offshore in all those places, and I have never smelled oil. On the water, I've seen sheen, brown ribbons and glops of post-dispersant red goo, but no endless black blankets rushing ominously toward shore. I saw a disheveled seagull trying desperately to wash something off its beak in a shallow puddle on the Grand Isle beach, but the biologist I was with couldn't say for sure that it had been oiled. I've seen a molasses-like coating on marsh grass, but even that was killing a little at a time, not in an all-at-once, my-god-look-at-the-carnage sort of way.

I talked to the reporter and photographer who said they shot an oil-smothered marsh that has been replayed endlessly on TV for more than a week. They said the image was found in one small, grass cove they passed while on a media boat tour of the area. Everyone aboard shot it, including CNN, and they hadn't seen anything else that came close to such obvious damage since.

More dramatic for me, actually, was what I didn't see in the marshes: life. No crabs, no fish, no birds wading or flying overhead. Not even any bugs, and that wasn't only because I had slathered on Deep Woods Off insect repellant. Thousands of plankton and baby shrimp may have been dead right before my eyes, but I couldn't see them. Even the tar balls that litter the beach look like pebbles, innocent and natural, until someone tells you there are no pebbles on that beach.

Many of the scientists down here seem terrified. They all fear the unknown, and so little is known. They wonder what the oil and dispersant are killing down deep in the water column, where we'll never find out until one day there are no more something-or-others. The huge underwater plumes scare them because there is no historic model for such a thing. They worry about what would happen to the region's complicated food web if, say, an entire year's worth of shrimp dies in the vulnerable larval stage. They stare at puddles, wondering if they are seeing foam from normal phosphates that wash onto the beach all the time or foam residue from dispersant.

People around me poke and prod everything -- Is it slick? Is it sticky? Is it dark when it should be light, or light when it should be dark?

One of my colleagues who was also in Grand Isle said she talked to locals who think the whole thing is overblown because they so often can't see the oil, can't smell it.

But like the monster in horror stories, it is definitely there.

I took an airboat Friday to barrier marshes near Cocodrie, hoping to see some of the heavy oil that had been reported there. The seats were all taken, the craft packed so full I teetered on a cooler and clung to the edge of the boat in hopes of not being flung overboard. I saw no oil anywhere in the water. But when the boat stopped, and I let go to jot down notes about the lack of oil, there was sticky brown stuff on the back of my hand.

The writer is a science graphics reporter for The Post.

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