Michael grabs a crab trap stuffed with chicken necks and flings it into the river. He's out to catch some crabs and bring them back to test for evidence of oil contamination. From a vantage point on the surface, it's hard to imagine an oil polluted environment. But what lurks below the surface may be another story.
The brothers push off from the shoreline and head south into the Gulf and down the coastline. The wind is blowing steadily, but it's a south wind that's warmer than the breeze upriver. About 10 miles down the coast we pull in close to shore and Paul and I wade onto the beach. He's off to collect soil sediments in an area they tested back in August. They want to compare samples to see if things have gotten better--or worse--since the well was capped last summer.
At first the coast appears normal. No evidence of tar balls, at least not today. It's been scrubbed by cleanup crews. But further back in the marsh grass it's a different story. Lines of brown streaks stain the mud and sand, and a smell of oil wafts up from the reeds. I push my foot into the soft mud and sandy soil and an oily sheen of waters bubbles up, spreading like gasoline poured on a puddle.
Photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC
This is dramatic evidence the oil is still here. It's stuck here and saturated the ground like a brown poisonous tide. What it is doing to the environment and the wildlife along these shores is hard to know. Only time will tell.
Paul digs up samples of oily mud and soil and stuffs them into sterilized jars. The smell test is pretty clear. No doubt this is oil, no doubt it's soaked into the muddy sediment. "This is pretty discouraging," Paul says. "It wasn't that much different when we sampled in August back here."
Slowly we wade back to the bobbing boat offshore. We fire up the engine and begin the two-hour journey home under a darkening sky. As we reach the river pass, rows of ducks can be seen bobbing in the water and flying across the horizon. It's part of the great fall and winter bird migration, a aerial highway of millions of ducks, geese, and migratory birds that stop to use these marshlands as a feeding ground for the winter.
Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC
But will the oily residue impact these birds? Will it contaminate the crabs, oysters and animals that thrive in the marshy environment? No one can say. We can only demand tests that verify and document what is happening to this unique environment, a treasured resource severly damaged by massive levies, oil and gas pipelines and now 200 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean.
For Paul and Michael Orr, this is a holiday season to celebrate with the rest of the country. But it's not a time to relax. There's too much at stake. The BP oil disaster has caused economic hardship for millions of people along the gulf coast, and its environmental toll won't be known for years.
People like the Orrs want to make certain that we learn from this disaster and quickly shift to a clean energy economy so we won't have to relive this nightmare again. And they have witnessed the true cost of our oil-addicted economy. It's buried right here in the sand and mud at the mouth of the Mississippi River.