As expected, our trip to the Gulf was enlightening, but also radiated a feeling of destruction, corruption, and hopelessness. Most of our effort was put into finding areas that would provide an accurate perception of what was going on.
Our trip started in New Orleans. We drove to the marshes, first to the Venice Marina in beautiful Venice, Lousianna. This trip was rather disappointing, providing us only with irritating informaton. We were told by a local source that BP had paid off all the charter boats, so they were no longer willing to take anyone out to see the most effected areas. The man said he'd consider taking us for $1500/hr.
The second day was much more productive and lucky, giving us a chance to see some of what was really going on. We went to Grand Isle and parked at the East State Park. At the gate, we paid the normal dollar to get in, but they quickly told us that the beach was closed while sourly eyeballing my camera. We told her that was fine and continued down the road until we reached an area that looked to be blocked off by orange-yellow tape. A red sign next to the tape stated "DO NOT PASS". We were relieved to see that the tape didn't cross the road, and continued past it anyway.
As soon as we parked, we saw a couple of BP workers walking around, and I felt my heart race as we started toward the beach. One of the men started toward us, but surprised me by snickering that he had lost his car. Another man behind him noticed us, and once again I was relieved to hear that he was glad to see us there. He even pointed us toward the right direction.
Once we got to the beginning of the beach, we could see boom buried on a long hump of packed sand. It looked to be what they were using to block the oil-contaminated tide. As we got closer we could see that it kept going on and on, as far as the eye could see. The workers were closer to the water, doing exactly what I had read in previous articles. There were maybe 25-30 BP workers, minimuallly covered to protect their eyes, hands, and feet. The temperature was easily 95 degrees, with a hotter heat index, and they were rotating workers every 15-20 minutes to keep everyone cool and hydrated.
The workers watched us closely, and I proceded down the pier like I had a mission. They continued to shovel 1-3 loads of oil-covered sand into large, clear plastic bags. A camoflage truck with a trailor would drive up and down the beach, stopping to allow the workers to throw tied bags in the back. I couldn't stop thinking that the wasted amount of plastic was just adding insult to injury.
Once I got far enough down the pier, I was able to see everything. I could see the discolored areas of black sand, red tar, and the sheen was literally everywhere on top of the water. I noticed a lighter substance around the areas of sheen surrounding minature tar balls floating in the water. Later I did some research, and I believe it was an oil dispersent, most likely Corexit 9500.
Corexit 9500 is a dispersent created by Exxon that is considered BP's favorite. It is four times more toxic than oil and outlawed in the UK, so if BP had a spill in the UK's North Sea, BP would not be allowed to use the most toxic dispersent ever developed. It doesn't stop them from using it here, it's currently being sprayed on heavy sections of oil slick in the gulf.
The workers going at it all day had made a small difference, it didn't look too bad; for an oil covered beach. At the end of the pier, I saw a small fish struggling for it's life in the water, shining in a shean of oil. If it had been a dolphin, it would have been a hit photo, something to tell someone about. But, because it was a tiny fish, it's life had no strong standing. I watched it bob up and down, trying to flip over and take a breath.. until an oil-spotted seagull swooped down and snatched it, ending the little fish's hopeless struggle. If only the seagull had known the danger of eating that tainted evening snack.
"It's a sad day," a man said, leaning over the rail of the pier to look at the oil. "...when I was a kid, I'd come down here to camp and swim... back then, the only thing we had to worry about was the tide washing away our tents..."
I saw a group of pelicans fly over our heads and noticed their undersides were black with oil, and waited to see if I could get a clear shot of the stained birds. I had no luck, and after a while the smell started to get to me. I decided to head back to get some water.
On the way back from Grand Isle, we stopped at a seafood diner near the closed road to Elmer's Island. Sarah's Diner was one of the original, largely successful companies in Louisiana, and although her way of life was currently threatened by the spill, she had nothing to bad to say about BP or the oil.
"Our family roots go back to the original settlers of Louisianna!" she told us "I had to drive an hour and a half to get clean seafood the other day, we are losing between $1100-1200 a day. But I tell you, oil companies provide us with all our jobs and I sure hope they never stop drilling! This stuff happens, I am not mad at BP, they were just doing their job."
I was blown away by her opinion, but I smiled understandly. She had a right to it, and was going through way more than I could ever imagine.
I had to admire her own strength to keep going, while smiling the whole time.
The last stop of our adventure was the best for photos and information, but the worst for our souls. We went to Gulf Shores Beach, which was located by Orange Beach and Gulf Shore's Wildlife Refuge, and had no problem getting in. The beach was wide open and you could swim at your own risk.
Once again we paid a dollar for parking and started toward the water. We only had to get half way down the beach before we saw little dark spots of tar balls being left by the crashing waves. Next to the marble-size tar balls were families walking, lounging, and swimming as if nothing was wrong.
I accidently stepped back into a pile of little tar balls while taking pictures, and it felt like warm gum on the bottom of my feet. A lady and her daughter were standing behind me, watching me struggle to get the oil off my feet. They told me they visited Gulf Shores for their family vacations multiple times during the summer, that it was a family tradition.
"Until now, we never thought of finding another spot to vacation... " the lady said, looking off into the distance "we love it here, it's so beautiful... did you know men wearing uniforms tried to tell us all the buses were from a church group...?"
Shaking her head, the lady pauses for a minute to take a take breath. The stretch of beach we were on had not a single person cleaning up, but instead there were locals and people on vacation enjoying the beautiful night on the beach. Some of them were walking around cleaning up the tar balls themselves, others were laying on the sand, walking in the waves... or even swimming. It felt like a normal summer evening in paradise, minus the fact that there was a dangerous, toxic substance in the water and on the beach.
"I understand that mistakes happen.." she continued "but this isn't a sudden natural disaster like Katrina... they knew it was coming, and I can't believe they weren't here sooner... go now, go take pictures, let them see what is going on here."
We looked behind her to some kids playing baseball with a tar ball, and we all shook our heads at the parents that sat there smiling as their kids called the toxic substance "baseball coal".
Later on, outside our hotel, I was informed that the buses did in fact have BP workers on them, and more cleanup crews were being brought in to replace men sick with Benzine posioning. We met a man named Bob Peugh, an Independant Petroleum Landman that did land contracting for oil companies, including BP. He informed us that he had a lot to say if we were willing to listen, and we spent the next hour listening to him talk about what he knew.
"BP needs to stop drilling or do it right." He said sharply. "Those gases are deadly... there is a form of sour gas called H2S, and if you smell it once you will never smell it again. You get what I mean? Your done, your gone... one sniff."
"I make a lot of money. A LOT of money. I've done it all, I even ran the drill. I want people to know the truth. At 18,000 ft, on land or in water, you get into the part of the earth where all the gases are. On land, you watch the wind and you make sure you ain't breathing that gas in. Because if you do, your gone. In water, I can't imagin what is going on with all them dilluting gases. No one is saying anything, and if you want I will help you take this to Washington DC."
"Now I can't tell you about what's going on since the explosion, but I can tell you what went wrong before it happened. They went too deep... they drill for that oil and bring it out and then replace it with mud and cement, and while filling it with mud they went to deep. They knew they did, they knew something was wrong, but it was just too late. And those relief wells are going to do nothing but slow it down. Relief wells wouldn't stop it on land, and there's more pressure that far under water. It will still be leaking."
The invasion of tar balls continued to flow in, and the next day the beach still remained open. Only this time, there were BP workers everywhere shoveling, driving trucks, and trying to stay cool under tents. The tar balls had easily tripled in size.
What we saw on our trip was only the slow beginning of a tragic economical and environmental distaster. We were expecting thick crude, dead animals, unhelpful BP representatives, and unhappy business owners. What we got were people full of hope and a combination of BP workers, volunteers, and locals in extreme heat, doing an endless job of removing oil.
On the way back home my mind was racing with all we had seen. We hadn't succeeded in seeing the real extent of the destruction in and around the Gulf, which was a major relief, but it truly felt like the silence before a storm.
We ain't seen nothing yet.