Louisiana residents add hurricane fears to oil woes
Five years after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina, the state braces for a highly active hurricane season.
Tue, Jun 01, 2010 at 05:18 AM
SPREADING OIL: A supply vessel passes through oil floating near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)
With oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico starting to show up in its inland waterways, Louisiana added another woe to its list on Tuesday: the start of hurricane season.
Five years after it was battered by Hurricane Katrina, the state braced for what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has predicted will be a highly active hurricane season, with three to seven major hurricanes.
The fear here is that a hurricane will push oil from the spill up the Mississippi Delta and deep into Louisiana's fragile wetlands and bayous. Already, marshland has been swamped with thick black crude and reddish, sponge-like clumps that one scientist thought was oil mixed with dispersant.
Oil sightings were reported Monday in Grand Bayou Blue and Little Lake, both prized inland sites for fishing speckled trout.
At least 20 million gallons of oil are estimated to have gushed into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion that sent the Deepwater Horizon rig sinking to the seabed 50 miles (90 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast.
Every attempt so far to plug the leak has failed, and officials fear the oil could continue to pour out of the undersea well until August, when two relief wells will have been drilled.
As Louisianans fretted over what a hurricane might bring, the companies and U.S. government agencies responding to the spill tried to put a positive spin on the start of storm season.
"The high winds and seas will mix and 'weather' the oil which can help accelerate the biodegradation process," according to the Deepwater Horizon Response website.
They acknowledged that high winds "may distribute oil over a wider area.
"But it is difficult to model exactly where the oil may be transported," they said, adding that "movement of oil would depend greatly on the track of the hurricane."
On Grand Isle, the tiny barrier island off Louisiana's southern coast, weekend resident Mike Becnel told Agence France-Presse: "Whatever direction the hurricane comes from and whichever direction the winds blow, we're going to get more oil."
In addition to oil sheen visible on the surface of the water in some places, and the thick, dark slime that has washed up in parts of the wetlands, researchers have found large plumes of oil deeper underwater in the Gulf.
Many fear that oil, too, is likely to be whipped up by a powerful storm.
Bad news for next year's fishing season
While the underwater oil plumes could kill off dozens of species of fish, scientists believe that oil on the surface is killing off larvae -- which is bad news for next year's fishing season.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, expanded a fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico by more than 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers), citing safety concerns.
The new area brings to 61,854 square miles (160,200 square kilometers) of Gulf of Mexico waters — or roughly the size of Tunisia — that are now closed to fishing.
Officials in Plaquemines Parish, home to marshlands like Pass a Loutre that have already been hit by the oil, and to the Venice Marina scheduled a day-long public meeting Tuesday on hurricane preparedness.
Parish President Billy Nungesser, who has badgered federal officials and BP to "step up to the plate" and help Louisiana residents to clean up after the spill or build sand barriers to protect the marshes, was to address the gathering.
Last week, the US Coast Guard approved permits to allow Louisiana officials to build the first of six sand berms off the coast in an attempt to block oil before it reaches the marshlands and Mississippi Delta.
Building the berms would entail dredging sediment from designated areas in the Mississippi Delta and piling it up to make man-made barrier islands.
It's a costly project that will take months to complete but as Louisiana entered hurricane season, no dredging had begun.
Copyright 2010 AFP American Edition