The three week-old environmental crisis took on new urgency last weekend as oil moved west of the Mississippi River and threatened Barataria, Terrebonne, and Atchafalaya bays, as well as the wetlands of Jefferson, Lafourche, and Terrebonne parishes – among the state’s most fertile fisheries.
Under current official structure, BP is directing operations to contain the slick while it also works to stop the gushing oil well 50 miles offshore and nearly a mile below the ocean surface. Each coastal parish is drawing up its own plan to defend its coastline, but it needs final approval from BP and the Coast Guard. BP is also in charge of supplying the effort with containment materials such as boom, which is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
"We’re at the point where we’re going to have to break some rules to save ourselves,” says state Rep. Sam Jones of St. Mary Parish, which includes Atchafalaya Bay. “We’re relying on a private company that seems to be overwhelmed.”
The solution, he says, is obvious: “We need to handle this like a hurricane, with the governor’s office in Baton Rouge in charge.”
Local officials declared states of emergency as Gulf water areas in Jefferson, Lafourche, and Terrebonne parishes were closed to harvesting fish, shrimp, and oysters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted landfall for oil along Grand Isle and Port Fourchon by Tuesday, but the oil slick remains several miles offshore. So far, no oil has been spotted on area beaches.
The bid to prevent oil from coming ashore in the parishes continues.
In Jefferson Parish, parish workers, the Coast Guard, and Louisiana National Guardsmen in Grand Isle are scrambling to protect inland waters with sand berms and deflection booms. Parish council member John Young called for state intervention. “The US government and the state need to step in and take over from BP,” says Mr. Young. “We should be responsible for our own plan as far as getting approval for defending our coast.”
In Terrebonne Parish, BP and the Coast Guard have established a response headquarters in the fishing hamlet of Cocodrie, where hurricane Gustave made landfall in September 2008. But much still depends on BP's future responsiveness.
“Our response plan was approved by the Coast Guard and by the responsible party,” said Terrebonne public safety officer Ralph Mitchell, referring to BP. “The oil is still offshore and we haven’t seen any yet. We have some boom out and we’re waiting for more. The parish isn’t responsible for getting it. We have to wait on BP.”
In Lafourche Parish, efforts are focused on sandbagging beaches at Port Fourchon and building a floating decontamination area, where oil from the spill can be cleaned off incoming ships before they enter the port. Port Fourchon handles 18 percent of the shipping traffic associated with domestic oil production in the US, some ships traveling 50 miles up Bayou Lafourche to Lockport, La.
Its vibrant fishing community is worried about contamination in inland waterways. “If you drive Highway 1 up to Lockport, you’ll see fisherman lining the bayou the whole way,” said Brennan Matherne, public information officer for the parish. “There’re thousands of people here who make their living off oysters, shrimp, and fish. Oil going up the bayou wouldn’t be good for any of us."