PORT SULPHUR, La. — Federal and Louisiana officials got into a heated argument Friday over the cleanup of oiled marshes during a tour of an area that remains fouled 8 1/2 months after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
State and Plaquemines Parish officials took media on a boat tour of Barataria Bay, pointing out an area where oil continues to eat away at marshes and protective boom is either absent or has been gobbled up by the oil. The heavily saturated area that reporters saw was 30 feet to 100 feet wide in sections. No cleanup workers were there when reporters toured the area.
The marshes are critical to the Louisiana coast because they protect the shore from hurricanes and serve as a nursery for Gulf sea life.
"This is the biggest cover-up in the history of America," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told reporters, gesturing with his gloved right hand, which was covered in oil.
Nungesser was accompanied by Robert Barham, the secretary of Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
As the two were answering questions from reporters, representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration interrupted to point out that a plan is being developed to clean up the marshes. They also insisted that the government has not abandoned the Gulf, nor has it lost sight of the fact that BP is a responsible party.
"Clearly there is oil here in the marsh but we are working as a team to find a best way to clean it up," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer. "It's a high priority."
The two sides then got into a heated argument, with Nungesser using profanity.
"It's like you're in bed with BP," Nungesser told the Coast Guard and NOAA officials.
Lauer responded that he understands the frustration, but vowed that the cleanup would continue. "No one has ever said, 'it's over, we're going home,'" he said.
Nungesser has been a frequent and outspoken critic of the cleanup effort ever since oil from the April 20 accident began infiltrating the environmentally delicate Louisiana coast line.
Lauer and the NOAA official who tagged along on the boat tour, Scott Zengel, said a cleanup plan was being developed, though they gave few details. They also couldn't explain why there is no mechanism in place to keep the situation from getting worse nearly six months after the flow of oil to the sea was stopped.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Lionel Bryant, said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press that rushing to clean oil from fragile areas can cause more harm than good. He also pointed out that the treatment plan being developed must be approved by federal, state and local officials.
BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said in an e-mail that with the exception of the occasional tar ball, there is no evidence of significant amounts of oil from the blown out well reaching the Louisiana shoreline since the end of August. He also cited a Thursday letter from a BP official to Barham that says tests of 23 plots have been taking place for the past three months to determine a clean-up method that provides the biggest benefit. Cutting, raking, washing and vacuuming the oil-soaked marshes are some of the methods being tested, the letter said.
The explosion that destroyed the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and, according to government estimates, led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from a hole a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. BP PLC disputes the figure, but has yet to provide its own.
Aside from the damage done to tourism when the oil hits Gulf Coast beaches, there are numerous environmental concerns. Among them is the damage done to the delicate reeds and grasses that grow in Louisiana's coastal estuaries. The marshes serve as nurseries for a variety of microscopic sea life – the bottom of the food chain that replenishes abundant Gulf fisheries.
Also, the killing of marsh grasses contributes to a long-standing erosion of Louisiana's coast and barrier islands, the state's first line of protection against hurricanes.
The impact on wildlife also remains a concern. State officials said that in recent days six more birds have been recovered with oil on them. They said that noisemakers used to keep the birds away from the oil haven't been enough in some cases.