If the new cap on the BP wellhead continues to hold we may be moving from containment to consequences. Still, it's hard to measure the long term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster on the Gulf of Mexico. By my second trip to the region last week there were over 45,000 people and 6,000 vessels and aircraft involved in the response.
Still, some of the clean up effects are questionable. Off Ocean Springs Mississippi with Gulf Coast Research Lab Director Bill Hawkins I watched a crew of ten men with three flat boats trying to spray wash about 80 feet of oiled marsh grass to little effect. Nearby they were protecting a rock jetty rather than wetlands. In Louisiana's Barataria Bay I've seen miles of oiled wetlands that act as the nurseries and filters of the sea and provide a livelihood for fishermen and their communities.
Flying over the Gulf in June with Waterkeeper John Wathen and SouthWings conservation pilot Tom Hutchings I'd seen 100 dolphins and a sperm whale trapped and dying in the oil. Off Mississippi I saw dozens of brown pelicans. Their return to the Gulf in the past decade, years after DDT was banned is considered a huge environmental success story. Now these birds are threatened by the oil and chemical dispersants as are sea turtles, tuna and whale sharks.
I went out with scientists Jim Franks and Steve Curran from the lab sampling possible toxic impacts on juvenile tripletail fish. These baby fish live under floating sargassum algae. Some change their colors to
gold and green to look like the weedy algae. Others are now living under floating oil blobs and camouflage themselves by turning black and brown like the oil. Our nets and boat bottom were soon splashed with oil.
At the entry to Biloxi Bay there are extensive booms to try and protect the estuary and a fleet of shrimp boats skimming oil. Nearby Horn Island has already been hit by the oil as have many of the Gulf's barrier islands. Last time I was here less than five years ago many of these shrimp boats were driven ashore by Hurricane Katrina along with floating Casino Barges. The beaches that I once saw covered in debris are now clean and empty in mid-July as tourists are flocking away from the oil-threatened Gulf to other safer sands.
I drive from Louisiana and Mississippi to Pensacola Florida where the sugar white sands of local beaches are also boomed off and clean up crews are removing tar balls that have also washed ashore.
Here I board the Coast Guard Cutter Resolve heading out to the Deepwater Horizon spill site where a new cap is being placed that will hopefully stop the ongoing eruption of oil from the wellhead until a relief well can kill it.
Steaming to the source we pass through different kinds of ugly, oil that looks brown as maple syrup in our wake and oil sheens in deep purple and gold and aged orange oil and new black oil. The last time I flew over this part of the Gulf there were oil slicks out to the horizon.
The BP source has become a floating city of some 75 rigs and ships and workboats and a giant supertanker. The Q-4000 rig is burning off 6,000 barrels of oil a day in a black plume of oily smoke while collector ships like the Helix Producer are flaring natural gas and controlled burns of surface oil are being set off on the horizon. This reminds me of oil terminals off Iraq I visited in the Persian Gulf war zone -- only this is more like cancer than war, with the metastasizing oil spreading across the water.
We visit BP's Command and Control ship Seacor Lee where I'm told the cap is now in place and ready for testing (the tests will prove inconclusive but the cap will hold for now).
A Coast Guard Dolphin Helicopter flies me and a crew from CNN back to Air Station New Orleans where their helicopter crews saved over 6,000 people during hurricane Katrina. On the way we fly over streaks of aging oil spread for miles across the Gulf.
Though fewer have died this is a longer lasting and potentially more destructive disaster than Katrina for the Gulf's people and marine wildlife.
And if this hurricane season is as bad as predicted it could also be raining oil and blackening beaches from Florida to Texas by the fall. Our efforts to boom off bird rookeries and protect the coastline may be valiant but still seem feeble more than 80 days into this mess.
Among other needed changes we have to end our dependence on coal and oil, energy systems of the 16th and 19th centuries and develop clean offshore energy. After all no coastline or culture was ever destroyed by a wind spill or a turning tide.
As a writer I realize we're also entering the age of multiplatform media. You can watch the video version of this report I narrated and shot. My friend Ted Woerner edited it together.