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In the Bayou, a Fisherman Seeks His Own Solution to the Oily Marsh

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Cristian Delano wore a long-sleeved red shirt under a khaki fishing jacket and pants, black rubber fishing boots, topped off by a broad-rimmed, camouflaged sun hat sporting a yellow LSU emblem. He was in his element, and he was on a mission.

He eased his 20-ft. skiff out of Myrtle Grove Marina and headed to some of the hardest hit oiled areas of Louisiana along the northeastern end of Barataria Bay. Cristian was out to collect some samples of heavily oiled marsh grass, something he knows he could be arrested for without permission. But after nearly six months of trying to work with the system and help clean up the millions of gallons of oil that have washed into the shore, he decided it’s time to take matters into his own hands.

“I’ve been trying to fight this thing since day five of this disaster. I’ve worked with the authorities to try to come up with a better way to fight this, but at some point a man’s got to do what he’s got to do.”

And Cristian was doing it. Before the Deepwater Horizon blew up killing 11 men and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the gulf daily, Delano had a decent job working with the Army Corps of Engineers building levies. But Delano comes from a fishing family that hails from the Grand Isle area, and when it became clear this was no ordinary oil spill, he quit his job and headed down to the frontline to do battle with the oil slicks that slowly approached the coastal marshes.

Photo by Anthony Moradi

Finally after three weeks of waiting, waves of oil began washing into the shores and wetlands along Louisiana’s fertile coastline, one of the greatest estuary wetlands in the world.  When it became clear the booms hastily assembled by BP and government officials were not doing the job, Cristian worked with other locals to organize a huge caravan of thousand-pound hay bales that would soak up the oil before it hit the beaches of Grand Isle. 

“BP wouldn't let us help,” he says. “We had to turn around all the trucks and trainloads of hay we had coming and tell them to go back to where they came from. It was a huge wasted effort that we knew could have helped keep the oil out. I had nightmares after that of not being able to do anything.”

Cristian later got a job with a BP contractor on the cleanup, but he still feels the effort has been half-hearted and wasteful. He saw hundreds of workers on small boats using small power vacuums trying to suck oil out of the marshes, looking like kids sucking chocolate out of a straw. But this was a seemingly endless line of oily dark brown goo stuck to miles of marsh grass. It wasn’t coming out and he knew he needed to do more.

Then he heard about a non-petroleum based cleaning agent used for agricultural purposes called Evolve, which breaks down oil and disperses it in a non-toxic chemical reaction. Cristian decided to give it a try and see if it worked on the marsh. He had sprayed it on a few small sections of marsh and had nearly gotten arrested for it. The Coast Guard let him go, he says, and said they would do independent testing.

But Cristian doesn’t want to wait for that. He says there isn’t time. “All anyone wants to do here is spray water on the oil in the marshes or sink it to the bottom and hide it like they did with the chemical dispersants. They just want to wait it out for years and years and let nature run its course. Well we don’t have years and years, and these marshes are disappearing and will be gone by then.  We need to do something now.”

So he headed out to the marshes with a red bucket intent on getting samples of oiled marsh to take back with him. He wants to prove his product will work. There were plenty of cleanup boats bobbing in the waters close to the oiled shores along Bay Jimmy. Cristian powered up his 90 hp engine and motored around one island that was devoid of boats, then pulled up to the marsh grass. A stench of oil rose up from the line of brown, matted dead grass. A light sheen of oil kicked up from the boat prop close to shore. A few oiled plastic bags and ubiquitous plastic soda bottles littered the marsh, coated in thick black and brown weathered oil.

 Photos by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

 

Cristian  got out of the boat onto the shore and searched around for a good spot. Blobs of what seemed like fresh oil spotted the grass. It was hard to see how far the oil had encroached into the marsh, the grass was so thick. But it was everywhere close to shore.

“This makes me sick,” he sighed. “It hasn’t changed much since it first arrived. It keeps bubbling up from the bottom and washing in and out with the tides.”

He grabbed a handful of dead, tarred grass and plopped it into the red bucket. Oil specks dripped down the sides. He grabbed more handfuls and kept filling the bucket with oily plant matter, looking like caramel coated spaghetti sprinkled with black bean sauce. Not very appetizing. Certainly not very pleasant to smell.

 

Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Photo by Anthony Moradi

 

A Coast Guard spotter plane whined overhead, passing high along the marshes. Were they looking for oil, or were they looking for us? They buzzed overhead then circled back and flew north along the oil soaked marsh. Cristian continued to collect his oily sample of grass.

“I don’t care if they arrest me, it doesn’t matter anymore. This is too important, and I’ve had it with people sitting around talking about the problem and not doing anything. At least I feel like I’m trying to do something.”

Finally the bucket was full, glimmering in the sun with its load of crude-laced dead grass. He took out the natural oil based cleaning solution in a plastic bottle and poured it on his oil-covered gloves. The oil quickly seemed to dissolve away. After rinsing them in the water they were clean of the thick brown crude. It worked on his hands tainted with oil too. “See, works like a charm. And it’s not toxic to plants or the fish in the water, or even to your own hands,” he said assuredly.

Photo by Rocky Kistner/NRDC

 

But was it? Perhaps it was an answer to some of the problems here, but so far no one has authorized its use in the marshes, something Cristian said federal authorities were examining. How would it impact the environment and would it have any long lasting effects? This miracle cleaning agent seemed too good to be true. These are all questions that need to be answered and documented before it gets the official OK.  

Cristian wasn't concerned about them right now. He had collected his bucket of oiled marsh and then dropped it into the boat. Before he shoved off from the muck, an oil soaked jellyfish floated by. A tiny hermit crab moved slowly on the blackened shore. In the distance, majestic pink-colored roseate spoonbills rose like a rainbow and flew off from the middle of the marsh. They were beautiful to watch, a stark contrast to the polluted shores nearby.

We pushed off and cruised along the marsh as a dolphin poked its nose and fin out of the water. But it was sluggish and its fin listed to the side. Two more dolphins appeared and seemed to cross back and forth near the first-slow moving mammal. “That’s not normal," Cristian said. “It looks like one of them is sick and the others are trying to help her. They sometime try to help each other when they’re in distress.”

 Photo by Anthony Moradi

 

We followed them along, watching them as the gracefully arched their fins and bodies out of the water. If we weren’t surrounded by a crude encrusted marsh, you could imagine them playing with each other in a slow, methodical dance. But this didn’t seem like a dance party. It was more likely a wounded soldier being carried back from the front lines.

We rode on in silence as the dolphins moved out toward the center of the bay. The wind was from the north, a cool refreshing breeze that instantly purged us of any memory of the blazing humid days of summer. Fall was coming, change was in the air. A few teal ducks flew in the distance, the vanguard of millions more that will descend into this area in the coming months of the massive bird migrations. What will become of them?

We came across what seemed like a school of fish snapping at the water ahead.

Poggies jumped out of the water. “They’re going after shrimp up on the surface," Cristian explained. “Shrimp usually aren’t up near the surface during the day, but for some reason they don’t seem to want to be on the bottom. There must be something down there they don’t like.”

Cristian looked out at the horizon. “Hang on, I think I’ll get up and run a little.” He pushed the throttle forward and the engine roared. We flew into the breeze and into the bayou, quickly lost in our own thoughts. But there’s no doubt we were thinking the same thing. The oil is not gone. It’s still out there, causing harm. How much no one knows, but it’s there.

We knew because it was there in the red bucket at our feet. But what will happen to it is anyone’s guess.

This post originally appeared in NRDC's Switchboard blog

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