As most if not all of you know by now (early June 2010), the Gulf of Mexico is awash in crude oil as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident in late April. The deep sea explosion claimed the lives of 11 BP workers on the rig, and the ruptured mile-deep drill head that has been gushing untold incredible amounts of crude and mud daily, despite best efforts to shut it down and/or cap the leak.
After reading about the catastrophe for days on end, Bonny Schumaker (www.onwingsofcare.org) and I decided that we had to so something. So, we got in her plane and headed to Louisiana to meet with several people we had been in contact with, and find out what ordinary citizens could do to help the sick and injured wildlife.
We left California on May 22, fully one month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank. It took us 2 days of flying in Bonny's Cessna 180 to finally land in New Orleans. It was quite a ride, flying mostly at a relatively low altitude of 7,500 feet, but climbing to 11,500 feet to pass some mountains.
The beauty of flying that low is that you get to see how much wide open space there is in this country. Nothing but hills, rivers and deserts all along the way, until we hit Texas. As soon as we crossed the border into west Texas, I was struck by all the obvious ground-based oil rigs. Miles and miles and miles of nothing but oil pads, each one encompassing nearly an acre, with nothing else on the plots but rock and sand. We must have gone over 100 miles before anything started to change. Then we saw oil rigs with crops growing around them. Now I know why they call Texas the oil state.
As we entered Louisiana, we took a detour south to see what we could of Grand Isle and Venice. Bonny was on the radio constantly trying to navigate our way while trying to negotiate our altitude to around 1,500 feet where she felt we could actually see some wildlife. Everywhere we flew, we were told to come no lower than 3,000 feet. As you will see in my video, it is REALLY difficult to see any kind of animals from 3,000 feet, the lowest we were permitted to fly.
What we could easily see from 3,000 feet was a gulf zone awash in offshore oil rigs. At one point I counted 37 of them just in my field of view, on one side of the plane. Then we came upon Grand Isle, where the water looked an odd color. But because it was getting near dusk, we couldn't be sure if it was oiled water or not.
We landed in New Orleans late on Sunday, May 23. Where we met up with Dawn Taylor Bechtold, of US Animal Protection and some other like-minded folk. Dawn took us to a house she had rented for the collective team to use as a sort of home base, while we looked for ways to volunteer to help recover and rehabilitate injured wildlife. What we discovered is that BP is running all the cleanup efforts. From putting oil booms in the water, to dealing with oiled birds and turtles, all the rescue efforts have to be approved by BP.
Frustrated by the group dynamics, and also in significant pain from my chronic back issues, I left the basecamp after two days, and rented a car to see what I could do on my own. I headed south to Grand Isle where Bonny and I had done a flyover on Sunday. I talked with several fishermen along the way to find out what their take on the situation was. Most of them were willing to talk, but NONE of them would allow me to film them on camera for an interview. While most are outraged, it seems like they don't want to be on record for the world to see them talk disparagingly about BP.
One fisherman in particular stuck out in my mind. When I saw him in his 40-foot boat, it was drizzling and he was just sitting under the roof looking kind of stunned. I could tell he wasn't a shrimp trawler by the configuration of his boat. When I asked what he goes after, he said "red snapper". He's been doing it his whole adult life. I asked if he was still going out because snapper are open water fish, not coastal. He told me he hadn't been out for 3 weeks because no one will buy his catch. He had his fish tested for oil contamination and they came away clean. But the perception is there and the public is not willing to take a risk.
This is where this story gets political. As you have heard, our government has turned over the whole recovery program to BP. When I arrived in Grand Isle, I went to a "closed" beach. When I tried to enter, I was greeted by a local sheriff deputy. He told me I would have to go get a press pass in order to be allowed on this beach. So, I went to the EOC (Emergency Operation Command) in town. There I was escorted by a member of the National Guard into a restricted area and met a BP representative.
The BP rep asked me what I wanted access to the beaches for, so I told her I was a reporter. She took my business card, looked at our website and decided I actually was a reporter! Suddenly I felt like I got a promotion...She gave me a press card that would clear me to be on the beaches. Next I asked her where I could go to volunteer to help with wildlife recovery. She told me to visit a trailer a short distance away and knock on that door. As I followed her directions, the same National Guardsman told me he had to escort me, as it was another restricted area. No one answered the door, so I left to go explore some oiled beaches, now armed with my official press pass.
First up was Elmer's Beach. This was a beach I visited a couple days earlier along with Bonny and Dawn with the help of a sympathetic night watchman who loved animals. This time, with my press pass in hand, I was escorted to the beach by a Sheriff on his 4-wheel motorcycle. I was only allowed to be there for 15 minutes. With several restrictions about where I could go, and I was told to not talk to any of the workers, and prohibited from taking any samples.
On the previous visit or Elmer's Beach, there was oil on the sand, although most of it had been cleaned up with the absorbent towels, which were placed in plastic bags. This time, the scene was quite different. The beach looked clean, there were pom pom's along the shore stretching for at least a mile. I was told the oil did not get past them.
As I knelt down to film a hermit crab that was struggling to make it back into the oily water, I noticed something peculiar. I stood up and saw that my knees were caked in oil. The top layer of sand was cleaned, but the oil had permeated the sand. I've spent a lot of time on beaches and there are always small critters buried in the sand, making their burrows and generally looking for food. There was none of this type of wildlife activity at this location - just a few random hermit crabs. I think the sand is so toxic that it has killed all those organisms.
Next I visited the Grand Isle community center to see if I could offer to volunteer there. There was a sign outside that said "SBA Disaster Assistance". I passed this spot earlier in the day and saw about 100 vehicles outside. This time there were only about 20 vehicles, and not many people around. I entered the building and was greeted by a BP representative, and told her I wanted to volunteer for wildlife rescues. She said I would have to go through specific training. When I told her I ample experience rescuing wild marine animals for decades, she told me to leave my card and (with a wink and a nod) said she would give it to the BP official in charge. My card was placed on a stack of others over an inch high!
I then returned to my hotel in New Orleans to get some rest and come up with a plan for the next day. I decided to head to Venice to see what it was like down there. I met up with Bonny who secured access to a boat owned by Andrew Gross, which we could use to discover some oiled areas from the water. We got a late start, but we were finally on the water!
Although we didn't allow ourselves enough time to reach any oiled marshes, we did get to see what makes this delta so special. Miles of estuaries that were alive with jumping fish, egrets, herons, kingfishers and (my favorite) Rosette Spoonbills. However, the boat was too deep for exploring the shallow delta and we often had to remove the boat from the mud.
Bonny and I decided that night that there just wasn't anything that we could legally do. We were running on our own money and we needed significant funds to travel where the oil was washing up. The only way to get there is by renting a boat and captain from the locals. They know the area best and have the boats that can traverse these very shallow waters. However, the going rate was $1,500 per day!! I learned that that paying these rates was the only way press like CNN and NBC can get the images you see on TV. They can afford the big bucks, as a non-profit I just didn't feel like it was a wise use of our very limited funds.
After much consideration, Bonny and I both left the gulf on Sunday, May 30. She went to Wisconsin in her plane to visit her father. I headed back Orange County on a commercial flight.
Even though we didn't accomplish what we had intended to see and achieve, the reality is that we learned that if you want to help out, you must go through the hoops that BP has established. Our government is not running the show down there, BP is. In my POV, this is a prime example of what has happened to our so-called US Democracy -- we have become a Corporatocracy. The corporations run the country and the politicians do their bidding. While that does not come as a big surprise given what we are told even in the mainstream media, it's still disheartening to see and feel it in action for yourself.
Right now, BP is focusing only on hiring people from the affected states. They want to do what they can to make sure any recovery money stays in the state that is getting hit, employing the people who may have lost their livelihood due to the spill's wide-spread and immense damage.
While I respect that philosophy on a level, if the expertise does not reside in Louisiana, then outsiders from other states and countries will HAVE to step in eventually. In the meantime, ODA will continue to learn more about what it takes to get those clearances.
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Founder & President
Ocean Defenders Alliance