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Flying over Gulf Marshes: The Spill Is Vast, the Booms Are Small

Peter Lehner

Posted July 7, 2010

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I learned a new word on my first day on the Louisiana Gulf Coast: marshballs. Flying over what used to be vast stretches of marshland, our pilot said that after decades of blocking the Mississippi River from releasing more sediment into the wetlands and years of dredging canals for oil exploration, thousands of acres of marshes had eroded and been transformed into broken marsh or open water.

Then Hurricane Katrina came along and rolled the remaining pieces into marshballs—tiny little islands of grass that barely rise above the surface.

Looking down at the so-called marshballs, I realized just how damaged and vulnerable the coast was—even before the BP blowout sent millions of gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf.

Now the area is being pounded by the worst environmental disaster in history. And yet the primary line of defense being used for the remaining marshlands—booms to block the oil—hardly seem up to the critical task of protecting this fragile ecosystem.

oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico

There’s nothing like seeing it firsthand to drive these realities home.

We started our day by meeting with a representative from SEEDCO, a nonprofit that helps finance businesses and other nonprofits in distressed areas, such as post-Katrina Louisiana. She told us about the energy fishermen have to rebuild their businesses—if they are given the chance.  

We then boarded a seaplane for a flyover of the spill, but thunderstorms had rolled in and we were unable to get all the way out to the drill site.

But visiting the region in stormy conditions was revealing. Most of the images we see of the spill show placid waters. Today we saw fairly big waves even in the protected waters of Barataria Bay, and we were told there were seven-foot swells out in the Gulf. When even just one- to two-foot waves hit the booms, the oil oil jumped right over them and headed toward the marshes. Later we heard that to make matters worse, the dispersants being used kept much of the oil below the surface so that it went right under the booms onto the marsh shores.  

From the airplane window, I was struck by how vast the oil spill is and how thin the boom is.

oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico

As we were flying, our pilot Mark described the dramatic changes that have occurred in the marshlands over past decades. Over many decades, energy companies have dredged enormous canals in order to bring oil exploration and drilling into the marshes. As the oil was sucked out, the land began to subside, and the canals allowed salt water to infiltrate into fresh water areas, killing the grasses. Once the grass died, the dirt started slipping away. “It’s become pockmarked,” the pilot said, “You see more water than marsh.”

Mark held up a map and pointed to the area around Buras, a town in Plaquemines Parish. The map showed land on the west side of the Mississippi River, but Mark said most of that land wasn’t there anymore—it had eroded away and was now underwater.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River has been diverted for more than 50 years, and marshes aren’t getting the sediment they need to replenish themselves. Engineers are starting to release more river water, mostly to the east, and we could see from the plane how this was helping the marshlands get built up again. But that remains the exception.

In the past few months, when I have looked on Google Earth to get a view of the Gulf Coast, I never really understood what I was seeing—the mixture of water and marsh, missing chunks of land and newly formed islands—was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was only from the plane that I finally started to grasp how this extraordinary region.

Many factors have conspired o reshape the Louisiana Coast, and most of them have cast a long shadow—whether it’s the oil canals or the impacts of Katrina.

After we landed, we headed south to Buras, where NRDC is opening a Gulf Resource Center with our local partners. The road took us along a levee for the Mississippi River, and I had the odd sensation of watching large ships sail by on a river that was higher than our car.

In a place where the roads are below sea-level and the oil industry has eaten away at the marshes for decades, you realize that a thin line of booms isn’t going to be enough to protect it from the latest catastrophe.


(Photos by NRDC, on Flickr)

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Brian DonovanJul 7 2010 01:41 PM

Collection of the BP oil spill has never been a "skimming" operation. This "spill" is a gusher of oil being released from the seafloor, approximately one-mile below the sea surface. USCG is using conventional skimmers, boom and dispersants normally deployed for inland waterway surface oil spills.

BP and USCG will eventually use tankers to collect the oil that has been released into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout of April 20, 2010. Unfortunately, this decision will be made after the devastation of many coastal communities.

Since May 17, 2010, Renergie, Inc. has submitted unsolicited proposals for the purpose of using three Panamax class crude tankers for the collection and onboard separation of the BP oil spill to every federal agency, state agency, state elected official and federal elected official with even a remote interest in the BP oil spill. These tankers are capable of collecting and separating both surface oil and the underwater plumes of oil.

The USCG response to Renergie's proposal stated, “Unfortunately, the Coast Guard does not currently have a mission and is not hiring contractors. However, if BP requests names, I will recommend and forward your company.”

The blowout of April 20, 2010 aboard the Deepwater Horizon was clearly preventable. The fact that the BP oil spill has been allowed to reach coastal areas is inexcusable.

For a clear understanding of the issues involved, visit:



ReenieJul 16 2010 10:50 AM

After reading this, and reading some of article, I am convinced there is more, perhaps much more, to this gusher than meets the average person's eyes or ears. Why we have just quietly let our Gulf waters be massively fouled? Why we haven't protested . . .? We, each and every one of us, as consumers, are also responsible. Anyone who drives, uses plastics, and any other petroleum based product. Are we willing to walk? Give up the comforts of electricity? Give up plastics? Etc. No it seems. Every day I drive, and cars around me whoosh here and there, and even idle casually for however long. We want to see ourselves as green, but mostly we are a selfish society. Back in the 70s there was a major thrust to communal living, not just for the sake of so called free love which we found was never really free. There was a vision to simplify life, bake fresh bread, homeschool your child, repair old jeans. Embracing such a life often included embracing poverty, because now you're not linked up, not a major CONSUMER. Ours has been a car based, process food based. We thought wrinkle free was great . Now, here is this oil gusher and perhaps history will reveal who the major players were....and include all of us as well as those who haven't been seen on the main stage as this tragedy unfolds. Who knows why we don't rise up for more than a few moments to say, ENOUGH~! And, why we aren't willing to point our finger at not just BP, Halliburton, and many other big players in this tragedy ourselves. We are slurping up oil every day in every way, clothing, cleaners, fuel, plastics, and more. All the while, it's this one or that one's fault. Like addicts in denial. Perhaps I am living a greener life than most. Yet I see that I'm a part of the problem. How can we contribute to and create a new healthy society, and leave this society based on oil, organochlorines, pesticided/processed foods, and other toxins. We must contribute to a new healthy life fervently and with a persistence of being olympic style green consumers. Maybe I'm not an inventor, but I am creating changes by how I spend my money. I rearch products that I use everyday. I drink Knudsen's Just Concord organic grape juice often. Recenetly I see that there is lead in the juice. I contact the company and they send me a standard reply, nothing much in the way of curiosity about the lead, but that there is no lead above the level the WHO has prescribed. Okay. That's not good enough. I write again. As I do, the Gulf of Mexico's waters are being sacrificed to sound the alarm. It takes a lot of extra energy to apply the brakes on this society's runaway thoughtless and often toxic consumerism. The Gulf's alarm rings, and I hope we are strong enough to wake up, shut of the alarm....clean up the Gulf, and insist on better sources of energy, healthy foods, and an overall re-created society that supports all life.

Francews FiorecaJul 16 2010 12:35 PM

This was an amazing article...please I will help and is is on my Face Book...great I will share it see...We can make a difference. simply respect mother nature she knows what to do we are the Care- Takers..please help let the world know let STOP THE MADNESS !!!!

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