Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dispatches from a Disaster -- Continued

Evening of Bats, A New Ecosystem, Waiting for Tides of Oil

Paul K. Haeder as told by Marc Gauthier Down to Earth NW special column

He hopes that these piney woods hold up while he heads to the Gulf. He’s liking the temperate coniferous forest with all those hardwoods like hickory and oak creating a lush canopy while he zips along in his sub-compact with kayak strapped to the top.

He knows about the darter fish in this ecosystem, one he’s never experienced. And the small-footed bat and all those migratory birds living in this temperate forest, he’s seeing them. No matter how wet the tent gets and how little sleep he is able to wrestle out of the night, today he’s liking the chances of getting deeper into the green.

But things change quickly, as Marc goes into Louisiana. Scattered dilapidated oil infrastructure is what he is seeing. Twisted, abandoned and lots of it. There are a whole lot of small-and lower-income communities he bisects on his way to the Gulf of Mexico. He makes it to the small state park at the end of Highway 1, after threading through back roads that took him through the heart of resource taking and refining country.

He arrived at Grand Isle at 10 p.m. wondering what the trip now will unfold, as the place looks like impending doom with National Guardsmen and their gear all over, as well as every other sort of official setting up oil response teams.

The next day, he runs into people like John Sparks, from Clinton, Miss., an engineer who fishes out of a kayak. This place is so special, so abundant, that after fishing all around the U.S., Sparks kept returning here. For years.

Marc notices the 44-year-old engineer is expressing a sense of nostalgia as he talks about catching fish and eating oysters fresh off his boat.

It’s all the sea life that is getting Marc pumped up. He is amazed at how unique and rich this place is, and while talking with Sparks, Marc realizes that he’s now witness to a place and a culture in the throes of huge upheaval and pending doom, ecologically and culturally speaking. Sparks tells Marc that it was his wife who urged him to take this trip so early in the season, instead of the typical summer July fishing outing.

“’This might be the last time you will see this place like it is and should be,’ she told me. I guess she’s right in saying I better get a taste of what I love while I can,” Sparks muses.

Marc doesn’t have to prod the engineer to lay blame on British Petroleum for this. The mess was caused because BP did not having the blow-out preventer that all other countries in the world require for offshore drilling. The pressure at 5,000 feet under the sea is 2,200 pounds per square inch. The blowout is now one huge engulfing underwater dead zone, as oil mixes in with sediment and salt as all that aromatic benzene breaks away.

Marc is floored by the few shrimpers now moving along in the bay, impressed at how much sea life is so close to shore. He’s decided to go incognito, so to speak, with a fishing net on hand and camo hat so he can skirt the ever-growing presence of BP and other members of official-dom who are restricting access to beaches, to the barrier islands, to the booms that are supposedly holding at bay some of the millions of gallons of oil spewing into the sea.

“It’s sort of heartbreaking just talking with some of these guys,” Marc says. “One man I spoke with worked his entire life to save up and build a retirement house, a million bucks worth, just to fish out his life. Now he can’t go out, and who knows how much damage will be done.”

He’s at one of the few areas still more or less pristine, an inner bay where shrimpers are frantically pulling in catches and freezing them, not knowing when the bay will be closed down to all fishing.
There’s a central command area run by the Coast Guard with BP reps and sheriff’s deputies on hand. None of the ones we need to be talking with us, explaining the situation, want to comment on camera. One fellow pulled out a photograph of Grand Isle’s harbor and beaches from 2009. It’s bustling with tourists and fishers.

Marc says it’s almost empty now.

Marc’s looking to get on a boat, so he can go out and study and film the bay and surrounding ecosystems.

There’s a lingering bad taste in his mouth that is hard to swallow: BP’s blood (oil) money. One guy Marc spoke to received a BP payment of $5,000 for the temporary damage to his fishing operation.
That barely pays for the electricity. There’s $7,000 more he has to come up to pay employees who won’t be continuing working. He might end up going bankrupt.

The devil rays, all those shrimp, even powerful porpoises are still in the bay as a reminder of how fertile and abundant the Gulf is. For Marc, though, he’s feeling the dread – old men looking out at the sea, with broken hearts as they wait for oil to hit shore.

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