BP Oil Spill: Lousiana Coast Braces for Worst

Louisiana Coast Strikes Tenuous Balance

By just past 11 a.m., BP engineers and technicians were ready. The plan was to inject heavy drilling mud into the broken mechanism on the sea floor. The so-called Top Kill had never been tried at these depths, but it was considered the best option available. It could not begin until the Coast Guard gave BP the green light.

Just after noon we set off with Cathy Norman to survey the land her trust oversees. Before long we sighted what looked like dolphins.

"People call them dolphins but they're really porpoises," Norman said.

She pointed out an oil and gas facility she said had been on Wisner Donation land since the late 1980s.

"It's a surface lease," Norman said. "It's strictly a surface rental for their gathering station and their operating facility."

But is the vast Wisner property a petroleum property or a nature preserve?

"Both," said Norman. "We have had oil and gas operations on this property, two of the oldest oil fields in the state. ... But at the same time we take great pains to try and preserve the property and protect the property."

We noted the seeming conflict between the presence of a huge oil industry and habitat for birds and fish and other wildlife.

"Well, there's the oil company facility, and you hear the birds, you see the wildlife around us," said Norman. "It's all here, and they're coexisting."

Or they did until April 20.

"I was watching and very concerned about the eastern part of the state," said Norman.

"And very quickly that turned around, on May 7, when tarballs started coming on our beach. And since then it's been one major attempt to salvage our property after another.

"The response has been chaotic, unorganized ... It was as if no one really knew... There was no plan. No one really knew what to do next. I think in some respects that was acceptable only in that nothing of this magnitude has ever occurred before. But as days went on and the chaos continued, it was really disconcerting to ask people, 'Who's making decisions, what are the plans?'"

Oil Spill: 'We're Making the Sacrifice!'

Our boat tour with Cathy Norman took us past Port Fourchon. Twenty percent of America's oil passes through the port, and three-quarters of the rigs off the Louisiana coast are serviced from there.

Norman explained the port's significance to the country's energy policy.

"It's important enough that if people want to drive and heat their homes in the winter, they are going to have to have ongoing oil and gas operations in Louisiana," she said. "We bear the brunt of it. We as a state are allowing it in our backyard, we are allowing the oil and gas to come onshore and pipelines that cut through our marshes to help the rest of the country have the oil and gas they need.

"There could be an outcry everywhere that we shouldn't be doing this, but are they willing to make the sacrifice? We're making the sacrifice!"

But is it a wildlife preserve or an oil port?

"This is Louisiana," said Norman. "This is how we balance it, and it's a beautiful area. The geography and geology of Louisiana are conducive to this because of the petroleum and wildlife."

Norman said she still believes that the wildlife, the fishing fleets and the petroleum can coexist.

"I think it can be done," she said, "but we have to even be that much more vigilant about how things are done."

'Top Kill' Begins

Finally, just after 2 p.m., word came from BP's control center in Houston that "Top Kill" had begun.

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