BP Oil Spill: Lousiana Coast Braces for Worst

Conservationists are making grim shift from guarding shores to tracking damage.

May 26, 2010, 5:15 PM

May 26, 2010 -- As a red sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico, all eyes were fixated on what was happening below the surface.

For five weeks, that broken well pipe 5,000 feet down has been spewing oil into the Gulf. Early this morning, BP technicians and engineers were preparing their best shot at stopping it.

At about the same time, Cathy Norman was boarding a helicopter to survey oil damage to an 80-square-mile tract of Louisiana coastline owned by the Wisner Donation, a charitable trust that she oversees.

The trust owns land that includes Port Fourchon, Louisiana's main oil port. It also owns nine miles of spectacular beach and wild marshlands that front on the Gulf of Mexico.

As Americans ate breakfast, topic No. 1 was the oil spill. It has been five weeks and counting, and frustration is mounting.

James Carville, a prominent Democrat, broke ranks to attack the president on "Good Morning America."

"It just looks like [President Obama's] not involved in this," Carville said. "Man, you got to get down here and take control of this."

Awhile later, "Nightline" joined Cathy Norman's brother, Don, a wildlife biologist and toxicologist, on a boat as he set out to do an assessment of the bird population on Wisner Trust lands.

At this time of year there are more than 50 species of birds on these lands.

As we arrived at the beach, a work team overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers was scrambling to block a breach so that oil wouldn't enter the fragile marshlands.

It was already too late. Oil contamination was widely apparent.

"It's very likely that these birds that are oiled will not survive," said Don Norman. "If the bird has actually been feeding in the water that's got oil in it, it could be ingesting [oil] on or in the organisms it's [eating]."

Oil Spill: Tracking Impact on Wildlife

For 10 years Norman has been doing a census of the bird here. He has watched the population recover from the havoc of Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. But for the last month, he has been waiting and wondering if BP's spewing oil well represents an even bigger threat.

"On Thursday I didn't see any oiled snowy egrets, and today at least 50 percent of them were oiled," Norman said. "So we know there is a lot of birds that were exposed, whereas last Thursday there was just oil on the beach.

"On some of these sandpipers, their legs are the wrong color because they have oil on them. The birds are not oiled themselves but their legs are dark. ... If they try to get that oil off, they might ingest it."

By mid-morning, as a dozen remote-controlled robots roamed the sea floor, BP engineers and technicians were still running diagnostic tests.

Just after 10 a.m., Cathy Norman met with a group of contractors she's been working with for several years on a multi-million dollar project to protect the beaches from erosion. With oil coming ashore, the entire project is now in question.

"I can tell you what's going on," she said, pointing to a map. "About right here ... to about right here ... it's 2.2 miles."

Then Norman pointed out spots where oil had entered the marshlands. "There's a breach, a major breach? another breach here ... and one over here."

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."

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

Underwater cameras were trained on the five-story blowout preventer under the water as a ship on the surface began pumping heavy mud 5,000 feet down, trying to jam the rupture.

As the operation began, cameras caught what looked like a white cloud enveloping the blowout preventer. An engineer watching it worried that the drill mud may be streaming out the top of the preventer.

Another Day Closes on Spill

By mid-afternoon, Cathy Norman had nearly finished her tour of the land her trust oversees. We were boating down Port Fourchon's main shipping channel, almost two miles from the coast where we had seen oil in the morning, when we see something that shocks her.

Oil on the inland marshes.

By late afternoon, the cloud of mud was still visible in the underwater cameras. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal held a news conference to say that oil has been found on more than 100 miles of Louisiana Coast.

"We cannot let bureaucracy and red tape delay our action while oil hits our wetlands week after week," Jindal said.

By evening the images from below looked much the same. BP held a news conference to say the results of "Top Kill" would not be known for 24 hours.

As the moon rose over the Gulf of Mexico, it was not clear what tomorrow would bring.

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