#2 "Head It Off At the Pass?"

This post is written from Louisiana by Bud Ris, New England Aquarium President and CEO.

Sunday June 27, 2010
Grand Isle, Louisiana

After viewing the defenses along Grand Isle beach (see previous post), we jumped on a couple of open boats today and headed off for a look at measures being taken to prevent oil from entering the large bay behind Grand Isle known as Barataria Bay. The challenge is to create a floating barrier across the "passes" where any oil flowing in can be contained, skimmed off the surface and barged to safe containment facilities on land.

Barges designed to keep the oil out of Barataria Bay

The conventional method is to use floating "boom" that we've all seen on the news reports on TV. Indeed, the word "boom" has become so prolific down here that it comes up in almost every conversation about the spill.

Bill Burgess, New England Aquarium Chairman of Trustees, discussing the cleanup operations with a local Coast Guard officer

But there is real concern amongst the local residents that the conventional boom won't be very effective when the wind picks up. They are deeply worried about how oil entering the Bay through the passes will not be held back by these booms, threatening the wildlife and everything else that is so important to the local ecology--and the economy.

Pilings and barges designed to keep the oil out of Barataria Bay

So one new idea is build a barrier across the passes with large floating barges tied to piles driven into the bottom every 25 yards or so. (You can see the new yellow piles in the photo above.) This looked like a pretty good idea to us, both because the barges seem much sturdier than the floating boom and because there was no interruption of the natural flow of water under the surface - which, of course, is very important to the ecological integrity of the Bay itself.

Boom protecting the beach on the east end of Grand Isle, Louisiana

Another idea--that originated with an engineer we met over dinner--was to lay a long string of 3- to 4-foot diameter pipe in 50-foot lengths, sealed at each end and filled with air. That's the floating orange pipe in the photos, pipe that has just been installed within the last week, moored to anchors or pilings similar to the barge barrier.

Floating pipe barrier

Just as we finished looking at this new floating pipe, we had our first look at a small slick of oil in the pass. Some of it had a reddish color, probably from the chemicals used as dispersants. Some of it was jet black, impossible to get off your fingers. A black goo, one of our group called it "toxic taffy" as he attempted to scrub it off his hands with the detergent on board the boat. Just then we saw a pod of dolphins surfacing right nearby and we realized there was no way for them to avoid the slick. And a hundred yards or so away we saw a small group of pelicans covered with oil and one of our group worried they may have taken their last flight.

Oil slicks

A third option we observed involves construction of a series of artificial sand islands, built from sand dredged a mile or so offshore and pumped in under pressure. This is the controversial plan advocated by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. There's much local debate about whether these artificial islands will survive a storm and whether they might cause more ecological damage than they "prevent." The debate is intense--indeed, construction of these islands has been temporarily halted while federal and state officials weigh the pros and cons.

When you see all of these concepts actually being implemented on location, you can become somewhat hopeful. But then you look out at the production rigs just a few miles offshore, think about the amount of oil that has already been leaked and is still leaking, and the fact that the TransOcean well might not be permanently plugged until mid August, any degree of optimism fades pretty quickly. And you can see that many of the local residents know the wind and current will swing back their way soon, putting all of these defensive measures to the test like nothing that has ever been tested before. They are deeply worried, and we could feel their pain.

Signs expressing local frustration with the spill

Our host, Barbara Picard, has been an island resident for 41 years. When I asked her how she felt about the spill, she replied "It's devastaing. Really sad. I'm friends with all the fishermen, oyster people, and sports fishermen. They are all out of work. The fishing grounds are closed, and we know the oil will come back this way."

But she also remains hopeful: "Seeing the water today with no oil. That tells me something out in the Gulf where the rig was is working. They must be slowing the spill; the skimmers must be working out there. That gives me some hope. But most off all seeing the many dolphins out there - as we did today -- that made me feel good again. The marine life is incredibly resilient."



  1. Let's hope these species are as resilient as Barbara thinks.

  2. Are the locals getting financial help as quickly as has been promised?

  3. Unfortunately, I am not very educated when it comes to the workings of ocean currents. So at the risk of this sounding like a stupid question, I am forced to ask about something I have been fearing...

    If the oil in the Gulf is not successfully contained/stopped, is it at all possible for this contamination to spread to ALL major oceans?

    And what about this chemical they are using? When evaporation occurs, will this effect the Ozone, or produce higher Acid Rain?

    I cry for all the life, and livelihoods lost due to this tragedy. I pray every day to turn on the news and see "OIL SPILL OVER". I hope that day comes soon.