Justin NobelJustin Nobel has covered culture and the environment from California to the Canadian Arctic. Thanks to a grant from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, he traveled most recently to the remote Pacific islands of Yap to report on how climate change is affecting indigenous cultures. A former intern for Audubon and now a reporter for the magazine, he also blogs about death for the funeral industry and pens another, personal blog rooted in spending long amounts of time in one New York City spot. His website is: www.justinnobel.com.
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Oil spill update from the field: Thick oil still oozes beneath a forgotten stretch of Grand Isle Beach
I head to a forgotten stretch of Grand Isle beach, where thick black oil still oozes out from beneath the sand. The issue highlights a concern many conservationists have had with the spill response; that it was heavy-handed and near-sighted, environmental guidelines were scrapped and environmentalists themselves were chided as being too soft and too slow.
I visit the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s Houston Command Center, BP’s war room, where for the last four months a team of more than 500 engineers and technicians has been working around the clock to cap the spill and drill relief wells. Failed ideas like the top hat and the junk shot were born here, as was the containment dome which ultimately capped the well. Until recently access has been all but impossible.
I board a Coast Guard speedboat meant for chasing down drug runners and head for the Deepwater Horizon spill site. The place is packed with ships; some Coast Guard officers call it The City. As the sun sets, lights on the vessels begin to go on and soon the entire horizon is twinkling. Ground zero for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is eerily beautiful.
Louisiana wetlands are disappearing and the oil spill has heightened the problem by soiling additional habitat. One solution in an effort to create new habitat and draw birds away from the oiled coast is for rice farmers to flood their fallow fields. I tour fields with a Ducks Unlimited biologist, but he explains that there is another problem. Rice is also disappearing.
I board a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft bound for the spill site, passing a coastline that has now been marred with oil for two and a half months. But with the wellhead capped, things are actually looking up, until a nameless low pressure system transforms into Tropical Storm Bonnie and heads straight for the Louisiana Coast.
About 800 loggerhead sea turtle nests are laid annually on beaches in Alabama and the Florida panhandle and over the next three to four months every single one of them will be driven in FedEx trucks to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Nothing like this has ever been tried and wildlife officials won’t know for 30-35 years, the time it takes females to begin laying eggs, if it has worked. I attend a sendoff for the first batch of eggs headed east then tour a picturesque Florida bay with a pair of unlikely environmentalists whose efforts have helped save local sea turtles, animals that worldwide are on the brink of doom.
I visit Grand Terre Island with a crew of Coast Guard marine science technicians. A month ago this island was smothered with oil and several pelicans died; this crew’s job is to make sure it never happens again. But Hurricane Alex has kept them away for nearly a week. Upon returning we see mangled booms and fresh oil strewn well above the high tide line. “It’s not good,” one tells me. Worst is the fact that Alex only dealt the area a glancing blow, and hurricane season has just begun.
I join an eccentric band of protesters outside the Deepwater Horizon command center. “BP and the government have been unwilling to tell the truth so we have organized an independent mass action to stop the horror,” one rabble-rouser tells me. Participants include a psychic dolphin communicator and a lady who lost her faith in government when her soldier son was killed in the Iraq War. After an hour of peaceful protest, the group brushes past a security guard and enters the building.
Oil spill update from the field: Snow white Alabama and Florida beaches hit with oil & officials don't know how to remove it
I head east to Alabama and Florida, where NOAA maps show oil poised just offshore. Brilliant white beaches are already littered with tar balls and empty. Without tourists or seafood, business are shutting down and wildlife managers are forging their own solutions, with possibly dire consequences.
Oil spill update from the field – How many dolphins will the oil spill kill? Because of poor data, we will never know
In Louisiana there is a black hole of dolphin data, populations in many bays haven’t been surveyed for decades and some bays have never been surveyed. The implications are devastating, without accurate numbers for how many dolphins there are now we will never know how many were affected by the spill. I head out on Terrabonne Bay with LSU grad student Allison Manning, the only person in the state studying dolphin populations. Because of the spill, fishing has been banned on this bay. Unfortunately dolphins, which eat pounds of fish each day, didn’t get the memo. We see them everywhere.