The BP oil hemorrhage has harmed habitat, wildlife and economies in 26 cities and towns in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. A second toxin, the chemical dispersant Corexit, also has been mixed into the water.
On the surface, much of the Gulf of Mexico appears clear. But no one knows the depths of this disaster, or how long its repercussions will last.
It's quiet at this end of Bayou La Loutre, where we’ve come to meet John Guenther in the fishing community of Hopedale, La.
Hopedale is at the end of Louisiana Highway 46, near the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, which connects the bayou with the Gulf of Mexico.
Fishing, an important part of the Louisiana economy, has suffered due to the oil-drenched waters but portions of the gulf have been cleared to reopen.
The gulf is home to wild shrimp and remains one of the few sustainable harvesting sources in the world. Guenther is a commercial fisherman and, like other Hopedale fishermen, operates a sizable shrimp business from a rather small boat.
For weeks, Guenther and other local fishermen have clung to the hope that oil from BP’s April 20 explosion would not reach the waters near Hopedale.
But the oil, hauntingly, has made its way here.
“They tell me I can’t fish now,” Guenther says as he points to his boat, its shrimp nets hung like deflated balloons. “I don’t know what I am going to do.”
Charles Robin, who works the water in his father’s boat the Ellie Margaret, is a fifth-generation fisherman. To Robin, oil means war. When the BP platform sank, Robin penned a three-page proposal outlining how he could help Hopedale defend its waterways from contamination.
Now, he fears he’s fighting a losing battle.
“This is killing me,” he says. “How do you put a price tag on five generations?”
Residents have erected crosses in a makeshift cemetery on Grand Isle to commemorate all that the oil spill has destroyed.
Robin belongs to an entwined community of Islenos, descendants of Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders who came to Louisiana around 1778.
“We know hurricanes,” Robin says. “We know storms pass and we can go back to fishing. This is bigger than Katrina. We don’t know how to deal with this.”
The next day, on our three-hour drive to Grand Isle, it seems easy to blame the coastal communities for surrendering to Big Oil. Exxon and Chevron storage tanks dot the landscape of Louisiana Highway 1 as it slices into the gulf. Oil platforms pepper the water as far as we can see.
Charles Robin, a fifth-generation Isleno fisherman, is frustrated with the cleanup's slow pace.
Since 1947, more than 50,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico. But as Grand Isle City Councilman Jay Lafont tells us over lunch, “Oil companies have been here for 50 or 60 years. Until this catastrophe, we never thought much about them.”
Indeed, many people on Grand Isle favor drilling: Oil means jobs, roads and schools. But near the end of Highway 1, we spot a young bicyclist who openly disagrees. Wearing a hand-painted shirt that reads, “Bicycles Prevent Oil Spills,” Frazer O’Hara is riding 100 miles in the sweltering southern heat to make a point.
O’Hara is a member of Team Gulf, an activist movement formed by Miche Ann Walsh, an environmentalist who packed up her San Diego apartment in June and moved to Grand Isle.
“I couldn’t stay home and do nothing,” Walsh says, showing us pictures of 400 hermit crabs she rescued the day before. “There’s so much contamination here. Even domestic animals are covered in oil.”
The spill has caused a fishing boat to remain docked at Bayou La Loutre in Hopedale, La.
On Grand Isle, population 1,500, cleanup workers outnumber locals two-to-one.
“Everyone used to know everyone else here,” says City Councilwoman Leoda Bladsacker, driving us through island streets in her orange municipal utility vehicle. “Now, that’s no longer the case.”
Cleaning up oil is a toxic task, not a job most people want. To tackle this Sisyphean challenge, BP has brought 3,000 workers to Grand Isle. Most are hired through subcontractors, which insulates BP against potential problems in the community, notes Bladsacker. Some subcontracted workers have criminal records. Many live on the island now, in hotels and houses BP has leased.
“Before this, we never locked our doors at night,” Bladsacker says grimly. “Now, we do.”
The stark yellow caution tape makes it clear that Grand Isle Beach is closed to all residents and tourists.
In Hopedale, BP has commandeered the Breton Sound Marina. With its checkpoints and heightened security, a police-state ambience looms. Before April 20, the marina was a portal to the southeastern Louisiana biological reserves, the home of migratory song birds, shore birds and water fowl.
Climate change already had put the Breton Sound wetlands at risk, says Marina Manager Tony Fernandez. Now, no one is sure whether the fragile Louisiana coast can take one more hit.
“Is there no end to the destruction humans can cause?” Fernandez asks. “All these beautiful things we’re killing … we’re just one step away from destroying us.”
To date, 3,082 birds and sea turtles have died from the millions of gallons of crude oil swirling in the Gulf. Other animals unsuspectingly await their fate.
Near St. Bernard Catholic Church, where many fishermen attend Mass, lies a sleepy bayou lined with tall grass and cypress trees. Herons perch among willowy stalks. Neon-green dragonflies hover around them.
From still water, an alligator lazily lifts his head and looks at us. He meets our gaze, then quietly lowers himself and slips away.