For 'oiled' marshlands, time may be the only balm

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 30, 2010 

WAVELAND, Miss. — A few days ago, at least a dozen tiny crabs scurried along the sandy bottom of Jackson Marsh near here, just inches beneath a streak of oily sheen that was racing back into a crude-soaked Gulf of Mexico with the tide.

The scene angered Mayor Tommy Longo, who witnessed devastation of a different kind when Hurricane Katrina leveled his city five years ago.

"It was like a kick in the gut, after all that we've been through," he said about seeing the brown goo stuck on the fragile needle rush in the marsh earlier this month.

The marshes on the coast serve as nurseries for shrimp, crabs and other sealife, a nesting ground for pelicans and other birds and a much-needed buffer against Gulf hurricanes.

Now that the BP Deepwater Horizon well has largely been sealed, the question becomes what kind of threat to the marshes is posed by the millions of barrels of oil that were dumped into the Gulf during the weeks between the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and July 15, when the current containment cap was tightened into place?

Without the marsh, smaller fish won't be able to hide from predators. Shrimp won't breed and birds won't nest. The grasses won't be there to block the tidal surges.

Longo watched the creeping crude melt into the marshes of Louisiana, but trusted Coast Guard and BP officials who said Mississippi wetlands would be aggressively defended. Then the oil made its way into the pristine wetlands here. Now the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has taken a wait-and-see approach while Mother Nature handles the invasion.

"It is important to remember that even though this spill is not a natural event, oil is a natural part of the ecosystem, especially in the Gulf, and there are bacteria that have evolved to break down petroleum hydrocarbons," said MDEQ spokesman Robbie Wilbur. "So if we can limit the penetration of oil into these areas, Mother Nature will help us clean it up."

Only 9.8 miles of marshes in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle have been hit by oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. Louisiana wasn't so lucky. Hundreds of miles of sensitive marshes may have been soiled.

David Carmardelle is the mayor of Grand Isle, La., which used to be a summer hot spot for tourists. Halfway between New Orleans and BP's leaking well, Grand Isle is seven miles long and "dead in the water," Carmardelle said.

Carmardelle watched helplessly as the oil first hit his southern shoreline beaches, then stretch around the island to invade the northern marshes.

"When I saw that marsh being damaged, it brought tears to my eyes," he said. "It's a silent monster."

Lightweight booms along the shoreline only aggravated the problem.

Carmardelle said in Grand Isle, the protective booms became damaging debris in a stormy gulf, crushing marsh vegetation as waves pushed the oily protection into the reeds, cane and cordgrass.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered 40 miles of sand berms to be built along the coast to protect 2,000 to 3,000 miles of tidal shoreline and to stop the soil from entering sensitive estuaries. Carmardelle wanted to block the oil at the passes with a rock wall and barges before it could enter the Caminada Bay, but his idea was shot down, he said.

Now, officials and environmentalist are waiting to see what toll the oil will take.

The oil physically smothers the surface plants, then penetrates deeply into the marsh soil. Plants may die, but the roots can still hold the soil together. If those are damaged too, erosion occurs.

When the roots wash away, the marshes turn to open water, said Mark LaSalle, executive director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

Once a marsh is coated, officials have several options, he said. They can burn the plants, use low-pressure flushing, cut back vegetation or use biomedical remediation. He's not a fan of any of those options because they can do more damage than the oil.

Doing nothing, he said, may actually be the best solution. "Any kind of physical action in marshes is ill advised," he said.

(Melton reports for the Biloxi, Miss., Sun Herald)

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