ON BARATARIA BAY, La. — The pelican was shaking, covered in oil, waiting to die and not alone. It was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of its species, brown pelicans roosting on a small island in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico amid an ecological disaster.
Many of these brown pelicans — Louisiana's state birds — are likely doomed, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fears that his state's wetlands will soon suffer equally. Locked in a dispute with the federal government over how to protect Louisiana's labyrinth of wetlands, Jindal and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries ferried a herd of national reporters to Barataria Bay on Sunday to document firsthand the devastating effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was a depressing scene. According to Jindal, approximately 65 miles of Louisiana's coast had been "oiled" by Sunday.
"We're under attack here," Jindal said. "We've got to protect our coast."
On Sunday, two natural rookeries, nesting grounds for brown pelicans, showed signs that heavy crude oil had broken through booms and soiled these fragile landmasses. The rookeries were located in Barataria Bay, about 14 miles west of Venice, La., between Cat Island and Four Bayou Pass.
Some pelicans frantically brushed oily feathers with their bills while others, full coated in black ooze, simply stood and quivered, as if in shock from the oil's toxicity. When a biologist in a haz-mat suit approached one pelican, it fled in fear into the inner sanctum of the small island where reeds and vegetation hid it from capture. Some tried to fly but could not.
"They're trying to fly away but they can't because they're covered in oil," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, the southern-most parish in Louisiana. "We're begging for help."
At question is an emergency permit applied for by Louisiana to protect its coastline, a request that includes dredging sediment to create barrier islands between oil and wetlands. Louisiana's emergency proposal was denied on Saturday by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is unsure of the environmental impact of emergency barriers.
"I think here's the fundamental issue," Jindal said. "We've answered every question they've ever asked as quickly as possible, but you have to understand that there is an environmental cost of not acting. I mean, the environmental damage is happening right here."
While Jindal attempted to remain diplomatic on Sunday, his political boat-mate, Nungesser, was not. Nungesser told reporters that his parish has had a plan in place for several weeks to protect its ecology but homegrown methods of protection have been denied.
"They are bureaucrats made to stand in the way and question things to death," Nungesser said. "That's how they justify their jobs. Fire all those guys and let's just do the right thing."
But Louisiana's ecosystem is not the only thing at stake, according to Jindal. A vital buffer zone protecting the state from storm surges caused hurricanes could also be affected by oil. Jindal said the state of Louisiana has spent $800 million in the last three years in an effort to restore some of the state's delicate coastline. Over the past 80 years, approximately 2,000 miles of Louisiana tidal lands and coastline have eroded away, Jindal said. The state has about 7,000 miles of coast, much of which is wetlands and not continuous.
"We committed that money for flood protection," Jindal said. "This was supposed to be our best year in 80 years in terms of coastal land loss. This oil is threatening all of that progress. After 80 years we were finally beginning to reverse these trends. We were finally making concrete progress."
Oil reached at least 12 miles into Louisiana's wetlands on Sunday, according to officials, and that seems to be just the beginning of a long fight for this state. The heavy crude that was in Barataria Bay on Saturday had moved with the tides by Sunday but would return, Jindal said, when tidal waters shifted, essentially coating the pelicans' rookeries from the opposite side.
"Scientists at Louisiana State University said that we could be dealing with oil washing up along our coastline, even if they cap the leak, it could be months; it could even longer; it could be years," Jindal said. "This is a marathon for us. We need the federal government to tell BP that this isn't done until the fisheries, the wetlands, the marine life, the ecosystem is restored back into its status the way it was before the spill."
A representative of the Coast Guard accompanied Jindal's six-boat floating news conference on Sunday and monitored Louisiana's public relations efforts. At one point the Coast Guard representative asked one reporter to repeat a comment made by Nungesser about lack of leadership.
"We can't afford to fail," Nungesser said. "We need a leader and so far we don't have one."