On Flag Day (June 14), CFACT Director of Policy Research Duggan Flanakin led a team of three staffers and three Collegian students from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette on a boat tour departing from LaFitte, Louisiana, and out to Queen Bess Island, the nesting home of Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican.
The drive from Lafayette to LaFitte took approximately four hours. When we finally
arrived, we were greeted by beautiful scenery. The land we stood on formed the shape of a
horseshoe; the boat in which we were going was docked in the curve of the shoe. The left and
right side of the shoe were two long and thick strips of land. Both sides were cluttered with
houses, but the coastline was even more cluttered with hundreds of docks. The air was fresh
and the sun shone at an angle that caused this sparkling magic to dance across the water. It
was beautiful and created a sense of calm.
As we exited our vehicles I believe we all shared a feeling of anxiety. My mind was filled with the horrific images of our state bird being crippled with oil, along with the video on the news stations that displayed continuous gallons of oil oozing into the Gulf. I felt helpless, yet confused by the multiple levels of severity and views not only shown on the news, but also spoken by the residents of the coast. As we boarded the boat, our captain told us we would be traveling 50 miles. Before we knew it, we arrived at Queen Bess Island, a habitat preserved just for pelicans and other birds. Approximately 50,000 birds were on land on this tiny island. The ones on the interior all seemed relatively healthy and unaffected. However, the edges of the island were covered in oil, and I knew the birds, when resting here, were getting oil on their feet and bodies. Also, their feeding grounds were oil slicked, and I knew that the birds were ingesting oil while feeding.
The shocking part was the boom. One type was orange and ran about 3 feet into
the water and stretched all the way around the island. The other was this white, sponge-like
tubing that was placed directly inside the orange boom. As we cruised around the island we
noticed the white boom was almost completely saturated with oil, and the orange boom, too,
was blackened. Even the rocks along the shoreline, placed there by people to prevent erosion,
were drenched in oil. The oil was spreading into the interior of the island already by 4 or 5 feet.
As we circled further around the island, we noticed that on its outer perimeter there were
four men and one woman placing a device which looked to be made of nylon strips that was
soaking up the oil on the rocks. It was a slow process, and we figured it would take days for
this crew to clean around the island perimeter. We had been offshore for almost an hour and
these were the first people we had seen engaged in actual cleanup work. It was about 4 pm, it had to be at least 92 degrees, and five people with one little bottle of water in their hands were working!
About 6 miles from the island on our way back to LaFitte, we met another group of four
men. They were sitting in these tiny little boats, and had just gone on break when we arrived.
There was a lot of pain in their faces, and they seemed hesitant to talk. As we asked more
questions, I noticed the water had lost its sparkle. It now had this dirty sheen to it, and was full of little black and brownish-orange oil globs (and maybe dispersant) floating at the surface. The workers explained they were stretching out the boom line and waiting on more to be delivered. All along the boom line were the remains of hundreds of little fish and other sea life. The stench was almost unbearable.
Our captain told us we were about 80 miles from where the spill was continuing to gush oil out of the deep ocean. I could not picture the Gulf in a worse condition. We saw an abundant number of vacuum trucks and other equipment parked and abandoned. Our captain also told us about the number of jobs lost, the individuals with damaged property, the lack of food for our endangered state bird, and the drought of seafood soon to take effect. As we made our way back to the dock, I sat there not only in awe, but also in anger. How could this have happened? Why isn’t more being done? It was something I will never forget. It left me saddened and feeling hopeless. Now I am pondering what to do….
Jillian LeMelle is a student at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette and a member of Collegians For A Constructive Tomorrow’s UL-L chapter; her hometown of St. Martinsville is under siege from the oil spill and from a federal government willing to destroy the jobs her community depends upon for its livelihood. CFACT volunteer Naomi Chaney contributed to this article.