Monday, June 28, 2010

A Brief Tour of The Gulf- A Work In Progress

Sign at Fishing Camp, Chauvin, Terebone Parish, Louisiana

7 Weeks into the spill, Tadd Sackville-West and I jumped on planes to learn what we could about life in in the Delta- human and otherwise. We had no agenda, and few contacts, but we found our way out into some 50 miles of impacted wetlands, interviewed government and non-government workers, and came away with a moving snapshot of the massive impact the spill is having on this delicate, complex region. These images are a record of some of things we saw, the people we met, and the beginning of a story that's just begun to unfold. The captions should orient you some, but the truth is, the story of the Delta, it's people and the history of Big Oil in the region is so layered and so big, that I don't dare suggest that we got close to covering it all...

Dawn- Myrtle Grove Marina, Plaquemines Parish.

Shrimp boats, airboats and sport-fishing outfits await hire by either private news outfits or oil cleanup. The bay, along with most in Louisiana, is closed to fishing.

Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish, LA.

Tadd shoots what is easily one of the most beautiful places in the US.
A delicate, vast collision of wetlands, big sky and teeming wildlife. Sadly, the oil in this image is so prevalent we could see no un-impacted cane for miles. Absorption boom staked in the shallow water surrounds a blackened wetland as far as the eye can see.

"Any other day, this would be a perfect day for fishing, ya know... I mean, this is the kind of day you dream about..."- Robert Beck

Emulsifed oil pools heavily on either side of absorption booms-Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

PVC stakes show the high-oil line, easily lapping over the barriers.

Absorption Boom and Impacted Wetland- Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish.

Seven layers of oil soaked containment boom float in viscous waters.

"I was just here last week. Everything seemed ok. Man, it just got clobbered. It's done."
- Photographer Bill Campbell.

Shrimp boat Skimming Oil-Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

A shrimp fisherman skims the surface with a containment boom, oil clinging to his hull, the water around us brown and shimmering. The smell hits you as you enter the impacted zones...Louisiana "Sweet" Crude. What you don't smell, however, poses significant threat as well. While recent rumors of airborne toxins have been deemed unscientific by some environmental engineers, other undisputed elements such as hydrogen sulfide are already being reported at much higher levels than safe around Plaquemines Parish.

The shrimp fisherman scrubs his outriggers best he can, wary of the toxicity of the crude. His hull will go through rigorous cleaning at stations set up all across the Delta, but it's an impossible task, and the oil penetrates where the wind and current will take it.

Water World. Plaquemines Parish, Baratrain Bay

Oil clean up, overseen by a company drolly called "Oil Mop, Inc", is big business.
The two employees who took us on a tour into the Dennis Pass Wildlife area confirmed that they hadn't been allowed one day off since the spill began.

"Too much money to be made, man, too much money."

- OMI employee Merril Schmaltz.

Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

An airboat, piloted by a local fisherman, loads up with absorbtion boom from the loading platform of an ad-hoc station, miles out in the Plaquemines Parish wetlands.

Aaron Viles (w daughter)- Campaign Director for The Gulf Restoration Network.

Aaron's organization, The Gulf Restoration Network has been involved in the issues facing Gulf restoration long prior to the spill. With the spill well into it's 3rd month, the network now sees it's task having ramifications far beyond the Gulf itself.

The Last Shrimp- Chavin, Terrebone Parish, LA.

Dale Dufrene talks with Tadd Sackville-West about the generations of fishing camps along the Chauvin canal.

The Last Pot of Crabs- Chauvin, Terrebone Parish, LA

Workers repair torn absorption boom. Chauvin, LA

Chauvin, Terrebone Parish, LA

Unemployed fisherman Mike McWilliams takes us on a tour of impacted wetlands. Mike, like most commercial fishermen in the Delta, have been re-deployed as guides for press and boom containment details.

Chauvin. Terrebone Parish, LA

Airboat captains retrieve torn absorption boom from the cane grass and drag them back out to crews attempting to repair the line. Of the 5 or so boats we approached to interview, all but one turned us away.

When we asked why, our airboat pilot replied, "Everybody works for BP now. They need the work."

Still, there were many who wanted to talk about things, and did so without much prodding. This is a world of watermen, and the spill cuts to the heart of the culture.

Coast Guard Public Relations Officer John Miller

We were John's second tour that day. He was patient and conversant in the scalding heat, offering us the lowdown on the containment and absorption boom operations in the area. He had both high praise for the cleanup effort being conducted by all in the gulf, and concessions toward the overwhelming task at hand.

"We just don't really know anything (about what the future holds). All we can do is keep trying to do our best."

Edwin Roam- 47 year fish-camp owner, Chauvin, Terrebone Parish, LA.

A good sense of humor seemed to be getting them all through. When asked why he seemed so much younger than his age, Roam replied, "...dunno. Living right by doing everything wrong, I guess."

Chauvin. Fishing Camps. Empty.

Sandbag Barrier Operations- Ft. Jackson Landfill

Tadd shoots the sandbag operations. Note workers beneath those bags. And, a true Chinook will move 2 x's that amount.

National Guardmen Malcom Moses and Julian Candilore- Sand Bag Operations, Ft. Jackson

Moses- a retired Marine with two tours in Iraq- and his team are in charge of communications between all helicopters cycling sand out to the barriers.

"What do I miss most (after 7 weeks of solid duty in the gulf)? I miss my Tennessee Walker (horses), I guess."

PVC Julian Candilore- Barrier detail, Ft. Jackson, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Malcom Moses, and PFC Julian Candilore oversee communications between helicopters for the barrier islands sandbag operations.

Julian- "We've been on this detail since it all started. I guess about 6 weeks. The heat's not too bad. We're all from Louisiana. I guess I'd rather not be working from a landfill, but otherwise..."

Press Clearance- Ft. Jackson Bird Rescue Center

Tadd Sackville-West lines awaits clearance with the rest of the press corps outside the Ft. Jackson International Bird Rescue Center down in
Ft. Jackson, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Ft. Jackson Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Workers work in two's and threes, stabilizing birds, rubbing them down with "Dawn" dishwashing detergent, and rinse them again.

Oil-Soaked Brown Pelicans-Ft. Jackson Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Just some of the now 600 heavily oiled Brown Pelicans being processed for rehabilitation at the center. Staffers at the center, along with most of the Fish and Wildlife folks we met, were cautiously hopeful that the impacted birds might experience a better than average survival rate due to the long distance the oil had traveled prior to hitting the wetlands. Long exposure to sun and water, they theorized, would diminish the toxic quality of the oil. However, the long term effects that the massive amounts of oil, benzene, methelyne chloride and hydrogen sulfide spewing into the rookeries and estuaries are beyond anyone's guess at this point.

Rescue Center Director Jay Holcomb Meets the Press

Holcomb explains the rescue procedure for the endangered Brown Pelicans rescued from the contaminated wetlands of Plaquemines Parish and other rookeries in the Delta.
Most of the birds undergo a period of examination- 5-7 days- prior to release in less impacted wetlands near Texas and Florida.

Oil Containment Operations on the Mississippi -Venice, Louisiana

All boats involved in cleanup must be quarantined and steam cleaned prior in inland passage.

"Only reason you're gettin' this close is 'cause of us. We're like the cops around here."

- Jessie Coffman, OMI employee.

OMI employee Merril Schmaltz. Dennis Pass National Wildlife Refuge, Venice, Louisiana.

"We got these boots cause the ones they give us are too hot, man. We like these cause they're cooler and, well, face it, they look good."

OMI ("Oil Mop, LLC") employees Jessie Coffman (seated) and Merril Schmaltz (captain),

OMI has been hired to shuttle all press and wildlife workers dealing with contaminated birds between the Cypress Grove Marina and Dennis Pass Wildlife Refuge and rookeries .

Jessie- "How come nobody talks to us. Everybody's worried about the fisherman, but no one cares about us. We ain't had a day off since the spill began. I got a six month old baby, I ain't seen in 7 weeks."

Me- "You want to talk in an interview?"

Jessie-"Hell no. I need my job."

Chris Guy-Fish and Wildlife Operations Director, living at the Dennis Pass Barge since The Spill, week one.

We interviewed Chris out at the barge, some 40 minutes by boat from the press staging area at Cypress Cove in Venice, Louisiana. Chris was in charge of coordinating the teams (and embedded press) keeping an eye on the birds in the vast wetlands fanning out from Dennis Pass- some 100 square miles worth.
At that time, he was optimistic about the birds' recovery rates, but no-one knew then, or knows now, how the phenomenal event going on one mile below the surface will impact the Delta. Still, he bristled at the notion that it was all a show for the press, or that the press was being kept out of the most impacted areas.

"If we're keeping boats out of a rookery it's because we're concerned about the nesting bird, it's not to cover our butts.
Ya, know...I've dedicated my life to protecting wildlife, it's a little insulting to (read in the press) I'm suddenly running for office."

Absorption booms-Dennis Pass National Wildlife Refuge Staging Area, Venice, Louisiana .

Miles and miles of them, staged throughout the region, loaded onto the decks of shrimp boats, oyster-boats and crab-boats, ready to be deployed along the borders of impacted wetland.
Boom operations, from absorption to containment, pom-pom to burnable, are keeping thousands people busy around the clock. And there is controversy- as with the dispersant, the bulk of the booms used are owned or overseen by BP, and are, of course, synthetic (petrol based). Lisa Gautier and her organization, "Matter of Trust" have proven that booms made from human hair are both more absorbent and sit lower in the water. BP's R&D' department was a fan of Gautier's booms, but somehow they never adopted them.

The bigger question is, of course, whether or not such efforts can even hope to make a dent over the long haul. But the one thing remains clear, a lot of people are working extremely hard, day and night, hoping to make a difference. Standing around in a boat with a camera, it's tough to be hopeful, but even harder to criticize.

As I said, a work in progress, maybe some things you won't see on TV or read in the press- stories of a culture of watermen who's lives have been as connected to the water as to the air they breathe for generations, and the ecosystem that sustained not only them but the vast majority of the fish, birds and mammals of the Gulf for millions of years. Unfortunately, the only thing that is clear is that the effects of this event have only just begun to reveal themselves.


  1. smart, poignant, and as usual--you find the beauty and interest in all of your subjects.

  2. Keep up the good work amigo! Your images are evocative and can only help. If only there were more of you to go around!