Oil-spill cleanup at Fourchon Beach draws fire

Oil persists both on the surface and beneath the layers of sand on this beach.

Oil persists both on the surface and beneath the layers of sand on this beach.

Originally published by the The Daily Comet.

By , City Editor

FOURCHON BEACH — At first glance, this wide, windswept stretch of sand at the southern tip of Lafourche Parish looks just as it should.

Seabirds skim above marsh grass and skip along the surf, pausing to dip their beaks into the water or peck in the mud-colored sand that sits atop the remains of a ridge formed by Bayou Lafourche sediment thousands of years ago.

Don’t be fooled, said Forrest Travirca, an inspector and caretaker of sorts for the 9.5-mile stretch of beach owned by the not-for-profit Wisner Donation, a private land trust.

Oil is everywhere.

It sits beneath the sand in layers, left there when crude began washing up after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010 and later covered by the wind and waves that constantly reshape the beach. Mats of oil snared in marsh lie just below the waterline a few feet from shore. And when the innocuous-looking balls of sand that constantly wash up are broken open, a smell akin to fresh asphalt wafts out.

“It looks clean, but you don’t know what’s underneath, that’s the problem,” said Travirca, who has been documenting the spill’s impact on the beach for the Wisner Donation nearly daily for a year and a half. “There is oil under this sand. Tropical Storm Lee showed us it is there.”

Frequent re-oilings related to BP’s Macondo well blowout will plague areas like Fourchon Beach, Grand Isle and other parts of the state’s coast for years to come, state officials and scientists say.

“I would think there’s a lot of oil in the bottom of the sediment,” said Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program based at Nicholls State University and a former member of the state’s oil-spill response team. “We’re going to see oil showing up on the beaches for quite some time.”

The Coast Guard, charged with monitoring BP’s cleanup of coastal Louisiana and other areas affected by the spill, insists that last month’s shift to the Shoreline Cleanup Completion Plan, which lays out a new framework for pronouncing oiled areas clean, doesn’t end BP’s responsibility from removing future oil that washes up.

But state and local officials, as well as Cathy Norman, secretary-treasurer of the Wisner Donation, remain skeptical of the job BP has done cleaning up some oiled areas and refuse to endorse the plan.

Critics say the plan fails to provide a program for long-term monitoring, will make it harder to get BP to respond to new oil that washes up and takes local and state officials out of crucial decisions affecting the state’s coast.

And the plan, which doesn’t require state approval to be implemented, renders a prior agreement reached between local parishes, the state, BP and the Coast Guard obsolete.

“It really seems like a scenario where BP wrote the plan, BP came up with recommendations, and the Coast Guard rubber-stamped it,” said Garret Graves, head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

‘DEEMED CLEAN’

“First and foremost, BP is not off the hook,” said Chief Petty Officer John Edwards, a Coast Guard spokesman. “This Shoreline Completion Plan was six months in the making. This is part of the natural progression of cleanup.”

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