For Tammy Wolfer of Louisiana, the worst part about the oil slick looming off the Gulf of Mexico coast isn’t that it cut her income from working at a marina and ruined plans to buy a house this year. The worst part is waiting to see where and when the oil will arrive on shore. “The not knowing is what is driving everyone crazy,” Wolfer, 42, who lives in Empire on Louisiana’s eastern coast, said this week. “At least if the oil started coming ashore, we could start cleaning it up and know where we are.” Coastal residents in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have been bracing for black waves of oil since April 20, when an offshore rig drilling a BP Plc well exploded, triggering a leak that is dumping an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf. Since then, the well has leaked at least 3.3 million gallons (12.5 million liters), based on estimates by the company and government officials.
Much of the largest spill in 40 years from an offshore U.S. rig or platform has stayed away from land. The amount of crude that has washed ashore doesn’t compare with the sheets of oil that polluted 1,300 miles (2,000 kilometers) of Alaska coastline after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in 1989. The latest spill-forecast maps by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the bulk of the slick will remain at sea for at least two more days.
“Right now it’s like being a goalie in a soccer game,” said Robert Thomas, professor and director of the Loyola University New Orleans Center for Environmental Communication. “Everyone is the goalie and we are trying to protect everything from every direction.”
Local residents and officials say they dread the thought of thick oil coming ashore, where it could destroy fisheries and marshland and cause environmental damage. “Everybody is so anxious,” said Mark Schexnayder, regional coastal adviser for fisheries at Louisiana State University. “They would rather be doing something physical where they can help.” The crude-filled waters have killed the Wolfer family’s hopes of making the most of a newly repaired fishing boat, and Wolfer’s hours working at a marina have been slashed in half to 20 a week. Wolfer says her husband, Daniel, signed up for clean- up work and hasn’t yet heard back from BP.
“It’s like a slow-moving hurricane,” said Robert Moreau, who manages the Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station for Southeastern Louisiana University. “It’s kind of in our blood and DNA to watch maps and worry about what’s coming. This is a bigger unknown than a storm.” Projections show there is no imminent threat of oil affecting Mississippi, Alabama or Florida, Capt. Steve Poulin of the U.S. Coast Guard said at a news conference yesterday. Tar balls and tar patties have been seen at Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores in Alabama and barrier islands off Mississippi, Poulin said, adding that the findings were sporadic and in “fairly small quantities.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team forecast April 28 that winds and currents would drive oil ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on successive days through May 3. No widespread oiling occurred. No oil has been reported to the west off Atchafalya Bay in Louisiana, where a forecast predicted landfall earlier this week. NOAA is trying to figure out why the oil isn’t showing up where they think it should, said Doug Helton, one of NOAA’s two coordinators charged with calculating the spill’s movements. ‘It’s a complicated area to model,” he said.
One factor might be the Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf, pushing the oil away from shore. Oil floats lower in fresh water than in salt water, possibly hiding some of the slick, he said. Louisiana native James Carville, a Democratic political consultant who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the lack of information about the spill is “stunning.” “The whole place is just crazy with rumors,” he said in an interview. BP takes some of the credit for keeping the worst of the oil away from land. “Our teams working offshore are making a difference,” Doug Suttles, the BP executive running its response to the spill, said in a May 10 press conference. “The visible size of the spill is less significant than it was a week or 10 days ago.”
Some residents fear the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil and sink it beneath the water could create a nightmare for the coast if a hurricane hits this summer. “They can cap this well tomorrow, but three months from now, a three- or four-category storm could disturb the bottom of the Gulf and that oil will come to the top and it may be worse than it is right now,” said Ted Breaux, who lives near New Orleans and works in coastal Louisiana for Exxon Mobil Corp.