FOURCHON BEACH, La. (CN) – Tropical Storm Lee uncovered mats of tar and oil throughout the Gulf Coast this month when it kicked up waves and oil-soaked sand, remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Miles of beaches were covered in tar balls. But a field inspector said BP jumped when he informed it.
“Good thing the oil is exposed,” Forrest Travirca III, field inspector of the Wisner Donation portion of Fourchon Beach, said as he walked along with beach with a Courthouse News reporter. “We knew it was there and BP knew because we told them. Now they have to listen.”
Travirca, who works for the nonprofit Wisner Donation trust, said that BP has done a good job cleaning up after Tropical Storm Lee.
“None of the oil is new. All of it arrived last summer,” Travirca said. He scanned the brown sand, the clumps of tar balls and scars left from tar mats that have been dug out.
Red flags on sticks poke out of the sand every few feet, indicating the location of a new tar mat. In the distance in the Gulf, oil platforms jut out along the horizon.
“Mother Nature has a way of continuously covering and uncovering,” Travirca said. He picked up a tar ball, broke it in half and put it to his nose.
“Smell that?” he said. “Smell the petroleum?”
Travirca said he came out after the storm on Sunday to do the post-storm survey and found the tar balls and tar mats. He notified BP and sent photos.
“Normal thing,” Travirca said. “That’s what we do.”
BP came out the following Tuesday. It immediately increased the size of its cleanup crew from 15 to 100 people and brought in heavy equipment.
That stretch of beach is among the closest to BP’s Macondo well, which broke in April 2010, leading to the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Travirca said BP has improved its cleanup efforts since then. Its crew built roads along the beach so that only the road area is affected by the traffic and heavy machinery, not the entire beach.
Travirca said there is a lot of public misconception about tar mats and tar balls.
“Oil-encrusted sand was thrown up on the beach and we knew it was part of a mat,” Travirca said.
The mats are pools of gooey oil that stick to the seafloor where the beach meets the water. Sand washes over them with time, hiding them. Strong waves during a tropical storm break off pieces of the tar mat and throw balls of tar onshore.
Until the tar mats are gone, the tar balls will appear. The only way to stop the tar balls is to find the mats and dig them out.
Before the oil spill, Wisner lost 43 feet of beachfront a year. Since the spill, the rate has increased because removal of the oil disrupted the natural compression of the sand, causing the looser sand to be more more susceptible to erosion, Travirca said.
Travirca said oil cleanup is a tradeoff. Digging out the mats, called “scouring,” accelerates erosion.
In 1984 the beach extended 20 yards farther into the water than it does today.
The beachfront lost 2 feet of sand to Lee.
In August 2010, while looking for tar mats, Travirca said he stumbled upon pottery dating back to 700 A.D. He said the discovery was the first opportunity to look at coastal prehistoric occupation to that extent. He alerted BP’s archeological division, which has been working at the site to identify and preserve the artifacts.
Near the waterline a smattering of giant tree trunks and scrap branches mark a spot that was once a tree line of live oaks. Those trees were knocked down by hurricanes of 1854 and 1898.
In the foreground are remnants of a tree line of old live oaks that were taken out in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Now there are no trees.
Wisner Beach neighbors Elmer’s Island, a public beach overseen by the Fish & Wildlife Service. Elmer’s Island reopened to the public, after being closed due to the oil spill, shortly before Lee hit.
Travirca said Elmer’s Island is just as dirty as Wisner and should not be open.
“Look to your senses, your nose. What does your nose tell you?” Travirca said.
Near Elmer’s Island, Travirca paused to look at a mess of snare that was heavily laden with oil. (Shown in photo.)
Tar patties the size of bison dung smattered the beach.
Toward the end of Wisner Beach, just before Elmer’s Island, Travirca spotted a red Jeep with a boat attached.
“Trespassers,” Travirca said, setting off toward the Jeep. “I’m going to give them the opportunity to leave.”
The trespassers, a man and woman, drank beer and cast a fishing line into a new “breach” since Lee – a deep river that divided the two sides of sand.
“All of this is contaminated,” Travirca told them, “and I’m not kidding you. There’s oil all over the place.”
The woman said they had seen a sign saying they should keep out, but hadn’t understood what it meant.
The woman went to the Jeep and brought out a pink and white shell she found at Elmer’s Island. Travirca identified it as a whelk shell. He said this beach had not seen whelk for many years.
On the way back, reaching an area of smooth sand, Travirca exclaimed, “They’ve totally restored the sand here!” Previously they wouldn’t have done that. This is incredible!”
Travirca said he thought BP is working hard on the cleanup.
“I would want to believe that they’ve learned what needs to be done and they’re doing it,” he said.
Travirca said bird mortality has increased since the oil spill. Many juvenile diving birds, such as pelicans, have shown up dead along the beach. All have had at least one broken wing.
So far no serious testing has been done on them, so far as he knows.
Travirca said if he were conducting research into the dead birds he would wonder if there was something in the oil or dispersants, or a combination of the two that affects bone density.
Juvenile dolphins with umbilical cords still attached have washed up on shore.
Travirca said he and his colleagues have found 20 to 25 dead juvenile dolphins on the beach in the past year.
He said he thought Louisiana was doing a great disservice letting the public onto Elmer’s Island: He did not expect the beach to be fit for recreation again in his lifetime.
“My older grandchildren came to this beach. My children came to this beach. I was in the Boy Scouts and we used this beach. We went camping here, swimming. I would stop my grandchildren now from using this beach. Anybody else’s children? Yes, I would stop them from using this beach.
“We are jeopardizing their health. That is what I really believe. We live in a different world now. We can’t go and let our children do something just because their parents grew up doing it,” he said.
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