The oil spill from the blown-out well off the coast of Louisiana is seeping into marshlands that serve as critical wildlife habitat and as buffers against violent storms. Officials are considering a range of cleanup options -- including burning out the oil, and the marshes with it -- but some of them may do more harm than good.
At the Venice Marina in Venice, La., the scene on a recent day was one of summer serenity. It was a stark contrast to the sight of petroleum sliming the once-pristine marshes not far from the harbor. That's what was on the minds of the teams of biologists steering their boats back in after surveying some of the damage.
"Right now as you approach the marsh, it almost looks normal, but as you get closer, you see that the bottom of all the canes is coated with brown sticky oil," said Maura Wood, who works on coastal Louisiana restoration for the National Wildlife Federation. "And then you see that on the surface of the water, there are still globs of red and brown and black oil almost as far as the eye can see."
The Threat From Oil
At least 7 million gallons of crude have spilled in the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, fouling Gulf Coast marshland and coating birds and other wildlife.
The thick oil can suffocate the canes, grasses and other flora, and toxins in the oil can also poison the plants, said Doug Inkley, a senior biologist with the National Wildlife Federation.
"With this oil coming in, if it is severe enough to kill the plants entirely, then these plants are going to decay and basically you take away the entire root structure that helps support that soil, and with the waves and the weather coming in, virtually these wetlands disappear," Inkley said.
Flora, Fauna Threatened
He said scientists are trying to see what they can do to prevent that. But there's no easy solution. Indeed, several ideas are under consideration by local, state and federal officials, and each appears to have drawbacks.
Soft, mucky, peat-like soils hold Louisiana's coastal marshes together, serving as the Gulf's nurseries for fish, shrimp, crab, oysters and other marine life, and as nesting grounds for pelicans and other birds. The rakes and pressure hoses that were used to clean the rocks and sand on Alaska's shores after the Exxon Valdez spill would tear the Louisiana marshes apart.
Heavy machinery is out of the question, and even people walking into the marshes might do as much damage as the oil.
'No Good Options'
Another idea, Inkley said, is to divert more water into the marshes.
"Flooding of the marshes is one possible option because you can try to lift the oil back up off of the plants and off of the soil to the extent it's not too sticky, but that's also an issue," he said.
Getting enough water to flood the marshes is also an issue.
Some parish officials might try vacuum-like suction devices as soon as this weekend, but there's no clear idea how well that would work.
Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral who heads the federal response to the oil spill, has suggested the drastic-sounding step of prescribed burns to rid marshes of the toxic oil.
But Inkley said burning is risky.
"If it burns too low, during the low tide type of time, then what you could end up with is killing the plants altogether, and that's just as bad as the oil killing the plants because it could destroy the marsh," he said. "So there's no good options for cleaning it up. The best option is keep it out of the marshes in the first place."
But it's too late for that for many of the marshes, estuaries, islands and wetlands on the Louisiana coast, and there will likely be many more waves of oil washing up to them for months to come.