Marshall: Oil Spill Uncertainty, and What We Know So Far

A small piece of the vast mat of oil in the Gulf, photographed by Tim Romano just 12 miles from … Continued

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A small piece of the vast mat of oil in the Gulf, photographed by Tim Romano just 12 miles from the port of Venice, Louisiana.

Remember those movies about murder trails where the innocent guy is waiting for the jury to come back and tell him if he’s going to live or die?

Remember how the hero can only sit there and sweat, hoping and praying fate delivers him and his family an unjust and untimely demise?

Remember how he constantly glances at the clock only to discover time is in slow motion, seconds stretching out like hours, hours like days, all the while glancing at that closed door wondering, fearing what might be going on beyond his control?

Now you know how sportsmen feel along the Louisiana coast and all across the northern Gulf of Mexico. It’s been more than two weeks since BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew and began pumping 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf each day, more than 3.2 million gallons in all, with no real end in sight. Predictions of imminent doom last weekend passed thanks to a stiff storm, but the spill this week continued to grow, continued to shutter recreational and commercial fisheries, continued to pose the ultimate threat of poisoning the most productive estuary in the lower 48 states.

BP is racing to put stop-gap measures in place and hustling to drill a relief well. But there are no promises. At any moment the worst-case scenario (or should we call them worser-case scenarios?) could unfold: Thousands of acres of heavy crude could wash up on sensitive coastlines. Or the well could grow even wider, increasing the flow ten-fold.

Or a miracle could happen and the robots at work one mile below the surface could turn a valve that shuts the flow.

No one really knows.

“The worst thing about this is not knowing when it’s going to end–and that it could get a hell of lot worse the next hour,” said Glenn Sanchez, owner/operator of Breton Sound Marina, in Hopedale, Louisiana, on the side of the Mississippi delta that has been closed to all fishing–even catch-and-release–since April 30.

Things are pretty tough already for Sanchez. On a typical weekend in May, Sanchez would launch up to 100 sportsmen into the Louisiana marshes where spotted sea trout (specks) are beginning to spawn. Since the closure he’s been making ends meet by launching media boats.

But he knows things could go bad to worse.

“If that heavy stuff comes in, our habitat could be ruined for a year or more, they tell me,” he said. “We’re talking hitting hard at specks, reds, ducks, oysters shrimp.

“But, man, we just don’t know. It’s just killing me.”

Here’s what we do know as the third weekend of the spill approaches:
1.) Heavy oil did begin washing up on in section of the Chandeleur-Breton Islands, a 50-mile chain of low sand beaches and mangroves running north-to-south between the eastern side of the Mississippi River delta and the Mississippi coast, about 30 miles east of the Louisiana marshes.

This chain is a major spring nesting ground for numerous terns, pelicans, ibis and other species, some of which are on the endangered species list. It’s also usually a fabulous spring fishing ground that draws anglers from across the Gulf and nation.

2.) Thin oil sheens have entered Breton Sound and are inching toward the interior marshes that are nursery grounds for the Gulfs largest population of speckled trout, redfish, flounder black drum, shrimp, crabs, oysters and other species.

3.) The spill continues to stretch across the open Gulf, spreading toxic chemicals and heavy tars into areas that are considered important spawning spots for bluefin tuna, tarpon, king mackerel, redfish, snapper and other species. Eggs that are coated with oil will not become fish.

4.) As winds moved to the southeast, the growing spill the began stretching to the west side of the Mississippi River delta, raising fears another huge fishing area could be closed next week.

5.) Efforts to halt the spill continue along two main approaches.

BP this week began lowering the first of two huge concrete and steel “containment” boxes over the major leaks in the pipes on the floor of the Gulf. The hope is that the oil will flow into the boxes and can then be sucked up to surface ships while the final solution is put in place.

That solution is a relief well that is being drilled through 18,000 feet of rock to the oil deposit. Once completed, a heavier fluid will be pumped into the opening that, hopefully, will seal the reservoir.

Unfortunately, BP estimates that drilling job will take two to two and a half more months. Many Louisiana anglers don’t know if they can handle the suspense.

“The waiting is killing me,” said Sanchez.