Don’t Eat The Shellfish

New reports estimate that 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf before the cap was installed. That would make this the largest accidental oil spill in history. Somehow, we're being told that oil in the water is hard to come by. Surfrider Foundation's Matt McClain recently jetted down to the Gulf to do a little investigating and kindly shared his findings with us.

Where did you go on your recent trip to the Gulf?

Jim [Moriarty] and I flew to Destin, FL and drove from the Fort Walton Beach area all the way to the end of Alabama. We talked with Yancy Spencer at Innerlight and a bunch of other shop owners, some lifeguards, and some cleanup crews. Our goal is to start a new water quality-monitoring program, so we wanted to go down there and scout it out.

Can you tell us a little bit about that?

There's just so much speculation about what's actually in that water. Hopefully, we don't find anything, but if we do, we'll work to make people aware and submit those findings to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. That's what they're going to use to try to hold BP's feet to the fire.

What prompted this specific project?

We've had some reports of surfers going out into the lineup and having their eyes burn and stuff. This one guy even said he coughed up blood. Almost everybody we talked to experienced oil or some kind of discomfort that could have come from the dispersant. Something's in the water–we just need to find out what it is. And how much of it's out there.

How does the Gulf actually look?

Surprisingly, pretty good. We drove around for three days, and drove several hundred miles, and we didn't see any oil actually washing up on shore. This week, NOAA said as much as 75 percent (it was later changed to 50 percent) of the oil had been cleaned up through skimming, burning, or dispersants.

A BP contract worker uses absorbent pads to wipe oil off of grass impacted by oil in the marshlands outside of Cocodrie, Louisiana, U.S., on Tuesday, June 1, 2010.  Photo: Derick E. Hingle

A BP contract worker uses absorbent pads to wipe oil off of grass impacted by oil in the marshlands outside of Cocodrie, Louisiana, U.S., on Tuesday, June 1, 2010. Photo: Derick E. Hingle

How do the dispersants work?

If you put oil in a glass of water, it will float on the top. If you take some dishwashing detergent and mix it around, that water turns cloudy–that's all the oil mixed in with the water, and that's really what the Gulf's like right now. We're not seeing a lot of the tar balls come up on the beach, but that could be because it's suspended in the water.

Are there people in the water down there?

Yeah, but a bunch of these surf shops said that their business was off, in some cases, 75 to 80 percent from last year. They're seasonal businesses and they missed their whole season.

Are the local businesses floundering?

Everybody down there is being hurt right now. You hear about the jobs tied with drilling, but what about all the fishermen, hoteliers, and surf shop guys? This one guy had almost no boards in his shop–he had to send them all back.

Is BP helping them out at all?

Well, the guys we talked to said they had applied for assistance but were struggling to get compensated.

Is there a beach you think was hit the hardest?

It sounds like all the Pensacola (FL) beaches were definitely hit the hardest. And [they] are big surfing beaches.

How are the local flora and fauna faring?

It is going to decimate the wetlands, which are already pressured. We're losing wetlands along the Louisiana and Alabama coasts at a rate of a football field every 15 minutes. And the marine life–that area's home to sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.

What about Gulf-specific species?

The blue fin tuna is probably the one people are most worried about. It's their spawning ground, so the juvenile tuna are going to be really impacted by all the chemicals in the water.

We eat tuna–couldn't that affect us?

It's not just tuna; it's any fish out of there. The FDA is supposedly doing tests. I mean, would I eat something that was caught down there right now? No freakin' way. Shellfish filter water. You couldn't pay me to eat shellfish from down there and I probably wouldn't do it for a dozen years–if ever.

The "static kill" seems to be working now.

Yeah, well the pressure dropped, so they were able to get the mud and concrete into the well from up top. Once that well is sealed off, there should be, theoretically, no oil loss

So things are looking up?

I think they're in a position now where they're really going to be able to get this well closed within the next few weeks, or at the most, months. But you know, the damage is done now. This week, there were still 8 Exxon Valdezes out there floating around. Best-case scenario, it's still gnarly.