Workers recover thousands of pounds of oil from La. beach

Published: Sep. 27, 2012 at 11:31 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2012 at 8:01 PM CDT
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Workers place oiled mater recovered from Fourchon Beach inside plastic bags (John Snell)
Workers place oiled mater recovered from Fourchon Beach inside plastic bags (John Snell)

Fourchon Beach, La. -- 29 months and one week after the Macondo Well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico, workers on a sandy beach west of Grand Isle are recovering tens of thousands of pounds of oiled material.

The Wisner Donation, which owns the property, estimates clean-up crews recovered 90,000 pounds of oil, mixed with sediment, on Sunday alone.

The numbers differ from BP's estimate of roughly 19,000 pounds of material Sunday.  However, a BP spokesman, Ray Melick, acknowledged crews have collected 126,629 pounds of material since September 7.

The oil is being collected from below the surface, near hard structures the state and Lafourche Parish installed in natural breaches along the beachfront.

At the height of the spill in May 2010, oil shot through the breaches and threatened an environmental disaster in the marsh, only a few hundred yards from the Gulf.  Sheet piles were driven into the ground to close the breaches.

"Wisner has alleged all along that there was oil in front of these structures," said Cathy Norman, the Wisner Donation's secretary-treasurer.

With a major coastal restoration project scheduled to start here in coming months, the state ordered the structures must be removed.  Clean-up crews, digging holes nearby to sample what is below the surface, struck oil.

"They're removing huge parts of sand from this beach and we can't afford in Louisiana to lose one grain of sand, much less 90,000 pounds in a single day," Norman said.

Fourchon Beach and the wetlands nearby are the only defense for Port Fourchon, Louisiana's major oil and gas hub.

"This is the last kind of protective barrier that we have," Norman said. "Behind us, it's all loose marsh."

Wisner staff estimates the beach loses about 43 feet to erosion in a normal year.  Hurricane Isaac appears to have sliced away more than a year's worth of erosion in the space of two days.

"For being as puny and little and insignificant as a lot of people thought, it did a tremendous amount of damage out here," said Forrest Travirca, Wisner's field inspector.

Prior to the storm, Travirca drove small PVC pipes into the ground at various points along the beach to mark the shoreline.  While the hurricane appears to have washed away some of the pipes, one of them now sits 66 feet from the post-Isaac shoreline.

Travirca said the hard structures succeeded in blocking oil, but produced other consequences as a series of new breaches have opened.

"Nature opens it up and she'll close it," Travica said. "She'll find someplace else to go through."

Wisner's staff insists the response to the spill -- while necessary -- increased erosion as heavy equipment was brought in to collect oil.

In the months after the 2010 spill, Travirca said the beach was "tossed and turned. It was just rolled up, tiled up, hilled piled up and left there."

Wisner has filed suit against BP PLC in U.S. District Court in an effort to collect damages from the spill.

Meanwhile, the $70 million restoration project planned for later this year has been pushed back into next year.

"I believe there have been some setbacks," Norman said. "Obviously, this is one of them."