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The Gulf Coast One Year After


by Bill Chameides | April 20th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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The scene at Bay Batiste, January 2011, from Todd Eppley: “Things still look very much the same … we could see the oil on the bottom in shallow water … and tar balls and sheen popped up.” (Todd Eppley)

Two veterans of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico tell it like it is.

So how’s it going one year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster? There’s no shortage of info on the topic in the media. But the media can get things wrong.

To try and get the straight skinny, I contacted two of the people I visited with last year when I and my colleagues at the Nicholas School went down to the Gulf Coast to get a first-hand look at what was going on.

Billy Nungesser — Still Upset

Billy Nungesser is the president of Plaquemines Parish.

When I met him last July , Billy was up for re-election and quite upset. If you followed the news last year, you undoubtedly saw him — he was the unofficial spokesperson for the people of Louisiana at the height of the crisis, a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves railing against BP and the federal government. (Some examples here, here, and here.)

One of the people I met with is Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.


Since then, Billy was re-elected hands down. And with the media attention momentarily back on the Gulf Coast for its obligatory one-year retrospective, Billy is back on the airwaves — I caught him on CNN last night. And, surprise, he’s still not happy.

We contacted Billy’s office Monday to find out how things are going and here’s what he had to say:

“The fight is not over and we must hold BP’s feet to the fire. One year later I still cannot tell you who is in charge — BP, the Coast Guard, or the Federal Government. We need BP to finish the job cleaning our coast, to fulfill the promises that they would leave ample equipment here in the event oil resurfaces, to make an effort to stabilize the deteriorating banks and shorelines, and we need them to make whole our communities impacted by the spill.”

Todd Eppley – Fisherman Who’s Not Optimistic

During our visit last year, Todd Eppley was one of the captains who took us on a boat tour of the gulf. At the time he was employed by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center as a project manager in the Inland Waterways Strike Force.

Todd reports that that gig ended in November when he was laid off. Normally Todd works as a fisher: “I do have a commercial license for shrimping and alligator hunting,” he says, but “didn’t do any of it last year because it was closed.”

Todd has had a close-up view of the gulf and its wetlands over the past year. (See his photos from January 2011 included in the post.) Here are some of the things he told us on the phone yesterday.

On the prospect of earning a living as a fisher:

“There’s still a lot of concern across the nation about eating gulf seafood but … shrimping season will open like it normally does and from what I hear there’s plenty of shrimp. In fact they opened a special season in Vermilion Bay — a special 5-day season [this week]. There’s an abundant amount of white shrimp according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Basically left over from the fall season.”

On getting access to the marsh since the disaster:

“They wouldn’t let anyone walk through the marsh — a $10,000 fine if you were caught. I’ve been walking the marsh since I was six years old — duck hunting and trapping and things like that. They had a marsh team that had to be certified — in order to get out of the boat they had to have a Coast Guard person there and plywood … to walk [on the marshes] so they weren’t walking in the grass.”

On the presence of oil and tar in the marsh:

Note that this pertains to areas in and around Bay Batiste, Wilkinson Bay and Bay Jimmy located west of the Mississippi where much of the worst oiling occurred.

“There’s still pockets of [oil] in the marsh. … You know, there’s little potholes all through the grasses and when the tide comes up, it pushes [the oil] up there. … You can’t really tell from the photos [see slide show above], but when we were in Bay Batiste looking down into the water we could see it from the boat — you could see oil streaks on the bottom. You could see streaks of oil laying on the bottom. And as soon as we stopped the boat, tar balls popped up and you could smell it — there was oil there.”

On the loss of wetlands:

“It’s accelerated — the grass that died off, there’s nothing left there to hold the silt, and the wave action washes it a lot quicker when there’s nothing to hold it.”

On the future:

“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they’re going to clean it up or — how do you even get to it [the oil below the surface]? I’m sure somebody knows how.”

And here’s my little bit of a gulf observation:

In commemoration of the anniversary of the disaster and thinking of the Chauvins, who run a shrimping company and were struggling when I met them last year, I went out and found some wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico to boil. Tasted OK.

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