An oil-spill warrior and a flight along the coast

Orange Beach, AL, with no tar in sight—for the time being, anyway.

For the past year Steve Jenkins has been thinking a lot about beaches. As slicks of BP oil began making their way across the Gulf toward the Alabama shore last April, the staff of his Field Operations Division of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) went into high gear, and they haven’t stopped yet. No one knows when they will be able to ease up, because no one can predict when the threat of tar balls washing up on Alabama’s pristine beaches will finally be put to rest.

Nat and I caught up with Steve over dinner last week in New Orleans (Note: the long gap since the last post is due to my having spent several weeks back in the frozen north tending to CGEE business followed by some vacation). Steve has been flying to New Orleans in ADEM’s eight-seat Cessna with pilot William Johnston nearly every week to represent Alabama in meetings of the Unified Command, the group that coordinates plans for fighting the spill.  The next day, William took us up in the Cessna so that we could have a look at the coastline for ourselves.

Alabama’s fine-grained, sugar-white beaches—a gift of eroding mica from the Appalachain Mountains—draw the tourists whose spending accounts for thirty percent of the state’s gross sales tax receipts.  This leads Steve to conclude that the economic impact of the spill has been greater on Alabama than even on Louisiana, where coastal wetlands and estuarine fishing areas soiled by BP oil have gotten more media attention. Steve is sure his counterpart from Louisiana would beg to differ.

Alabama's soiled beaches at their worst. Images provided by Steve Jenkins

Through ADEM’s Operation Deep Clean, which we documented earlier (see The Perils of Petrol), Steve’s team has been methodically removing the tar that has washed up on the beaches. As a result, in our own beachcombing and in views of the shoreline from above, the only evidence of the spill we could see were the small tar balls that continue to wash ashore along the breakline, and Steve is proud of the success to date of the monumental cleanup effort. But he continues to worry about the large mats of tar that he said are lurking near shore between sand bars that parallel the beach in many places. These, he said, could be stirred up by heavy storms and hurricanes and continue to tarnish beach sands. He also agrees with assessments that there are still large quantities of oil on the floor of the Gulf near the site of the Macondo wellhead, which is the source of the BP disaster (interestingly, the name Macondo is also that of a cursed town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude).

While we saw no evidence of the oil spill, our coastal overflight revealed some of the myriad ways that human activities have altered environments along the shore. Patterns emerge that you’d never see from ground, of both the wonderful asymmetries and irregular shapes nature has created, and the striking geometries of human enterprise.

Click here for a gallery of coastal images from the air.

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