By Hillary Hafner, Petrochemical Accident Researcher
Greetings. My name is Hillary Hafner. I’m currently an undergraduate student majoring in marine biology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska. I’m from New Orleans and have returned home for the summer to fulfill an internship with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
On Friday, June 28th, the Refinery Efficiency Initiative team traveled to Grand Isle, Louisiana and greeted the beaches of Elmer’s Island with glass jars and trash bags. We scoured the beaches for tar balls and trash in the morning, using white trash bags to separate cans and plastics from other miscellaneous garbage for recycling later on, and black trash bags for garbage that would be weighed and disposed of afterwards by a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries official. Our clean-up site was home to endangered Osprey and Sandpipers. However, the site was also a favorite spot for fishermen and families as it allowed for automobiles to be driven all along the beach. This contributed to an array of trash: fishing lures, cigarette butts, plastic containers for lighter and automotive fluids, discarded trash cans and toys, ropes, nets, beer and soda cans. We even dug up part of a steering wheel that had become lodged beneath the fence line that distinguished protected nesting areas from the rest of the beach.
Some members of the REI team brought glass jars to collect tar balls in. Initially hearing the term “tar balls,” I pictured small, neat balls of tar strewn across the beach, easily identified and removed. What “tar balls” turned out to be were hard, brown, semi-flexible masses of condensed oil littering the beach from water to fence line. They ranged in size from small, scattered fragments to the size of bricks that only got larger as we pulled them from the sand. The one I collected was too big to fit in a 24 ounce jar and had to be broken up. Pulling it apart revealed a soft, brown inner lining of still-moist oil encased in dry, crusty, darker oil, the entire thing taking on the look of dried magma. We started a bag exclusively for tar ball collection.
The sight of tar balls became more disheartening as we filled our bags. Fragments were hard to distinguish from natural beach debris and sizable tar balls were usually bigger than expected. They were, to our dismay, superabundant. It was clear why even three years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill the beach is closed to the public Monday thru Thursday so that workers can come to remove these tar balls. The amount of trash dispersed along the beach was unbelievable as well. In just an hour and a half, we filled multiple black and white trash bags. The tar ball bag was getting heavy and the heat was becoming unbearable. Coated in sand and with beginning signs of sunburn, we helped transport the trash bags to the weighing area and adjourned for lunch beneath a gazebo.
We gathered our beach gear and set out to bask on a less frequented beach of Grand Isle after lunch. Enjoying each other’s company under the shade of a pop-up canopy, the REI team watched brown pelicans swoop and dive for fish. We hadn’t been there for more than an hour before dolphins arrived, joining in the feeding frenzy taking place not a quarter mile from shore. They came and went throughout the day, giving us a spectacular display and jumps and flips later that evening. Some of us swam in the Gulf along with Grand Isle residents and fellow tourists, regardless of the things we witnessed earlier that day. Others strolled along the coast, admiring hermit crabs and sand dollars amongst other beach anomalies.
Around 5 o’clock it was time to pack up and head back to New Orleans. Although I am a New Orleans native, it had been over a decade since I’d last seen Grand Isle. Looking beyond the pelicans, shorebirds, and dolphins, I saw several rig platforms dominating the horizon of the expansive Gulf. According to our partners at SkyTruth, there are approximately 50,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico, 28,000 of which are abandoned. The platforms that we could see from either the beach or bridges on our way out of Grand Isle were only a handful of the thousands out there. Thinking of the work we did that day, I know less time will pass until my next trip to Grand Isle and hope that both locals and visitors find the motivation to visit Grand Isle with intent to enjoy and restore the beaches of this coastal Louisiana gem.