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Sickeningly slick situation

I took my first trip to Grand Isle, La., nearly 20 years ago.

My then-fiancee’s family had a house there, a camp of sorts, and several couples decided we’d take an extended weekend get-away.

Grand Isle, if you’ve never been, is anything but glamorous. Located at the southern-most tip of Louisiana, the island is a hodgepodge of fishing camps and beach cabins, weathered from years of storms and the wear and tear of hard living. The people who frequent Grand Isle go not for sandy white beaches or fancy dining and plentiful shopping. They go for the fishing, for the atmosphere and the culture that is Grand Isle and uniquely south Louisianan.

From the deck of the house we could sit and watch the brown waters of the Gulf of Mexico slowly lap at the beach some 50 yards away. On the horizon, we could see the shrimp boats and charters heading out to sea. And we could see the oil platforms, an odd site for this Mississippi Gulf Coast-raised girl who was used to seeing only skies, seas and ships on the horizons.

We talked then about how odd it was to see the drilling platforms in the distance. I struggled to reconcile the sight, but several among us made their living from the oil industry – from investors to gasoline distributors – and their perspective was a different one. The reserves in the Gulf of Mexico were vast and plentiful, important to our economy, even then. The offshore drilling in places like Grand Isle was welcomed, ironically, by the locals as well, who cared not about pristine beaches but about plentiful oil; good-paying jobs; and the reality that the platforms made for good fishing, if you knew where to drop your lines. It was a good thing, they said reassuringly.

Twenty years later, in nearby Venice an oil platform is at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it rests after exploding nearly two weeks ago. Leaks in the pipeline of that active oil well are gushing a conservative estimate of 200,000 gallons of oil each day into the same Gulf of Mexico, creating a massive oil slick that will create a environmental and economic catastrophe that few can imagine.

The best description I’ve read was offered by Kerry St. Pe, an environmentalist who has headed Louisiana’s oil spill response team for 23 years. “This isn’t a spill,” he said. “This isn’t a storage tank or a ship with a finite amount of oil that has boundaries. This is much, much worse.”

It is, he described, a river of oil that continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Threatened by that river are dozens of species of fish and their eggs, which could be killed by the oily water; the birds, such as the brown pelican (only recently removed from the endangered species list) the reddish egret, a strictly coastal bird which has nowhere to go if its feeding and nesting grounds are fouled by oil, the mottled duck, which lives in coastal salt marshes, which are likely to be devastated by the oil slick, royal terns, which nest on barrier islands and beaches, and the snowy plover, which feeds on oysters and is in danger if oil comes on shore; and even the sea turtles, which nest along the islands and beaches. Two national wildlife refuge areas are in the path of the oil slick, threatening countless species of animals who call those areas home.

And then there is the seafood industry: oyster beds likely will be devastated; shrimp and fish harvests inevitably will be impacted. Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana already has sought federal disaster declarations for the state, knowing that the men and women who make their living from shrimping or fishing or harvesting oysters likely won’t be able to do so this year.

Of course, that’s just Louisiana. The less-talked about concern is how far this oil slick will spread. Forecasters warn that it likely will affect coastlines in Mississippi and Alabama, maybe even Florida. With the volume of oil being pumped into the Gulf, the convergence of tides and southerly winds, and the inability of scientists to stop the flow, how can it not spread? My childhood home sits less than a block from an inlet of the Mississippi Sound. If this oil spill – oil river? oil slick? – spreads as many predict, its impact will reach there, as well. I wonder how the beaches I frequented as a child – Horn Island, for example – will change in the weeks and months to come. The barrier island was always an escape for us, a pristine and untamed beach that drew scores of visitors each weekend to its secluded shores. It likely will be marred by this river of oil, and that infuriates me, if for no other reason than it seems a lack of concern and response is exacerbating the situation.

This oil platform exploded on April 21, and oil began leaking almost the same day. Yet, only a week later did the oil slick begin to draw national attention. Why? The questions beg answers: Why was no one better prepared to respond when the oil rig sank and the river of oil began to flow? Why is no one decrying the government’s slow response to this disaster?

Luckily, I have my memories of Grand Isle and Horn Island and every place in between, hours and days and years spent on beaches and boats savoring the beauty that we took for granted growing up along the Gulf of Mexico. If, as environmentalists warn, this singular event is as bad – or worse than – the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, those memories are even more valuable.

“It’s (going to be) a constant flow for months,” St. Pe told the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. “This is something a lot of people will be living with for a long time.”

And it’s something we never imagined could happen when we sat on the deck of that Grand Isle house all those years ago.

Stacy Graning is publisher of The Messenger. She can be reached via e-mail at stacy.graning@troymessenger.com.