Lost in Purgatorio

As Harvey drew a bead on the Texas coast last week, the Motiva and Exxon refineries went into a controlled shutdown in the face of massive flooding in Beaumont and Port Arthur. Irma is heading to Miami. Highlighting, again, the precarious balance of the modern world and Mother Nature. I headed to Venice, Louisiana to check on how those stuck in the middle of this strange marriage were faring.

DRESSED FOR DUCK HUNTING against the chill rain and the 40-degree weather, we weren’t looking for game. Manning McPherson, a contractor from Mobile, warned me before we set out in his fishing boat that the maps printed fifteen years ago were useless. “It’s mostly open water now.” Speeding past the islands that should have been there but weren’t, the wildly functioning depth finder went from 13 feet to six the flat in a matter of seconds. He takes the boat on what appears to be a random arc. “It’s like driving through a mine field,” he shouts over the wind snapping past us, “If you go a certain way without trouble, just keep going that way.”

A few hours earlier, I’d been in the bar at the Cypress Cove Marina in Venice, Louisiana, a tiny enclave of sport and commercial fisherman and oil industry vessels. It is mostly marsh and harbor out here; the furthest you can go without boat or seaplane. Above me, a sign read:

The End of the World — 1/2, Mile Cypress Cove — 1 Mile

Which is about as apt a description of Venice there is. If you are looking for a firm grasp on the state of the environment, you need to speak to people who spend a lot of time outdoors. Manning’s photo album spans some thirty years of fishing and shooting into the area, but the marsh passes in those pictures have been transformed. By some estimates, 2,300 square miles of wetlands have been eroded in the area over the last eighty years. “You can’t blame the coastal erosion on BP. Before the oil companies went offshore they dug canals that sliced up the marshes to service the inland wells. That’s what started it. That and the hurricanes.”

There is no marker dividing the end of the Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico, but in a fiberglass fishing boat you feel the churning of the river underfoot. Beyond us, to the southeast, lies the Mocando oil field: the site of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill which was capped — after an 87 day spew — in September of 2010. It is surrounded by a paradise for sports fishermen.

THE DAY BEFORE I WAS WARM AND DRY and eating a bowl of crawfish étoufée with the president of the Big Game Fishing Club, Jacques Kuchta, a New Orleans stockbroker. His father started one of the first offshore catering services when the oil companies moved out into the gulf. As a younger man, Jacques worked on the rigs in Venice as well as in Africa and the Middle East for several years. During a coup, he spent a weekend in an Angolan prison before moving to the relatively civilized world of investment banking. “Was BP the best corporate citizen?” he asked me rhetorically, “No. But privately, most folks in Venice would fly and BP flag if you sent it to them.”

The energy sector is more than just the largest single economic driver in the region, Jacque explains. “The oil companies are the reason the fishing here is some of the best in the world. Since the oil platforms first started appearing in the Gulf in the late 1950s, natural reefs have grown around the piles supporting them, creating vertical fisheries — at different depths for different species — much larger and diverse that the horizontal reefs along the floor.” Basically, it’s a high-rise condo for marine life. Wave action and the odd hurricane will break the heavier pieces of reef off the rigging, which drift down to settle on the gulf floor. The end result is spectacular populations of red snapper, amberjack and tuna at the higher levels and teaming numbers of spiny lobster downstairs.

The oil companies, it should be pointed out, did not set out to create massive fisheries. Whether they meant to or not, their success and failures have long been linked to the region. So it was in horror, in 2010, that the modern world watched one of their titanic failures claim the lives of 11 people and shoot some 134 million gallons of crude oil into this sporting paradise.

Unsure of the affect the spill might have on the waters that supply about 40% of the nation’s seafood, a yearlong ban on fishing was enacted. The suddenly out-of-work fishing fleet, almost to a boat, signed up as “vessels of opportunity” for BP’s clean-up effort. The pay was good, better than actually fishing. It staved off financial collapse in the area, but attracted the inevitable disaster speculators. According to BP, the cleanup efforts employed about 48,000, swamping the tiny town with what was euphemistically (and without much affection) called “Spillionares.”

IT WASN’T JUST A SPORTING PARADISE that was threatened, though. I spoke to Joel Donis, a chef by trade and training, now an entrepreneur responsible for, among several other operations, the confectionary called Sucre — which snared my wife and daughter like Death Star tractor beam the last time we were walking down Magazine Street.

“BP was tough in a couple of ways…” Dondis said. “New Orleans had a couple of world happenings that shook it up quite a bit.” His list of ‘world happenings’ extends past BP and even Katrina back to the 9/11 attacks on the world trade center. With air travel suddenly no fun, cramped and scary, New Orleans corporate and entertainment business dropped off a cliff. “Those corporate booking are often made five years out, so a single scare is felt for a long time.” No small matter in place that has yet to become the moneymaker that its French colonists envisioned 300 years ago.

About the time air-travel hysteria was starting to recede, along came Katrina with all its destructive “city ablaze” press glory. Five years later came the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Each in its own way eroded people’s confidence in the city. Dondis, a board member of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said, “We commissioned studies that found out that the top word people associated with New Orleans was ‘Adventure.’” Evidently, the city had become a little too adventurous. “Katrina and BP reached into the soul of what a place in known for. I mean, if the food is tainted, you’re doomed….”

The restaurant business, in any city, is not a high-margin enterprise — a 10% drop can easily shutter a restaurant, and New Orleans was looking at a 25% drop across the board.

Within months of the spill, however, something almost no one predicted happened. The crude oil out in the gulf seemed to have vanished. Fleets of captains were headed out to open water every day, but they couldn’t find anything. After a year of meticulously sampling the fish population, and finding the toxicity level unchanged, the fishing ban was lifted. “It does matter, scientifically, if fish were tainted.” Said Dondis, “But from a customer standpoint, all that matters is perception.”

For the locals, it was a different story. In 2015, Kutcha told me, fishing rodeos up and down the coast are producing record numbers of sailfish, and size records have broken for both tuna and tarpon. The worst lingering effects of the clean-up, to go by the grousing around the marinas, is that too many of those speculators who came for the clean-up, bought new boats and equipment on BP’s dime, stayed in the area as fishing captains. According to one long time industry veteran, the wonderfully named Jimmy Gringo, they posed a greater threat to the fishing stock than the oil spill.

THE STRONG CURRENT that comes from the south through the Caribbean separates near the where the Mississippi meets the gulf. One stream breaks east, hugs the coast of Florida and flow out into the Atlantic as the famous Gulf Stream. The other current breaks west and hugs the coastline of Texas and what used to be called the Spanish Main. According to a report of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) five years after the spill, much of the exposed oil in the open water began to break down and sink within a week. Those strong currents did the rest.

The battered and sliced up marshes and coastlines haven’t faired so well. There is still some speculation as to whether the oil or the dispersants used in the clean up — which caused the oil to drop into the shallows — did more damage to the marsh. Like a filter, the grasses held onto the chemicals, killing the root system that anchored the islands in place. Natural events like Hurricane Isaac in 2012 did a fair job of washing away the dying grass with further erosion, but it also stirred up the shallows and re-oiled the marshes.

In defending nature, people who don’t spend much time therein will cast it as a benign force. This is news to the folks subject to those windy tantrums designed to drive everyone out of the neighborhood. The problem for the modern American is that you can’t blame anyone for this. Blaming nature for being itself is as pointless as blaming a puppy for being an adorable idiot. BP can reach a settlement and Mother Nature cannot. As Jimmy Gringo sees it, the Deepwater Horizon spill has become a Katrinaesque boogeyman with a checkbook.

That makes the people with checkbooks nervous — it should. Everyone I called for this story was nice and polite, but better than half the people said, with honest charm, some form of: “Look, I’d love to help you out, and we’re trying to do the right thing. But I can’t speak to the press.” Inevitably, their firm did a lot of business with BP or one of the other oil companies. This wasn’t exactly evasion. To a man they each gave me a couple of names of people who might be freer to talk. But they generally weren’t either. After the economic beating the area got after the media melodrama during the spill, I wouldn’t speak to me either.

If there is a blessing in disguise — and no one can tease a good thing out of the fearsome disguise like the people of the Gulf Coast — it is that both the checkbook and the disaster brought the long standing dire conditions of this paradise to the national spotlight. Even if BP is paying for some sins it didn’t directly commit, the general feeling is that, with low oil prices, those penalties make future industry carelessness a very expensive vice.

In 2013, the company pled guilty to 14 criminal charges and paid four billon in criminal penalties. In October of 2015, a global settlement was reached with the Justice department for $20.6 billion. In that number is some seven billion to the affected states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Texas — to be paid out over 18 years, and five billion in Clean Water Act penalties. Nearly nine billion is earmarked for gulf restoration to support and rebuild coastal wetlands and wildlife populations. Or at least that’s what the politicians are claiming. Out just beyond the end of the world in Plaquemines Parish there is constant grumbling that money to rebuild the Louisiana coastline is being spent in Shreveport — a city closer to Arkansas than the Gulf.

Still, In June of 2014, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana began a drive — funded with a $1 million donation from Shell Oil — to collect over 2.5 million pounds of Oyster shells to build a half-mile long reef. Which was about the same time that the Army Corp of Engineers started recycling the solids from its dredging operations in the Mississippi to rebuild some of the marsh islands.

“If we are going to be in the energy business, then spills are going to happen.” Said Kuchta, “but we need to learn from them. We need to innovate.” His wife, Julie Kuchta, along with ship pilot Michael Miller, recently developed Onboard Oil Containment Systems(OBOCS) to deploy containment booms immediately from a ship or a platform, as opposed to waiting up to several hours for support to arrive. Other advances in the energy sector include intelligent well monitoring and measures to lower methane bleed in pipelines.

“And that nine billion dollars for coastal restoration,” I asked Jacque, “do you think it will actually be used to rebuild the ailing coastline?”

There is a look — paired with a helpless shrug — Louisianans get when they talk about things political. I’ve seen it in Latin America and the Middle East. It is the look of people deciding to find humor in something that isn’t even remotely funny. Kuchta laughs and shrugs, “The legislature just voted to use some of the money to build a raised highway.”

THE WIND WAS ABOUT TO BLOW THE HAT I’d borrowed from Manning off my head on our return trip when the depth finder went flat again. Was this weird paradise really lost? Were we squandering the chance to find it again? Or are we, like so much of life, existing somewhere in between? Are we lost in purgatorio, solving our problems the best we can?

“We haven’t got enough rum to get grounded out here all night.” Was Manning’s assessment of our most pressing situation. Expertly, he wheeled the vessel around sharply and then we were pulling a more sensible four and a half feet. “An island used to be there.”

After a lifetime in the outdoors, Manning is somewhat philosophical about the situation. “Look, the earth is a living thing, and living things change.”

Politicians, evidently, do not.

Originally Published in Whiskey/Barrel

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