The Poisoning

Page 2 of 6

It would be tempting to dismiss such sentiments as the unfounded fears of a local resident, one whose economic livelihood depends on the Gulf, if it weren't for all that we know about the nature of oil spills. Crude oil contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemical compounds, many of which are lethal in high concentrations. As soon as oil began erupting out of BP's well and into the water, the compounds in the oil began to separate, some drifting up to the surface, others remaining near the bottom, where they will inevitably spread a toxic brew into the cellular structure of virtually every plant and animal in the Gulf, from microscopic plankton all the way up to sperm whales. Even worse, BP has responded to the disaster by pumping nearly 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf in an effort to break up the oil into smaller, camera-friendly slicks. The cleanup operation, in effect, has turned the Gulf into a vast science experiment, one whose consequences – untested and unforeseeable – are likely to haunt the planet for decades to come.

After lunch at the Starfish, I drive a mile or so down the road. Grand Isle is a thin spit of land on the edge of the bayou. It's a place known for sport fishing – the annual tarpon festival draws thousands of people each year. The houses along the road all back up to the beach, and they are built on 15-foot stilts so the water can rush under them. In the early days of the spill, the sand dunes here were jammed with reporters from the major networks, all of them strolling along, picking up oil-covered bottles and rocks in lame attempts to help viewers understand the enormity of the tragedy. President Obama visited Grand Isle in late May, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has swung through here repeatedly. On the worst days, the oil flowed up on the beaches in ribbons, sticking to the sand like big black cobwebs. The smell was bad, too – a heavy, metallic, stomach-churning odor of volatilizing chemicals, of benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It was the smell of cancer.

Today – Day 68 – the smell remains. A red fence has been erected along the beach, accompanied by a string of yellow crime-scene tape that reads no admittance. A few shrimp boats, their booms lowered to collect oil, bob out in the distance. The beach is paved with the heavy footprint of vehicle tracks. A few hundred yards away, there's a big white tent pitched on the sand. Workers are lifting plastic bags into a Dumpster – the last of the oil they have sopped up from the beach. Rumors around Grand Isle are that BP is using tents like these to cover up environmental horrors beyond anything that has been reported. One local resident tells me that he has it on good authority that BP is shredding sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins at sea, then bringing them to shore and disposing of their remains. Impossible to imagine, but who knows? "You should never put the murderer in charge of the crime scene," says Carl Safina, a noted ecologist who has spent a lot of time in the Gulf observing the cleanup. "Their impulse is always to hide the body."

I walk up to a security guard, who is stationed under a small tent on a sand dune. He is about 30, works for Talon Security, a BP subcontractor. He looks sour and angry. He won't reveal his name. But we start talking. He tells me he's from California and that he is only out here because he has a new wife and baby, and needs a few extra bucks. So he stands out on the beach all day – different beaches on different days – and makes sure tourists and sightseers and reporters don't get too close.

I ask him how long he's been here. "Since Day 12," he says. "It depresses the shit out of me. I never thought I'd see something like this happen in my lifetime."

"It doesn't look so bad today," I say.

"Have you touched the water?"

"Not here."

We walk down to the beach, put our hands in the surf. "Feel that?" he says.

I raise my hand. It's sticky, coated with a thin film of . . . something.

"Oil," he says. "It's everywhere."

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