June 7th, 2010
12:19 PM ET

Trip to Gulf islands shows scale of cleanup efforts yet to come

David Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

ON NORTHSHORE BAY, Louisiana—It’s difficult to imagine the scale and depth of the back breaking work that lies ahead for Louisiana and the other Gulf states until you spend some time on the water with people whose job it is to protect the environment.

Along with CNN Photojournalist Orlando Ruiz, I took a five hour trip to look at only a few of the hundreds of marsh islands that dot the Mississippi Delta country at the very tip of Louisiana. Taking us on the tour was the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, custodians of the estimated 15,000 miles of coastline that make the state unique.

I took the trip in preparation for a planned CNN Special Investigations Unit report that later this week on AC 360° that will examine the Minerals Management Service. The MMS is an agency within the Department of Interior that has proven to be a key player in the oil spill crisis, even though with all the coverage given the spill, few Americans know of the agency and fewer still know what it does.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/06/07/fitz1_web.jpg caption="Oil soaked boom on island at entrance to Gulf of Mexico"]

The MMS, as one oil industry expert told me, is the nation’s landlord of all of the oil and gas tenants in the Gulf. The latest count is that there are something like 4,000 or so oil or gas platforms and the MMS deals with all of them.

Like a landlord, the MMS takes in rent—the royalties that companies like British Petroleum pay to the U.S. treasury for the privilege of operating either close in or deep water drilling platforms. And the MMS also has a statutory duty to inspect those rigs, take careful note of the safety and overall conditions of the rigs and, if necessary, deny permits to drill or continue drilling.

But if the MMS fails in its job, or as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in late May, it has a “cozy” relationship with the oil companies that it’s supposed to regulate, then you can see the real world impact on the islands we saw near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Oil began arriving at NorthShore Bay in Louisiana two weeks ago, according to the Wildlife and Fisheries Department. On our tour, you could see miles and miles of booms laid around the marsh islands. But under a blazing sun, it was also clear that most of the booms had become fully saturated. Oil was not only seeping into the roso-cane reeds that dominate the islands but it had also broken through the containment booms. The roso-cane reeds closest to the edge of the water had already been destroyed. Small wisps of green leaf on the very top of the reeds were the only visible sign of life.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/06/07/fitz2_web.jpg caption="Destroyed marsh reeds near Gulf of Mexico"]

Sgt. Ray Champagne of the Wildlife and Fisheries began telling his headquarters that the booms had become saturated and that new ones needed to be brought out to the islands. He gave the exact coordinates but soon gave up and told his superiors that every boom he saw needed to be replaced.

Sgt. Champagne also had one other piece of unhappy news. As we rode along the Mississippi River, he pointed out that the water level was unusually high. By the end of the month, he added, the water is bound to decrease, making oil contamination that much more certain.

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