A Crude Awakening in the Gulf of Mexico

Scientists are just beginning to grasp how profoundly oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has devastated the region

The Gulf catastrophe will have far-reaching effects, which scientists have only begun to study. (Dave Martin / AP Images)
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Jim Cowan’s friend and colleague Ralph Portier paces impatiently along the edge of Barataria Bay, on the inland shore of Grand Isle. He is a boyish-faced man whose rounded initial t’s give away his Cajun heritage. “I want to get to work so bad,” he says.

Portier, an environmental biologist at Louisiana State, specializes in bioremediation—the use of specialized bacteria, fungi and plants to digest toxic waste. Bioremediation gets little public attention, and fiddling with the ecosystem does carry risks, but the technique has been used for decades, quietly and often effectively, to help clean up society’s most stubborn messes. Portier has used bioremediation on sites ranging from a former mothball factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a 2006 Citgo spill near Lake Charles, Louisiana, in which two million gallons of waste oil flowed into a nearby river and bayou following a violent storm. He has collected promising organisms from all over the world, and labels on the samples of microorganisms in his lab freezers and refrigerators betray a litany of disasters. “Name a Superfund site, and it’s in there,” he says.

All but the most toxic of toxic waste sites have their own naturally occurring suite of microorganisms, busily chewing away at whatever was spilled, dumped or abandoned. Sometimes Portier simply encourages these existing organisms by adding the appropriate fertilizers; other times he adds bacterial reinforcements.

Portier points out that other oil-spill cleanup techniques—booms, shovels, skimmers, even paper towels—may make a site look better but leave a toxic residue. The rest of the job is usually accomplished by oil-eating bacteria (which are already at work on the BP spill) digesting the stuff in marshes and at sea. Even in a warm climate like the Gulf coast, the “bugs,” as Portier calls them, can’t eat fast enough to save the marsh grasses—or the entire web of other plants and animals affected by the spill. But he thinks his bugs could speed the natural degradation process and make the difference between recovery and disappearance for a great deal of oily marshland. Desperate to give it a try, he is waiting for permits to test his technique. He says his biological reactors, large black plastic tanks sitting idle at the water’s edge, could make some 30,000 gallons of bacterial solution a day—enough to treat more than 20 acres—at a cost of about 50 cents a gallon. “I really think I could help clean this thing up,” he says.

Like Cowan, Portier worries about the three-dimensional nature of the BP spill. As the millions of gallons of oil from the broken well slowly rises to the surface in coming months, it will wash ashore again and again, creating, in effect, recurrent spills on the beaches and marshlands. “Here, the legacy is in the ocean, not on the beach,” Portier says. “This spill is going to give us different kinds of challenges for years to come.”

Yet Portier is more optimistic than Cowan. If he can employ his bugs on the Louisiana coast, he says, salt marsh and other wetland habitat could start recovering in a matter of months. “My ideal scenario for next spring is that we fly over the bayous of Barataria and see this huge green band of vegetation coming back,” he says.

Portier has a personal stake in the spill. He was raised just west of Barataria Bay. He and his eight siblings have four PhDs and a dozen master’s degrees among them. They now live all over the Southeast but return to Bayou Petit Caillou several times a year. Oil has already appeared at the mouth of his home bayou.

When Portier was growing up, he remembers, hurricanes were a part of life. If a storm threatened, his entire family—uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents—would squeeze into his parents’ house, which sat on relatively high ground. As the storm roared over them, his relatives would telephone their homes down the bayou. If the call went through, they knew their house was still there. If they got a busy signal, that meant a problem.

Today, what Portier hears in the marshes—or doesn’t hear—is worse than a busy signal. “It’s the new Silent Spring in there,” he says. “You usually hear birds singing, crickets chirping, a whole cacophony of sound. Now, you hear yourself paddling, and that’s it.”

He hopes it won’t be long before the marshes once again pulse with chirps, croaks and screeches. “When I hear crickets and birds again in those marshes, that’s how I’ll know,” he says. “That’s how I’ll know the phone is ringing.”


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