The Dirty South? No; More Like Dirty Cleanup Efforts

Douglas Doneson

Early May…

With law school final exams a few days away, keeping up with current events was the last thing on my mind. But this past May, the BP oil spill was literally all over the place. Prior to transplanting to New Orleans for my summer internship, I applied to every volunteer site I could to help clean up oil covered wildlife, restore beaches, and clean the marshes. I expected to be busy every weekend cleaning oil-covered birds and being a part of an all-hand-on-deck effort. In reality, the HAZMAT training, BP certification, and paraprofessional experience kept many potential volunteers away.  I did follow through however, and after completing the HAZMAT training and BP certification online (where I answered 3 or 4 questions about putting on gloves correctly and whether I knew what to do if I became dehydrated), I applied for the more demanding and risky volunteer positions such as handling and cleaning oil covered wildlife.  As a former veterinary technician and zoo keeper I had paraprofessional training too. To my surprise, very few of my emails or phone calls were returned.             

In my frustration I called the Audubon Society in Washington D.C. who informed me that BP had contracted with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Center and all wildlife clean up volunteer opportunities would be handled by Tri-State. Tri-State is based out of New Jersey and they have a history of partnering with government agencies in oil spill response.  But, Tri-State a small organization, could not handle the volunteer response associated with this massive spill. The reason none of my emails were returned is because their small computer system froze.  The reason none of my calls were being returned was because the National Resource Center, who takes calls concerning everything from maritime security to oil spills, was listed on Tri-State’s website under contact information.  The NRC, based in Washington D.C., never got the message to Tri-State in New Jersey to help coordinate wild life clean up opportunities in Louisiana. It seems like a roundabout way to coordinate a much needed, timely response effort.

Mid May…

Fed up, stressed out by finals, and worried about Louisiana, I called the Audubon Society again. It seemed as though they had enough of the zero response from Tri-State too. They sent one of their representatives from Washington D.C. equipped with a car and Blackberry to New Orleans to help coordinate wildlife clean up opportunities on the ground.  Since he was coordinating logistics he didn’t have time to do any cleaning. So the Audubon Society had to use their volunteers partnered with BP’s independently contracted drivers to take wildlife to rehab centers, volunteer supervisors, and on site escorts.

Early June…

The representative from the Audubon Society scheduled my zoo keeper friend, Rene and I to volunteer in Cocodrie, Louisiana.  We left New Orleans at 8:00am and arrived at 11:00am. BP converted a fishing resort on the water into a base camp. There were large air conditioned tents everywhere, some of them catered with food, limousines driving through checkpoint security, “No Media Allowed” signs everywhere, and people leisurely walking around the premises. It reminded me of being back stage at a music festival; all that was missing was a funnel cake stand.

I began to talk to a few security guards, who didn’t look older than 21.  They informed me that BP was paying them close to a thousand dollars a day to stand in a blue shirt with a badge and not let media on to the premises.

When our escort arrived, not looking at all prepared to catch and clean birds, he walked us to Audubon’s response camp, while smoking a cigarette and showing us pictures of his wife and kids on his iPhone. At the response camp, there were three people just sitting.  I asked them what experience they had handling birds. One man said he hunts, a young lady had no experience, and the driver had no experience with birds.  His job was to take birds found in Cocodrie LA to the Ft. Jackson rehab center.

I asked the hunter if he had caught any birds since he had been in Cocodrie. He said he caught a bird a few days ago: “she was flying around and we chased her down until she was exhausted and landed in the water, then we grabbed her, here’s a picture on my iPhone.” Sadly, the bird had a broken wing but it was not a result of the small amount of oil on it. The broken wing came from mishandling as a result of no prior bird handling experience.

These people were not volunteers like my friend and I. They were being paid by BP to “clean and rescue birds.” But in actuality they were injuring healthy birds. Healthy, in nature is a relative concept. Almost all wild animals have parasites, injuries, etc. Before a person, educated in wildlife recovery, catches an animal they must weigh its injury against the stress the animal will go through when it is caught, but I digress.  The word on the street is that BP hired a ton of state employees to do this type of work to show their commitment to restoring devastated communities.  My friend and I asked a few more questions and then at around 1:00pm, the hunter asked us to leave because it was supposed to rain at 4:00pm and, as a result, they were done looking for birds for the day.  Just to provide some context, in southern Louisiana, in the summertime, it rains everyday at 4:00pm for about 20 minutes. It’s called living in the sub-tropics. I really hope they didn’t stop working everyday at 1:00pm. Anyways, we left.

The BP oil spill is really a sad situation.  For a moment I believed that many of the entities involved meant well, but just had logistical issues which hindered their cleanup efforts. Then I heard accounts of training sessions for volunteers being circumvented, prisoners (who were told to say they were with a church) being used to clean up hazardous waste, toxic “dispersants” like Corexit 9527 and 9500 being used to make oil less visible (please click the dispersants link then the Corexit link and compare), and total political cronyism (left and right) on the federal level. We are not witnessing a cleanup; it’s a cover-up.  BP is dropping huge sums of money on the cleanup so they can appear as if they are doing everything in their power. But as a result of all the independent contracting and insufficient local involvement there is no accountability for the cleanup efforts. President Obama took BP’s “however many millions of dollars” to give to people on the gulf coast to keep them quiet. As for the cleanup, I guess we will never know, considering we’ve all been seeing the same recycled images of the oil spill on the news anyway.

If you have any interest in helping out with oil spill-affected wildlife, please contact the Louisiana Animal Response Team (lsart.org) or the National Audubon Society (Audubon.org). These two organizations were very reliable and responsive to me during my summer in New Orleans.

8 Responses

  1. Love the spread of awareness! Keep it up! I hope more organizations step up to help with this effort. It really is sad. Great work Doug.

  2. Great article, Doug. Seems to be standard operating protocol for disasters in Lousiana… Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is really messed up. Why is it not getting any other coverage?

  4. Hey Douglas,
    Can’t believe that we never met down there. Thanks for this blog, and hope you don’t mind that I reposted it. You might be interested in some of my earlier posts describing leaving birds to die on colonies, and lack of response to Raccoon Island. Thanks for your work.

  5. Thanks for writing about this. I am going to quote you and link to you in a timeline about Wildlife and the Oil Spill. This must have been terribly frustrating for you. Thank you for perservering in spite of all of that.

  6. oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills `,~

  7. all gooooooooooooooooood

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