Image: Oil-soaked pelican flees official
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
A Louisiana Fish and Wildlife officer unsuccessfully pursues an oil-soaked pelican in Barataria Bay on Sunday.
updated 5/23/2010 6:28:38 PM ET 2010-05-23T22:28:38

As officials approached to survey the damage the Gulf oil spill caused in coastal marshes, some brown pelicans couldn't fly away Sunday. All they could do was hobble.

Several pelicans were coated in oil on Barataria Bay off Louisiana, their usually brown and white feathers now jet black. Pelican eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk, and new hatchlings and nests were also coated with crude.

It is unclear if the area can even be cleaned, or if the birds can be saved. It is also unknown how much of the Gulf Coast will end up looking the same way because of a well that has spewed untold millions of gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded more than a month ago.

"As we talk, a total of more than 65 miles of our shoreline now has been oiled," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced new efforts to keep the spill from spreading.

With oil pushing at least 12 miles into Louisiana's marshes and two major pelican rookeries now coated in crude, state officials said they are taking part of the response to the Gulf of Mexico spill into their own hands.

Jindal, who visited one of the affected nesting grounds Sunday, said the berms would close the door on oil still pouring from a mile-deep gusher about 50 miles out in the Gulf. The berms would be made with sandbags and sand hauled in; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is considering a broader plan that would use dredging to build sand berms across more of the barrier islands.

Jindal said the state has already identified and started initial work on 40 sites for the berms, but will keep pushing for federal approval, which would free up Corps-controlled dredges for the operation. A single state-owned dredge was activated for the effort Friday.

At least 6 million gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf, though some scientists have said they believe the spill already surpasses the 11 million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska as the worst in U.S. history.

In Barataria Bay, orange oil had made its way a good six inches onto the shore, coating grasses and the nests of brown pelicans in mangrove trees. Just six months ago, the birds had been removed from the federal endangered species list.

The pelicans struggled to clean the crude from their bodies, splashing in the water and preening themselves. One stood at the edge of the island with its wings lifted slightly, its head drooping — so encrusted in oil it couldn't fly.

Birds spooked by good intentions
Wildlife officials tried to rescue oil-soaked pelicans Sunday, but they suspended their efforts after spooking the birds. They said they weren't sure whether they would try again, and that sometimes it is better to leave the animals alone than disturb their colony.

Pelicans are especially vulnerable to oil. Not only could they eat tainted fish and feed it to their young, but they could die of hypothermia or drowning if they're soaked in oil.

Globs of oil have soaked through containment booms set up in the area. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said BP PLC, which leased the rig and is responsible for the cleanup, needed to send more booms. He said it would be up to federal wildlife authorities to decide whether to try to clean the oil that has already washed ashore.

"The question is, will it do more damage because this island is covered with the mess?" Nungesser said.

Officials have considered some drastic solutions for cleaning the oil — like burning or flooding the marshes — but they may have to sit back and let nature take care of it.

Plants and pelican eggs could wind up trampled to death by well-meaning humans. If the marshes are too dry, setting them ablaze could burn plants to the roots and obliterate the wetlands.

Flooding might help by floating out the oil, but it also could wash away the natural barriers to flooding from hurricanes and other disasters — much like hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed away marshlands in 2005. State and federal officials spent millions rebuilding the much-needed buffer against tropical storms.

The spill's impact now stretches across 150 miles, from Dauphin Island, Ala. to Grand Isle, La.

Oyster area sees oil
On Sunday, oil reached an 1,150-acre oyster ground leased by Belle Chasse, La., fisherman Dave Cvitanovich. He said cleanup crews were stringing lines of absorbent boom along the surrounding marshes, but that still left large clumps of rust-colored oil floating over his oyster beds.

Mature oysters might eventually filter out the crude and become fit for sale, but this year's crop of spate, or young oysters, will perish.

"Those will die in the oil," Cvitanovich said. "It's inevitable."

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Video: Coastal defense

  1. Transcript of: Coastal defense

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: The unrelenting flow of oil and bubbling anger over the massive spill reached a kind of critical mass today with both BP and the Obama administration facing a new level of outrage, a lot of it coming from the oil-stained shore of Louisiana , where that state's governor today blasted Washington and demanded a greater sense of urgency and action. But even the federal government seems divided tonight on who best can handle the disaster with one hand defending BP , the other condemning its response. But none of the finger-pointing has stopped the oil or the slow-motion destruction of the Gulf Coast . We have reports from Louisiana and Washington tonight, starting with our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson in Venice . Anne :

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Lester . What I'm about to tell you isn't going to help. Coast Guard officials say BP 's attempt to cap that well may slide until Wednesday. And as you could imagine, that's only ratcheting up the anger here at BP 's inability to halt this disaster and sparking a whole new round of frustration at the federal government . This brown pelican , Louisiana 's state bird , is now black with oil on one of Louisiana 's barrier islands . As state wildlife officials try unsuccessfully to rescue the bird, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal pleads with the federal government to let him build new barrier islands , sand berms to do what booms clearly can't.

    Governor BOBBY JINDAL: One of the answers may be just coming in and burn the marsh afterwards. That's not enough of a plan. We need a better -- we need a -- we need more urgency. We need a better plan.

    THOMPSON: Today Governor Jindal took the media on a tour of the coastal wetlands he is desperately trying to protect from the onslaught of oil.

    Gov. JINDAL: The reality is, you can see just going in here to try to clean this up will cause damage to this -- not only this area, but these birds, as well.

    THOMPSON: The governor wants more help from Washington .

    Gov. JINDAL: BP needs to pay for this, but absolutely the federal government needs to be in charge.

    THOMPSON: Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser says it's time for President Obama to take control.

    Mr. BILLY NUNGESSER: He truly seemed to care, but it's too far gone now for him not to get involved, put his foot down, and demand that somebody take charge.

    THOMPSON: And this is what's headed Louisiana 's way. Out in the gulf Saturday, we found even more massive slicks of oil and dispersant, thick on the water 16 miles from the coast, the once glistening ocean now a flat, reddish brown color, coated with crude. Twenty-six miles out, the gulf is a toxic soup with a vile aroma. The oil is everywhere. Even three miles from the leak site, you can see the natural gas being burned off as it comes up with some of the oil, siphoned from the broken pipe a mile beneath the surface. Today Governor Jindal says Louisiana has 7,000 miles of coastline. It supports the state's $3 billion-a-year fishing industry that employs 60,000 people. Much of it is in limbo, shut down or on the verge of being closed by the oil. For the past month David Bilai has tried to cheerlead the charter boat captains at the marina he built in Venice , but today even he is out of hope.

    Mr. DAVID BILAI: What are they going to do if this stays shut down like this? That's what I'm worried about. Two of those captains are my sons. So this -- I can -- I can really relate.

    THOMPSON: The oil spill is personal here. The coast provides jobs, food and culture, and the people here are determined to do everything they can to save

    it. Lester: Anne Thompson in Venice , Louisiana , thank you.



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