Image: Workers use nets to scoop small globs of oil from the water off of Rigolets Harbor
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
Workers use nets to scoop small globs of oil from the water in Rigolets Pass, which connects the Gulf to Lake Pontchartrain.
By
updated 7/6/2010 6:38:20 PM ET 2010-07-06T22:38:20

The Big Easy escaped a direct stain from the oil disaster spreading across the Gulf Coast — until Monday.

That delicate balance changed when balls of tar were found in the Rigolets, one of two passes that connect Lake Pontchartrain with the Gulf of Mexico.

"Our universe is getting very small," Pete Gerica, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fishermen's Association, said Tuesday.

State authorities closed the lake's eastern reaches to fishing on Monday, though most of it remained open. Barges were lined up at bayous and passes to stop the oil from coming in, and cleanup crews Tuesday used nets to collect tar balls from marinas and docks. They also planned to lay out 9,000 feet of special permeable booms. But the lake was too choppy for skimmer vessels to operate.

"So far it's scattered stuff showing up, mostly tar balls," said Office of Fisheries Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina. "It will pull out with the tide, and then show back up."

Pausina said he expected the oil to clear the passes and move directly into the lake, taking a back-door route to New Orleans.

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About 1,700 pounds of oily waste has been collected, said Suzanne Parsons Stymiest, a spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish.

The amount of oil infiltrating 600-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain appears small so far. And tests on seafood have not turned up any oil contamination, said Brian Lezina, a state biologist. But the pollution is distressing to the many people in Louisiana who have a deep attachment to the lake.

"You won't hear songs about a lot of the marshes in south Louisiana, but you will hear songs about Lake Pontchartrain," Lezina said.

Tar balls were also found in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on Tuesday. They were being tested to see if they were from the BP spill, though one local official said it's unlikely since other tar balls have washed up there recently that were not from the well.

In New Orleans, prevailing east winds since Hurricane Alex have steadily pushed the oil toward the city's eastern coastline along an arm of the Gulf. The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries closed the area to fishing.

On Monday, 14 skimmers and four decontaminating units were working in the area, said Tammy Mitchell, spokeswoman for the joint information center in Houma.

"They were pulling out tar balls mostly," she said. By Monday night, 1,000 pounds had been picked up.

Oil spilling from the BP well would be the most significant environmental challenge since a massive recovery effort lifted Lake Pontchartrain from near death by pollution.

Lake has seen ups, downs and Katrina
A playground for boating and fishing for many decades, urban runoff and the dredging of the lake bottom had chased away many species by the 1970s. Swimmers were warned of high counts of bacteria in the lake.

But after years of efforts by lake boosters, pollution was stemmed by new regulations and dredging of the lake bottom was halted.

Dolphins, fish in abundance and even an occasional visiting manatee came back to the lake, which is connected to the Gulf by two narrow passes and is a mixture of fresh and salt water.

For New Orleans, oil in the lake threatens the second major disaster to sweep in from the Gulf in five years. On Aug. 29, 2005, a massive storm surge driven by Hurricane Katrina swept into Lake Pontchartrain, contributing to the destruction of levees. An estimated 80 percent of the city flooded.

Until Monday, the oil's impact on the city proper was largely confined to fears tourism would suffer as the closure of seafood harvesting grounds threatened the cuisine at the city's internationally famous restaurants.

In communities surrounding the city, the impact has been greater. A massive cleanup effort has been mounted in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes, where oil has fouled marshes, stressed the economies of fishing villages and eroded tourism.

The BP-operated, Transocean Ltd.-owned rig Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, killing 11 people, and sank two days later. The first oil reached the U.S. mainland on April 29 at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Oil spreads as weather slows cleanup
On Monday, the Coast Guard confirmed oil found in Texas was from the BP well. It has now been found in every state along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The news of the spill's reach comes at a time when most of the offshore skimming operations in the Gulf have been halted by choppy seas and high winds. A tropical system that had been lingering off Louisiana flared up Monday afternoon, bringing heavy rain and winds.

Last week, the faraway Hurricane Alex idled the skimming fleet off Alabama, Florida and Mississippi with choppy seas and stiff winds. Now they're idled by the smaller storms that could last well into this week.

Officials have plans for the worst-case scenario: a hurricane barreling up the Gulf toward the spill site. But the less-dramatic weather conditions have been met with a more makeshift response.

Skimming across the Gulf has scooped up about 23.5 million gallons of oil-fouled water so far, but officials say it's impossible to know how much crude could have been sucked up in good weather because of the fluctuating number of boats and other variables.

Jerry Biggs, a commercial fisherman in Pass Christian, Miss., who has had to shut down because of the spill, is now hiring out his 13 boats and 40-man crew to BP for cleanup. He said skimming is severely hampered by the weather.

"This isn't going away. This isn't a sneeze or a hiccup. This is diarrhea for a long time," he said. "My lifestyle is screwed. It's over. The thing that I love the most I'm not going to be able to do anymore."

The British company has now seen its costs from the spill reach $3.12 billion, a figure that doesn't include a $20 billion fund for damages the company created last month.

The storms have not affected drilling work on a relief well BP says is the best chance for finally plugging the leak. The company expects drilling to be finished by mid-August.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: The Big Uneasy: Oil enters New Orleans

  1. Transcript of: The Big Uneasy: Oil enters New Orleans

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We've reached another terrible milestone in this oil spill . During the 78-day-old crisis, the city of New Orleans , which of course has finally battled back from Katrina , could at least say they had no part in this oil trouble. The trouble was limited to the gulf waters. Not anymore. We learned today there's oil in Lake Pontchartrain . That's north of New Orleans . This oil has now spread hundreds of miles to the north, east and west. Lake Pontchartrain is a big, beautiful neighbor of New Orleans . It turned deadly when its waters drowned the city five years ago, but now it is the latest victim of this spill, along with those reports of tar balls on beaches in Texas . We can also report tonight on a desperate effort to save the native birds from the oil. We begin all of it tonight with NBC 's Kerry Sanders on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain . Kerry , good evening.

    KERRY SANDERS reporting: Well, good evening, Brian . The fight tonight against the spreading oil turns here, as state and local officials are asking for more boats, more skimmers, and permission for low-flying helicopters, all in an attempt to stop this ever-expanding disaster. They're tiny, but officials say they've pulled more than 1600 tar balls at the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain . This 630-square-mile body of water, the second-largest salt water lake in the United States , is now a new ground zero. These are the same waters that overtopped the levees and flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina . The oil gushing 125 miles away is today at New Orleans ' front door, the largest city in Louisiana no longer protected.

    Ms. SUSAN BERGMARK (Slidell, Louisiana, Resident): I guess I had my heart set that it wasn't going to happen here.

    SANDERS: Coastal ecologists have been dreading this day, when the wind and the surf drives oil to the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain . And now here it is, oil about to hit the lake the city of New Orleans was built on. At first glance the oil now showing up here looks like small autumn leaves floating on the surface. But those are tar balls, oil that breached five different barriers, multiple booms, sand berms, even a makeshift wall of submerged barges, all defensive measures that have failed. A sucker punch to all the sweat and energy put in place to fight this oil, and a painful stab into New Orleans ' soul.

    Ms. ANNE RHEAMS (The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Executive Director): Lake Pontchartrain actually is the reason New Orleans was founded. It's the way that the French were brought in by the Native Americans . So it means a lot culturally.

    SANDERS: Today Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal took a chopper flight over Lake Pontchartrain .

    Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): We need our federal government to have a greater sense of urgency of fighting this oil before it gets into our estuaries, before it gets into our fragile ecosystems.

    SANDERS: And more anger today on New Orleans ' radio station WWL .

    Unidentified Man: One of the last bastions of fishing around there has now just had the quietus put on it.

    SANDERS: And at Crystal Beach in Texas , more tar balls washed up for a second day. Oil has now touched every Gulf Coast state .

    Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): I want to assure Texans that we are taking aggressive steps to address this situation and to mitigate any effects to our beaches.

    SANDERS: Louisiana wildlife officials have now closed down 40 square miles of Lake Pontchartrain to fishing. The fear is that the high wind and surf is part of this summer weather pattern, which means there'll be more oil in the

    lake. Brian: As we said, just another terrible development. Kerry Sanders on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain

    WILLIAMS:

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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