PORT SULPHUR, Louisiana — Federal and Louisiana officials got into a heated argument Friday over the cleanup of oiled marshes during a tour of an area that remains fouled 8½ months after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
State and Plaquemines Parish officials took reporters on a boat tour of Barataria Bay, pointing out an area where oil continues to eat away at marshes and protective boom is either absent or has been gobbled up by the oil. The heavily saturated area that reporters saw was 30 feet to 100 feet wide in sections. No cleanup workers were there when reporters toured the area.
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The marshes are critical to the Louisiana coast because they protect the shore from hurricanes and serve as a nursery for Gulf sea life.
"This is the biggest cover-up in the history of America," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told reporters, gesturing with his gloved right hand, which was covered in oil.
Nungesser was accompanied by Robert Barham, the secretary of Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
As the two were answering questions from reporters, representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration interrupted to point out that a plan is being developed to clean up the marshes. They also insisted that the government has not abandoned the Gulf, nor has it lost sight of the fact that BP is a responsible party.
"Clearly there is oil here in the marsh but we are working as a team to find a best way to clean it up," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer. "It's a high priority."
The two sides then got into a heated argument, with Nungesser using profanity.
"It's like you're in bed with BP," Nungesser told the Coast Guard and NOAA officials.
"Don't tell me I got a voice in the way you put together that crappy document," Nungesser said as WDSU TV filmed the altercation. "It ain't worth the paper it's printed on. That is bulls..."
Lauer responded that he understands the frustration, but vowed that the cleanup would continue. "No one has ever said, 'It's over, we're going home,'" he said.
BP officials contacted by telephone had no immediate comment.
Nungesser has been a frequent and outspoken critic of the cleanup effort ever since oil from the April 20 accident began infiltrating the environmentally delicate Louisiana coast line.
"We continue to find oil in different parts of Plaquemines Parish — Redfish Bay, Bay Jimmy, Pass a Loutre — depending on the tides, wind and thunder storms," Nungesser added in a statement issued by the state wildlife department. "We’re concerned about the long-term plan to keep assets in this region to help remove oil and protect the wildlife. This is by no means over and we're concerned that this is being wrapped up before it is."
Barham added that "while workers along the coast dedicated themselves to cleaning up our shores there is still so much to be done."
"BP and federal officials are ready to close up shop and claim the job is done, leaving the state to clean up the mess," he added. "We will continue to push for a real resolution, more than just a wait-and-see approach for the miles of Louisiana coastline still oiled. They may have forgotten the impact on our wildlife and our habitat, but we have not."
The department emphasized that "state officials are monitoring cleanup operations to ensure they are fulfilled before BP and federal officials pack up shop at the end of February."
The agency added that "oiled birds also continue to be recovered by LDWF biologists, including three live Brown Pelicans in Bay Jimmy, and one dead Brown Pelican. Biologists also recovered one oiled, dead Brown Pelican in Pass a Loutre and one oiled, live Killdeer. These birds, which were recovered in the last few days, have increased concerns for continued wildlife contamination if marshes are not properly cleaned."
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A Coast Guard spokesman, Lionel Bryant, said rushing to clean oil from fragile areas can cause more harm than good. He also pointed out that the treatment plan being developed must be approved by federal, state and local officials.
The explosion that destroyed the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and, according to government estimates, led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from a hole a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. BP PLC disputes the figure, but has yet to provide its own.
Aside from the damage done to tourism when the oil hits Gulf Coast beaches, there are numerous environmental concerns. Among them is the damage done to the delicate reeds and grasses that grow in Louisiana's coastal estuaries. The marshes serve as nurseries for a variety of microscopic sea life — the bottom of the food chain that replenishes abundant Gulf fisheries.
Also, the killing of marsh grasses contributes to a long-standing erosion of Louisiana's coast and barrier islands, the state's first line of protection against hurricanes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.