Nightly News   |  June 01, 2010

Onslaught of oil moving further inland

The Louisiana wetlands are disappearing at a faster rate than anywhere else on the planet. Now, scientists say oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is moving into the marshes even faster than they expected. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Venice, Louisiana): We mentioned the oil that is already into the marshes and threatening so much wildlife there. That, too, is a situation going from bad to worse. Our own Kerry Sanders went out today with a team of scientists from Tulane University and got a rather sobering look at just what is happening there and what's at stake. Kerry is to the west of us in Grand Isle , Louisiana , tonight. Kerry , good evening.

KERRY SANDERS reporting: Well, good evening, Brian . Scientists say there's no place on Earth that's disappearing as fast as Louisiana 's wetlands, the marshes here. And now they're confirming that the oil is moving faster and further inland than anybody expected at this point. We were with them when they found oil five miles into the marshes. A team of coastal marsh ecologists from Tulane University today launched on a mission, past the marsh rookeries protected by oil booms to a spot five miles inland, where there is no protection. Dr. Blum says it's a disheartening discovery.

Dr. MICHAEL BLUM (Tulane University): These are juvenile mangroves. These are things that just got put in place, established.

SANDERS: Well, to the untrained eye they look fine.

Dr. BLUM: Untrained eye, yeah. But all you have to do is touch the structure, and you can pull up, and where there shouldn't be oil, it's coating of oil -- fully coated. Again, these are root structures that allow the plants to breathe.

SANDERS: The oil, he says, is now slowly suffocating the mangroves. On another barrier island, where booms are in place, evidence that protection has failed.

Mr. TOM SHANNON (Tulane University): A lot of the hermit crabs which are coming to the surface...

SANDERS: Scientist Tom Shannon says he's never seen this before.

Mr. SHANNON: This is a marine hermit crab .

SANDERS: Lives in the water.

Mr. SHANNON: This is not a land hermit crab .

SANDERS: And yet here they are climbing out...

Mr. SHANNON: Out of the water, onto these docks.

SANDERS: Escaping.

Mr. SHANNON: This is -- escaping. This is insane.

SANDERS: As much as scientists fear the oil will cause the marsh system to collapse, at least one five-year study showed a Louisiana marsh coated in oil can recover.

Mr. KERRY St. PE' (Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Director): I am optimistic. People need to have hope. They need to have credible information, and just because oil touches a marsh plant doesn't mean it's going to die.

SANDERS: The only difference now, quantity.

Dr. BLUM: You can see that if you just wipe away, that all of these are coated with oil.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yuck. So these marshes, of course, are the foundation of the ecosystem. Today BP 's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles , told NBC News that the oil company is committed to protecting these marshes and will rely on local knowledge.

Brian: Kerry , awful news that it has stretched five miles in now. But let's hope that that expert is right, that the marshes are more resilient than any of us thought. Kerry Sanders , again to the west of us here.