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."