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.
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.