Everything changed for the Alabama environmental group Mobile Baykeeper on April 20, when BP Plc’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, sank and began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The half-dozen women who staff the organization let me sit in on one of this week’s many crisis briefings, a session peppered with salty, disparaging commentary on BP, certain government agencies, and Mississippi’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour, who had lately played down the severity of the crisis.
The task at hand was coordinating more than 7,000 volunteers from around the area who have enlisted to help clean up the coming oil slick.
“People, tables, chairs,” said executive director Casi Callaway. “And we need more phone lines -- whatever we need to do to ramp up.”
The meeting ranged from the serious (training volunteers to handle hazardous toxins) to the silly (whether it’s worth collecting feather pillows for the eventual oil cleanup).
Callaway, 40, is fed up with the words “oil spill,” as if the burgeoning catastrophe were a discrete event that had happened and was now being dealt with, when in fact no one really knows how bad this thing is going to be.
“No offense, but it took y’all national guys a little bit to understand this is a big freaking deal,” said Callaway.
Thin patches of oil reached the Chandeleur Islands in easternmost Louisiana on Thursday, according to the Coast Guard. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting a westward movement of the massive spill, with Chandeleur and Breton sounds expected to have shoreline contacts in the next day.
Not far to the east, Alabama residents were still preparing their coastline for an expected hit and were wrapping islands in plastic boom lines.
Elsewhere in Mobile, collection stations for human hair, an excellent oil absorbent, are being arranged, with barbers and salons contributing to the cause. Other mammalian hair works as well, so dog groomers are on notice.
Procter & Gamble Co. is touting its Dawn dish soap as a grease cutter that would be useful for cleaning animals exposed to oil. A company spokeswoman said P&G is donating “truckloads” of Dawn and will donate $1 to the cleanup operation for every bottle purchased.
George Crozier, a marine biologist and executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, has had technicians taking marine-life samples around the island, which sits about 5 miles into the Gulf and due south of Mobile. This will establish a baseline before the oil hits, so that technicians can quantify the damage when it happens. A sustained crisis could devastate marine life.
“The potential of this thing going on for three months is pretty scary, because that would almost certainly completely bracket the spawning season of some of these reef fish,” Crozier said. “They could lose everything.”
Connected with the lab is the Estuarium, a public museum of the estuary. I watched a small boat crew lay orange boom lines around the dock in the back. The protective floats seemed puny and desperate in the face of the vast expanse of sea to the south, and what is headed this way.
Bill Finch, conservation director of the Nature Conservancy in Alabama, was weary from a long day of laying boom lines around Coffee Island, where a new and very vulnerable oyster-seeding project is threatened by the oil slick. In a choppy sea and pouring rain, it was a grueling job to anchor the 3,500 feet of floating lines.
“It is not a cure-all, but it is something we can do, so we’re doing it,” Finch said.
There is much anxiety around the Gulf -- from fishermen, local businesses dependent on tourism, homeowners -- yet no one sounds as forlorn as the true nature lovers like Finch who know the most pristine places intimately.
“It is high spring in these marshes,” he said, sighing, and then spoke passionately of the fish and birds of Grand Bay, and the ecosystems’ “peak connectivity to the Gulf” at this time of year, when wildlife is fully engaged on biological imperatives. “This could not have happened at a worse time.”
I got a look at some of the unspoiled nature on Dauphin Island, where volunteers are picking up debris, prep work that will make it easier to clean the beaches and animals later.
In Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, home to many bird species and other fauna, I watched a brilliant-white Great Egret placidly wading in the shallows, oblivious to any crisis. Humans are not so complacent: Ferrying northeast back to the mainland I saw a 120-ton crane barge headed in the other direction, toward the sunken oil rig.
(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)