It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
The marvel of it all slowly sunk in. "You walked?" His passenger, a weary-looking man with a grizzled beard, narrowed his eyes: "Y'all better not be steppin' on any tarballs."
This was the crew boss (whose name I was never able to confirm). Things weren't going well for him. He had orders to keep all the Gators operating in a single track to avoid tearing up the dunes, but the rut was now so deep, they were starting to run aground and break down. "It's just killin' our Gators," he said. How were they supposed to get up and down the island without their Gators?
So far, his crews had raked up 60 tons of oil, dumped it into petroleum-based garbage bags, and hauled them out to the barges. But Tropical Storm Alex had recently deposited a whole new layer of oil and sand on the beach, so they were essentially right back where they'd started. Worse, the new sand from Alex had covered huge mats of old oil, which they now had to dig through several inches of beach to find. He was trying to requisition some gas-powered leaf blowers to blow the new sand off the old.
Nothing was happening fast. The worker-safety guidelines were strict about heat. On a yellow-flag day—pretty much the best you can hope for there in the summertime—employees work 40 minutes, then get a 20-minute rest. We were into the red-flag days (temperatures in excess of 92 degrees), meaning 20 minutes on and 40 minutes off. Should a really hot day rear its sweaty head, they'd bust out the cooling vests and A/C or work after dusk. The best that could reasonably be hoped for was about two hours of work per day out of any employee, and a fair amount of that seemed to be devoted to shuttling people to and from the potties stationed at one end of the six-mile island. "It's a logistical nightmare," sighed the boss. Recently, however, there'd been a breakthrough. "We got permission," he said, gesturing out to sea, "to take a pee in the ocean."
BILL LOOKED A LITTLE DAZED as we paddled back to the boat in silence, so I asked him about it later. "Petit Bois is so unconnected to the rest of the world," he said. "You can't hear anything but the tingle of the sand. To come over the dunes and see that regimental deployment—it kinda makes you stiffen up. And then the waves turning up tarballs instead of shells and pebbles. That long line of machines rolling toward you. It's been violated twice: first by the oil and then by the assault to save it. I don't know what the long-term impacts of the cleanup will be. The only thing I'm fairly certain of is that I'll be finding chunks of oil probably for as long as I'm able to keep going there. And I'll worry about it every time I see it. That just pisses me off."
Of course, the White House would tell Bill not to worry. In early August, not long after our visit, energy czar Carol Browner would go on the Today show and—in a gaffe redolent of Dubya's "mission accomplished" moment—say, "More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. It was captured, it was skimmed, it was burned, it was contained. Mother Nature did her part." First off, "the oil" here refers to the total leakage, but 17 percent of that was captured directly at the wellhead; it never even entered the water. An honest accounting requires considering only the crude that escaped. Displaying a sort of medieval understanding of biology, Browner also explained, "some of it will become very small microorganisms and disappear into the gulf."
OK, Browner's no scientist, but she got her numbers from the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NOAA should know better—especially when you consider that its administrator is respected marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco. Of the oil that actually entered the gulf, 9.6 percent had been either skimmed or burned, according to the feds; what Browner and the media siezed upon was NOAA's misleading categorization of the other 90.4 percent, which was qualified as dispersed, dissolved, or residual.
The notion that "out of sight" (dispersed or dissolved in this case) equals "gone" has underpinned centuries of environmental abuse. With well over a million gallons of chemical dispersant dumped on the slicks, NOAA, it would seem, hoped to dispel most of the oil to the mythical land of Away and declare victory. But an independent Georgia Sea Grant report authored by five prominent marine scientists has shown that, as of early August, with natural degradation and evaporation taken into account, 70 to 79 percent of the oil remained in the gulf, much of it slimily blanketing the seafloor or hovering in vast plumes, its toxins potentially wrecking our food chain from the bottom up. And that's not even accounting for the oil known to be soaking into coastal wetlands.