GRAND ISLE, La. — Mired in a daily battle against the oil soiling Louisiana's shorelines, marshes and wetlands, locals in this barrier island town are pushing ahead with a novel plan to block the crude's path with a flotilla of barges.
“The Cajun navy,” Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle calls it.
They're using the barges to partially block five passes where water from the Gulf of Mexico flows between barrier islands into Barataria Bay, an ecological treasure trove of shrimp nurseries, oyster beds, pelican rookeries and fertile fishing grounds. Barges were moved into the first of the passes last week.
In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist announced plans to use barges to create a similar blockade of Destin Pass on the Panhandle.
Oil has already seeped into Barataria Bay, where a rainbow sheen coats huge swaths of the water's surface and thick patches of gooey crude cling to marsh islands. The goal is to keep the damage from getting any worse as the damaged well spews hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.
“We've got to stop any more from coming in,” said Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young.
Officials are placing 44 120-foot barges into Pass Abel, just off Grand Isle. The barges are being arranged in a V-shape to trap oil in the tip as it's pushed forward by tides and currents. Vaccuum trucks aboard the barges will suck it up.
The barges are secured with pylons hammered into the Gulf seabed in about 10 feet of water.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently approved the barge blockade after local officials pushed it for weeks. The corps is still reviewing plans to eventually replace most of the barges by dumping rocks in the passes.
The corps recognizes there aren't enough resources to fight the onslaught of crude and calls the barge plan a novel mix of local ingenuity and available equipment.
“Instead of having that oil slap up next to the banks, they want to funnel it into certain areas where they can actually capture it,” said Mike Farabee, a chief evaluator in the corps' New Orleans regulatory office.
“The barge idea was a really good idea because we do have a lot of barges down here and not enough boom, so you use what you have,” Farabee added. “What you have here is people using some ingenuity.”
Millions of gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Since then, large swaths of sticky crude and wide patches of a thin sheen have been pushing into the state's marshes and wetlands.
From boom to sand berms, and now barges, state and local officials are trying just about anything to keep the oil at bay.
“We want to fight this oil before it gets into our ecosystems, before it gets into our wetlands,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said. “I'd much rather fight the oil on the barges and the rocks.”