PASS A LOUTRE, Louisiana (Reuters) - The oil slick that has started sloshing through marsh grass at the southern tip of the Mississippi Delta gives coastal Louisiana a glimpse of what it fears may be its future.
In the last few days, acres of oil have penetrated low-lying islands at the point where the river rolls into the sea, forming a dark red band at the bottom of the roseau cane.
Thick black sludge blocks at least one inlet, and a much larger area off the coast glistens with a rainbow sheen dotted with oil globules, suggesting that more will reach land soon.
“This is what we hoped wouldn’t happen but we knew would happen,” said Andy Nyman, associate professor of wetland and wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University.
Energy giant BP, accused by the U.S. government of falling short in providing information about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, was forging ahead on Friday with efforts to contain the crude gushing from one of its undersea wells.
The sight and smell of a slick in fragile wetlands and the ecologically-rich Delta adds urgency to efforts to contain a disaster sparked a month ago when an explosion sank a rig, killing 11 workers, and ripped open the well.
It also casts doubt on a prediction by BP’s Chairman Tony Hayward this week that the leak would have only a modest environmental impact.
At the same time, it calls into question the effectiveness of the miles of booms arranged in the water by BP, federal and local authorities in a bid to protect the coastline.
At Blind Bay Louisiana and elsewhere, oil has drifted under or over the booms onto land. Elsewhere, some of the worst-affected islands were entirely unprotected.
In and of itself, the affected area represents just a fragment of the southern tip of the Delta and is dwarfed by the network of waterways that stretch around 100 miles 160 km inland.
But the slick could have an exponential impact on sport fishing, which is a lifeblood of small villages like Venice, Louisiana, and threatens commercial fisheries.
Fishermen and boat owners said they feared what they saw was simply the beginning.
“This could get 100 times worse than what it is today,” said fisherman Carey O’Neil, who knows the area intimately as he grew up at an encampment that can only be reached by boat.
Now that oil has begun to wash ashore in significant quantities, scientists are racing to understand its impact.
Some say they are hampered by a lack of information about dispersants, the volume of oil in the water and the extent to which oil loses its toxicity as it rises from the leak up through the water column towards the surface.
But some consequences were easy to predict, said Maura Wood, program manager with the National Wildlife Federation’s coastal Louisiana restoration project.
“This is an area where tiny juveniles (marine life) will be coming in looking for a haven and nibbling on the plant stems,” said Wood as she wiped oil from her gloves after collecting a sample in a bottle.
“So this can start to move up through the food chain. Toxics start to magnify as bigger fish eat the little fish and that’s a real concern,” she said.
Even if time in the warm Gulf waters and dispersants make the oil less poisonous, it will still likely smother the marsh grass, exposing the matrix of sand and roots that forms the islands, said environmentalists.
“Once these plants die there is nothing to hold the mud and then it becomes open water. Once that happens it’s really hard to get that to come back,” said Randy Lanctot, executive director of Louisiana Wildlife Federation.
Many residents say they are bewitched by the beauty of the Delta, a vast maze of canals, islands and river channels where brown pelicans skim low across waters abundant with fish.
Right now, the area is at the epicentre of a political storm over the spill and its consequences, with extensive news coverage and frequent visits by the governor and other state politicians.
Yet many residents say their biggest fear is for the months ahead when the oil is still washing ashore but national attention has turned elsewhere while.
Editing by Ed Stoddard and Philip Barbara