GRAND ISLE, LA. — Leanne Sarco knelt on the sand, up to her elbow in oil. The blond park ranger was showing a group of visitors the remnants of the spill still left on the Grand Isle State Park Beach, where she has been running the Hermit Crab Survival Project for the last eight weeks. Amid the scattered tarballs and swathes of darkened sand were fresher, jelly-like globs.
It was at one of these that Sarco stopped and scooped up a handful of oil. And then another, and another. Beneath that single palm-sized glob was a pocket of crude that was several feet deep.
“It just keeps coming – and it’s all along the shore,” Sarco said. “You wouldn’t want your kids to build a sand castle out of this."
No BP cleanup crews have done work on the beach; perhaps because park staff asked that workers follow certain specifications, Sarco said. If the contract crews came in to clean up the bird sanctuary using heavy equipment, they could cause more damage than they remedied, she added.
The beach provides nesting sites to shorebirds including the threatened least tern. Even without cleanup activities much of the fragile habitat has already been trampled, driven over and littered with garbage by the various military, law enforcement and contracted cleanup workers who have been patrolling the island since oil first reached its shores ten weeks ago.
Sarco worried that cleanup crews could make matters worse, and might not even reach the deep pockets of oil. Based on activities on other beaches, the crews would stay for an extended period of time, drive ATVs through the site and use tractors to remove oiled sand.
“They have a very set way of how they do it and its not exactly very environmentally friendly,” Sarco said. “We didn’t want any heavy machinery back here since this is the last wild beach on the island.”
She says it is likely that similar pockets of oil persist on other parts of Grand Isle, and also on the surrounding barrier islands.
Oil Gets Buried
The remaining oil is working its way deeper into the beach as it gets buried under fresh layers of sand. Some of the surface contamination will eventually get turned back into water and harmless gases by oil-digesting microbes that live in the gulf waters.
But as it gets buried out of reach of oxygen, the microbes can no longer reach the oil, which can still be consumed by shellfish, aquatic worms and other small creatures that live in the muck.
In order to prevent that from happening, Augustine is now looking to hire an independent cleanup company that would be willing to follow her specifications in order avoid further damage to the vulnerable ecosystem, Sarco said
Out of Desperation, Hermit Crabs
State Parks employees and volunteers are not allowed to clean the beach up on their own because they lack proper training, Sarco said. They also were not allowed to help the birds or other wildlife that were common when oil first reached the shores of the island. But crustaceans, it turned out, were not off limits.
And so, out of desperation, Sarco began cleaning hermit crabs.
“There were thousands of them at first,” she said. “They would get about three feet from the shoreline and then stopped moving as they crawled out of the oil.”
Now two months later, the crabs are still dying – though in smaller numbers – and Sarco is still saving them. Standing on the wet sand with the hum of boat engines and the call of seabirds in the distance, she explained how her project has grown.
“I started off with just one tank that my mom bought me, and one filter, and a couple of friends who were helping me,” she said. Now the project has grown to eight tanks and over 100 volunteers.
“It feels great,” said regular volunteer Frazer O’Hara, who moved to Grand Isle from New Orleans to help out in any way that he can. “If people don’t get involved then nothing ever happens and nothing ever gets done. Every little life counts.”
At least three days a week, volunteers gather up the oiled crabs and bring them back to the visitors’ center, where they use Q-tips and mild Dr. Bronner’s soap to clean the shells. The crabs are then left to crawl across absorbent material that pulls the oil from their legs. They are then put in tanks overnight. About ten percent of the crabs don’t survive, but more than 3,500 have now been successfully released to new, uncontaminated habitat.
“It’s really rewarding,” Sarco said. “I’m going to keep on doing it until they clean up the oil and until it stops washing up on our shores.”