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Louisiana raises alarm about threat to wetlands

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, left, and Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser  sail near an island in Barataria Bay  on Sunday.  (Associated Press)
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, left, and Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser sail near an island in Barataria Bay on Sunday. (Associated Press)

ON BARATARIA BAY, La. – The pelican was shaking, covered in oil, waiting to die and not alone. It was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of its species, brown pelicans roosting on a small island in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico amid an ecological disaster.

Many of these brown pelicans – Louisiana’s state birds – are likely doomed, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fears that his state’s wetlands will soon suffer equally. Locked in a dispute with the federal government over how to protect Louisiana’s labyrinth of wetlands, Jindal and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries ferried a herd of national reporters to Barataria Bay on Sunday to document firsthand the devastating effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was a depressing scene. According to Jindal, approximately 65 miles of Louisiana’s coast had been “oiled” by Sunday.

“We’re under attack here,” Jindal said. “We’ve got to protect our coast.”

On Sunday, two natural rookeries, nesting grounds for brown pelicans, showed signs that heavy crude oil had broken through booms and soiled these fragile landmasses. The rookeries were located in Barataria Bay, about 14 miles west of Venice, La., between Cat Island and Four Bayou Pass.

Some pelicans frantically brushed oily feathers with their bills while others, fully coated in black ooze, simply stood and quivered.

“They’re trying to fly away but they can’t because they’re covered in oil,” said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, the southern-most parish in Louisiana. “We’re begging for help.”

At question is an emergency permit applied for by Louisiana to protect its coastline, a request that includes dredging sediment to create barrier islands between oil and wetlands. Louisiana’s emergency proposal was denied on Saturday by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is unsure of the environmental impact of emergency barriers.

“I think here’s the fundamental issue,” Jindal said. “We’ve answered every question they’ve ever asked as quickly as possible, but you have to understand that there is an environmental cost of not acting. I mean, the environmental damage is happening right here.”

While Jindal attempted to remain diplomatic on Sunday, Nungesser was not. Nungesser told reporters that his parish has had a plan in place for several weeks to protect its ecology but homegrown methods of protection have been denied.

“They are bureaucrats made to stand in the way and question things to death,” Nungesser said. “That’s how they justify their jobs. Fire all those guys and let’s just do the right thing.”

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