Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day 2: On Meeting the Enemy

         As I was leaving at 6:00 AM, The Park Ranger at the front gate told me that if I looked hard enough, I could find all manner of oil rig worker in this town. Oil was a boom industry in a slow town ever since the sagging economy began to curb tourism revenue in 2008-2009. He said if I could find the right person, I'd hear all the stories of what actually goes on out there on those rigs, as if it's some unspoken regional knowledge that there's safety or other types of lapses.

            "If you let on that you're a journalist though, you won't hear a thing. Folks find out down here you're talkin' to the press, you're black balled in a hurry; nobody will touch ya. Best you just go and talk with people and keep your ears open."

             He indicated that to find what I was looking for, I could head to either of two spots near Pensacola to come into contact with either oil, or oil cleanup. I could head out to Fort Pickens, a hurricane sand-blasted old Civil War Fort at the mouth of a small inlet near the Navy base, or I could head past the hotels and restaurants on Perdido Key to Alabama Point. Alabama Point is closer, and if possible, I'd like to avoid the mid day sun when all the tar will smell twice as bad, so I head west towards the last bit of Gulf State Park before the bridge.

          When I pulled onto the sandy shoulder and got out, the first thing I noticed were signs with slogans like 'save our shore' or 'clean up your mess!.' The previous day, I found out, there was a gathering of 200-250 people demonstrating and pleading for attention from cleanup crews or local government officials or both. The day of the gathering, a series of crusty, globular mats of oil began washing up unceremoniously as a semi-viscous pat of sludge. This was the first large-scale grounding of oil in West Pensacola. There were thousands of them, all the way up to the size of a dinner plate. Off shore a bit, the globs seem rather solid, and stick together in chains and clumps, but as they get caught in the surf at the beach's edge, they show their true state: liquid. The chunks will stretch apart in the curl of a small breaker wave, or fly into oil shrapnel in the whitewash.

            My boots picked up two footprint sized tracks of oil at least two inches thick. As soon as I stepped into the sand, I had myself cemented to 2-inch risers that wouldn't come off until I scraped them off on a washed up palate. Even still, so much oil remains that my car will likely smell like diesel for months.

           I spoke with a couple on the beach named Cheri and Bill. They are locals, and we discussed the area and its current predicament, the anger they hold, and that the locals hold. They live in Alabama on the other side of the bridge, but they love to visit the park. I asked about the difference in tourist numbers and they sighed, because they know all too well, and I don't have a clue. Along the whole length of the beach 3 miles to the first hotel, there ordinarily would be thousands of beach-goers, tourists and locals alike. Today there was a sole grouping of tourists who were back-dropped by booms, oil sand, and in the distance: cleanup ships.

          "But that isn't even the worst part," Cheri said. "When tourist season is over we still live and fish here, and the money from the tourists is supposed to last in the slow season. We're not gonna get that this year, no way."

          Another man, who walked by just then, showed me a picture of a dead baby heron from this beach. It was taken the day before, when he had been a part of the large protest gathering. I looked at the sad picture; the only oil on the whole animal was a huge clod stuck to both its feet. The unfortunate fowl must have gone feet-first into a large patch, and not have been able to shake off the massive weight. I looked down at my own oily boots and the juxtaposition was quite frankly humbling.

            Before I left, a crew on a massive ATV drove by us, surveying the oil predicament, which only 24 hours earlier was not there at all. They surely were noting that the booms just off shore hadn't helped a bit. There were two strings of them, but there was a large gap between them, and the oil could also intrude around the outside of either one.              
            Cheri and Bill said that as per the established operating procedure, they would survey, and very likely be back on that beach in the early morning to begin cleanup of the affected 100 yard long stretch of beach.

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