The Daily Beast speaks to Louisiana Secretary of Health Alan Levine about whether the spill will impact air quality and drinking water. Plus: How New Orleans’ infamous levees destroy wetlands, and why fishermen actually love the oil industry.
Will oil from BP’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill reach dry land? BP claims 22 boats it sent out to investigate "had not actually located any of the oil coming ashore at this time,” but public officials are wary. Amid growing concern about the future of the Louisiana fishing industry and possible health threats for area residents, The Daily Beast spoke to Alan Levine, Louisiana's secretary of health.
Have you noticed any visible evidence of the oil in the area yet? Can you smell it?
I've been down to the beach. At the moment we're seeing sheens, like a rainbow color. We've not seen any heavy oil approach our coast yet. It came close, but what happened is we've got this weather. Now we're getting winds from the north, and that's bought us some time. The EPA has been doing numerous tests on the air and the water in the Mississippi River, and there is no impact yet on air or drinking water.
“What most people don’t realize is there’s a codependence; those rigs are an important part of the fishing industry.”
How close is the oil to getting into the wetlands?
We've identified about 80 different waterways [that] if we put booms in those waterways, it should prevent oil from reaching the marshes.
How badly do you expect the oil to damage marshes and wetlands, which are only just recovering from the effects of Katrina, especially as hurricane season approaches?
The Louisiana coast—this is something that a lot of people don't know—those levies that failed during Katrina, the other negative effect of them is that there's been incredible erosion along the coast. We are losing a football field of coastland every 38 minutes in Louisiana. It used to be every hour. It's accelerating. We are losing 25 to 35 miles of coast along the southern coast of Louisiana every year because of the levy system.
That's an incredible amount of land.
Forty percent of America's wetlands exist off the coast of Louisiana. The ecosystem that results from the wetlands has a huge impact. It's very important for several reasons, including being a vital part of the fishing industry as well as protection from storm surges. If you lose the marshes and the vegetation, all you're left with is mud, which just slides into the water. There'd be no protection from storm surges. The marshes are protection against storm surges.
What will your state do to help the fishing industry?
Today the governor of Louisiana requested the Small Business Administration for loan assistance for Louisiana fisherman. In six parishes east of the Mississippi River, 3,200 fishermen will be out of work. The fishermen are obviously very concerned about their livelihood. But I'll tell you what you don't hear—you don't hear anyone talking negatively about the oil industry.
Why not? You’d think fishermen would be angry.
What most people don't realize is there's a codependence; those rigs are an important part of the fishing industry. If you talk to the local fishermen, they'll say they don't want the oil industry to go away. Very few oil spills happen from the rigs themselves, and most fishermen have relatives that work for the oil industry. The two biggest industries in Louisiana are oil and fishing. Oil has been an important part of the Louisiana economy for a long time. Louisiana supplies 10 to 20 percent of America's oil supply, so it's very significant. They've co-existed for a very long time.
Also, the fish tend to hang out around the rigs. The rigs act as reefs; the little bait fish hang out there, then bigger game fish come to eat the bait fish. Louisiana supplies a third of the nation's seafood, so it's significant.
Sara Karl is a multimedia journalist who has written and produced video for the New York Press. She recently went to Afghanistan where she produced a short documentary about women called Women's Work . It premiered at the New York Film Festival in October.