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Spirits fade as oil spill questions go unanswered

By Thomas Morton, Online Editor, Vice Magazine
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Oil spill victim 'spirit is gone'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • VBS goes to Louisiana to see the effects of the Gulf oil disaster firsthand
  • Crew visits marina that was suddenly shut down by state officials
  • When BP reps arrive on a cleanup operation, "bureaucracy really hit the fan"
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Editor's note: The staff at CNN.com has recently been intrigued by the journalism of VICE, an independent media company and Web site based in Brooklyn, New York. VBS.TV is Vice's broadband television network. The reports, which are produced solely by VICE, reflect a very transparent approach to journalism, where viewers are taken along on every step of the reporting process. We believe this unique reporting approach is worthy of sharing with our CNN.com readers.

Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- In case you hadn't noticed, for the past two months, a 2-foot-wide pipe in the Gulf of Mexico has been spewing oil to the tune of an estimated 2.5 million gallons a day. We went down to Louisiana over the Memorial Day weekend to see some of the damage for ourselves.

Because we are Renegades of Journalism®, we decided not to go where the oil was but where it wasn't. Or rather, where it will be.

Actually, we'd planned to start out on Grand Isle, where the tar's been lapping up on the beach since April. But as a Houma barfly warned us on our first day down, the real story wasn't happening on telegenic Grand Isle but over in the marshlands that constitute the vast majority of the state's coast. "They keep bragging about how Louisiana's only got two beaches closed, but they leave out the part where we only had two beaches to begin with." With that in mind, we put our daiquiris in to-go cups and set course for the bayou.

Point-aux-Chenes is a tiny finger of Cajun land separated from the Gulf by about 10 miles of marsh. This distance used to be a lot greater and the land more lushly foliated, but in the '50s and '60s, the oil industry cut canals through the swamp for pipelines, which allowed more and more seawater to spill in and eat away at the land.

Now, instead of dense live-oak canopies shielding entire herds of deer and bog-cattle over acres of solid ground, you've got a couple wild horses hanging out under a skeleton tree on a strip of grass you could chuck an apple over. Goth for sure, but sadly, unsustainably so.

At the Point-aux-Chenes marina, we hooked up with a mellower Louisianan version of Dog the Bounty Hunter named Mike, who took us out to the start of open waters, where the marsh grass glistened weirdly in the sun.

See the rest of Toxic: Gulf at VBS.TV

"That's the sheen from the oil," he said as he pulled the boat up into the grass so we could see the thin brown film causing the glare. I ran my finger up one of the blades and came away with a smudge of horrible-smelling [expletive] that took nearly half an hour of continuous scrubbing with some weird marine solvent to get off my skin.

When we got back to the docks, there was a short debate over whether the oil stinking up my finger was from the BP spill or just a faulty boat motor. But even the most stalwart proponent of the motor-oil theory conceded Mike's larger point: "So far, the winds have kept the major part of the slick from coming into this area, but if we get one bad storm surge, it's going to sweep right across everything you can see."

This turned out to be the last day of open fishing in the area. The next morning, boats from the State Wildlife and Fisheries department came tearing up the canal and made everyone who'd caught fish dump their coolers into the marina.

As the marina emptied out on what should have been one of the busiest days of the year and its owner began a corresponding freakout, we tried to determine what had set off the lockdown. By everyone's accounts, the oil was still miles out. Mike claimed he'd been hearing small-engine planes flying over the area at night, which he believed were dumping dispersal agents at the mouth of the bayou.

According to a marine toxicologist from the Marine Environmental Research Institute, when Corexit and similar chemicals come into an estuary, they produce little patches that look like seafoam, only rust brown and terrible-smelling -- a description that matched several floating splotches we'd seen well up into the marsh.

You'd think that "Hey, why's it suddenly dangerous for me to eat this redfish, eh?" would elicit a quick and straightforward reply, but the Fish & Wildlife men at the docks couldn't even tell us if the waters had tested positive for something or if this was all simply precautionary matter. In fact, they couldn't tell us much of anything besides "Ask our field office," who told us "Ask the main office in Baton Rouge," who all had their phones off for the holiday weekend. Nice one.

We then called the local airport to see if they knew anything about Mike's night flights, but their tower shuts down at 7, and pilots flying thereafter aren't required to file a flight plan. Our paranoia sufficiently tickled, we finally decided to check with the BP reps who were just moving into the area to start the cleanup operation, and that's when the bureaucracy really hit the fan.