Over the levee at the end of Milan Road in Port Sulphur, La., a few blocks from an intersection between a Dollar General and a Chevron gas station, lies the nexus of Louisiana's oiled bird rescue operations.
Swift Energy Company's marina allows the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) to use the property for wildlife transportation. I signed up in May with the National Audubon Society and got a call back a month later. I'm the third Gambit staffer to participate as a "wildlife transport liaison" — but it's the Fourth of July, and nobody is on the water. Instead, BP is throwing a party for Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) participants, including those trolling Louisiana's coast for oiled wildlife.
Before arriving in Port Sulphur, I check in at Fort Jackson in Buras, La., at 9:15 a.m., where I sign a health waiver in a small security office near a makeshift parking lot of cars along levees and ditches.
I arrive in Port Sulphur just after 9:30 a.m. The engines of the parked wildlife transport vans hum by the docks. It's hot — there's a strong breeze, but the sun-bleached rocks that cover the marina bounce heat everywhere. The transporters, hired through DWF, sit and wait in the air conditioning until they get a call, but it's been quiet all morning, except for the laughing gulls surrounding the marina. No calls mean no oiled birds, they say — unless nobody is on the water to make the calls, or find the birds.
I sit and wait, too, for six hours, in a small green plastic chair under a blue tent. Sitting next to me is another Audubon volunteer, Jerry Dalpiaz, who also helped two days earlier, when several oiled birds were brought in alive. The wildlife transporters say this is usually the busiest pickup site of the eight along the coast. Hundreds of oiled birds come through this dock each week, but because today is the Fourth of July, the transporters say, VOO participants, including those involved with bird transportation, are all invited to the party.
Audubon told me to bring a book — there isn't much to do but read, toss pizza crusts to the gulls and talk to the transporters, most of whom are from Baton Rouge and say they really need the job.
At 2:30 p.m., a VOO crew calls the wildlife transporters. The message: The boat is coming in from Grand Isle with 11 bags — all filled with dead birds. Not unusual, as more than 1,500 dead birds have been collected in the Gulf since the disaster began. (More than 900 oiled birds have been rescued, but fewer than 500 have been cleaned and released.)
The boat arrives at 4 p.m. The crew hands off several bags — some of heavy brown paper, some of black plastic — to two of the transporters. A long, thin beak punctures through one of the black plastic bags. They're loaded into the van, where the paperwork for each bag is checked before being driven to the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center, about 20 miles from the marina. That's where live birds are cleaned and dead birds are catalogued. If all the birds can't fit in the vans, it's the volunteers' job to keep the live ones company and under the tent out of the heat, until another van arrives. Audubon leaves wildlife cleaning and handling duties to trained professionals; those eager to volunteer are limited to this.
There aren't any more deliveries. After the VOO crew drops off the 11 birds, it's done for the day — and for the foreseen future. The crew has been laid off.
VOO contracts have no end date; BP decides when it needs to "deactivate" a vessel. There are so many applicants that BP has to "rotate, so everybody will be able to (participate)," says Valerie from BP's command center in Houston. (Valerie could not provide her full name, she says, as "it's against policy. That's everything out of our manual.")
"The ones that have been deactivated have been out there since the beginning, which is about eight weeks now," she says. "You have to give everybody else the opportunity to get in. A lot of them aren't seeing it that way, but it's just the fair thing to do."
Back on the dock, a Houma command center operator calls to thank me for volunteering, I'm free to go; have a good holiday.
And just down the road at the Lighthouse Lodge in Venice, La., BP celebrates Independence Day with a barbecue, beer and an inflatable castle.
The bird center at Fort Jackson will soon close — all facilities will be relocated to Hammond in St. Tammany Parish. It's a 20-minute drive to Fort Jackson from Port Sulphur. It's two hours to Hammond.
A July 4 news release from Deepwater Horizon Unified Command announced the move, which is said to "minimize harm and stress on the animals in rehabilitation during the storm season."
Tom Buckley with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says he doesn't anticipate any problems relocating that far from the docks.
"It's obviously a little bit further away," he says. "Right now it's in the No. 1 top hurricane evacuation zone, so moving it to Hammond will get it out of that evacuation area, and it'll be a stable, more secure facility."
The new facility will have climate-controlled housing, more space for a larger volume of birds, and "state-of-the-art equipment," Buckley says, "rather than the rubber buckets and the other things (wildlife handlers) have been forced to use — but which they've used excellently. But this'll be better and more efficient for them, and I'm sure for the birds, too."
Pickup sites in Plaquemines Parish, like the one at the marina in Port Sulphur, will remain in use. "Plaquemines Parish will continue to be an important location for receiving, stabilizing, and transporting animals from impacted areas," the Unified Command release said. Wildlife branch director Rhonda Murgatroyd said the branch "is grateful to Plaquemines Parish officials and residents for their assistance, and we appreciate their continued support as we move."
But that distance could mean rescued birds may sit in oil for several hours before getting cleaned. To Port Sulphur, VOO carrying oiled birds navigate a network of bayous and inlets bleeding into the Gulf — a trip that already takes more than an hour.
On July 7, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser said moving the facility is "unthinkable." He doesn't understand why it's moving, and why there won't be any cleaning operations near the parish. "If they would embrace more volunteers and people from all over the country to help, a greater volume of these birds would be cleaned at a faster rate," Nungesser said. "The arrogance of the contractors hired by BP to do it alone and by their rules astounds me. This is incredible that we're letting a private contractor call the shots for the cleanup of these beautiful birds and, instead of doing what's best for the bird's health, acting in the best interest of the contractor."
Back in Venice, where Highway 23 turns into Tide Water Road, past Halliburton on Coast Guard Road, birds flock to the flooded pavement. It's surrounded by marsh on both sides and the road sinks between them. White ibis and heron stand in the street, and traffic stands still while the birds cross, moving from one bayou to the next, oblivious to the disaster encroaching on their habitat.