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Engulfed: Oil disaster surprisingly elusive

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | 11:42 p.m. CDT

PLAQUEMINES PARISH, La. — Sludge.

Floating in the water, packed against the bank. Brownish orange, with bubbles on the surface.

In one of the rural marshes in Plaquemines Parish — the elongated tip of Louisiana's boot — a mystery substance lay in one of the numberless creeks that run through the marshy edges along this state's coast. It could be oil.

Or, it could be your run-of-the-mill pond scum, the kind that accumulates across Missouri's muddy ponds in the summertime.

This unsettling uncertainty — could you really not know oil when you see it? — is just one facet of the disaster's surprising elusiveness in Louisiana.

The state's porous coast, which doesn't share a border with the Gulf of Mexico as much as it simply dissolves into the sea, limits the amount of access a person can get to areas affected by the spill. You can't see the disaster simply by driving or walking around in New Orleans, nor for almost all of Plaquemines Parish. Although this reporter still can't say for certain — it's likely to be nearly impossible to spot the disaster here without being in a boat.

Which means that, counterintuitively, the Louisianians who will personally lay eyes on spilled oil are likely to be in a minority. They will be haunted by an invisible disaster.

Shortly after I prodded and analyzed the mystery slime, which didn't have a strong smell or was very sticky, I drove by a township where a young guy was swimming in the creek outside his house. Many of the villages buried in rural Plaquemines Parish are like tiny bayou versions of Italy's Venice: built practically on top of the water, with boat docks serving as garages. This is a state bound to the water. And the effects of the disaster — currently primarily hitting fishermen, which I'll report more on soon — though mostly invisible, will eventually be felt by nearly everyone.

Case in point: When I went to dinner in Chalmette, La., I ordered a soft-shell crab po-boy.

The woman at the register sighed as she rung up the check. "Enjoy it while you can," she said.


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