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Friday, September 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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After Katrina, a sinking feeling

EMPIRE, La. — Plaquemines Parish is about 65 percent water, like the human body. It is hard to imagine that something made up of such a fluid element can be so broken, and yet it is.

Hurricane Katrina ripped through this narrow toe of land at the easternmost edge of the Louisiana boot, where oystermen, shrimpers, river pilots and oil-rig workers cling to existence like snails to the marsh grass. It is a place that lives or dies by the water.

With another hurricane, Rita, roiling the Gulf, the people of lower Plaquemines rumble across battered levees and putter through oil-fouled bayous, only to find what a long road to recovery lies ahead. Citrus grove after grove stands ruined, naked of fruit, the brittle lower branches washed brown by the raging water. But at least the trees still stand.

In the aftermath of Katrina's unprecedented devastation, industrial toxins are seeping into coastal waters. Already-eroded barrier islands have washed away.

Federal authorities have devoted much of their attention so far to the contaminated water in New Orleans, where floodwaters are said to be laced with toxins and untreated sewage. The city's flooded area includes 121 known contaminated sites and more than 1,000 that are possibly contaminated, according to Environmental Data Resources Inc., a firm based in Milford, Conn., that compiles environmental information on private and public property.

The polluted water is being pumped out into neighboring Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, and is likely to affect areas far beyond the city's confines. Federal scientists are already investigating whether the contaminants have damaged valuable fisheries in the Gulf, and some scientists and local activists are worried that Lake Pontchartrain is being sacrificed.

On Tuesday, environmental activists released satellite images showing large oil slicks a few miles offshore, in the Gulf of Mexico, some stemming from known oil-platform locations and stretching as far as 40 miles. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen Johnson said the agency has documented five oil spills in the New Orleans area.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dispatched a research vessel, the Nancy Foster, to the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to collect and test fish and shrimp, as well as water and sediment samples. The agency has also hired a commercial shrimp boat to take samples in the Mississippi Sound.

"Obviously, we have to start paying attention to the potential of an environmental disaster," said Steve Murawski, NOAA Fisheries' chief science adviser. "This is a major fishing area."

The Gulf of Mexico ranks second only to Alaska among America's largest fisheries; coastal Louisiana alone produces 30 percent of the nation's domestic seafood. The Congressional Research Service estimated the hurricane may cost Louisiana's shrimpers $540 million in sales over the next year.

Experts suspect the hurricane has swamped everything from oyster beds to the sea grass that provides a critical nursery for fish, and the flush of nutrients from sewage-laden water into the gulf could spark massive algae blooms deadly to marine organisms.

Scientists and local advocates are particularly concerned about Lake Pontchartrain, which had begun to recover from decades of pollution. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., whose district encompasses the lake's north shore, said residents are worried the contaminants from New Orleans floodwaters will undo the progress made over the past decade.

In addition to unleashing toxic and human refuse, the hurricane destroyed habitat critical to area wildlife. The storm hurt 25 national wildlife refuges that will cost at least $93 million to repair, according to preliminary estimates, a figure equal to a quarter of the entire federal budget for the refuges. Sixteen are temporarily closed.

In Mississippi's Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, the hurricane felled pine trees crucial to the survival of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker; Breton Island, a sanctuary for nesting and wintering seabirds and shorebirds, has largely washed away.

At Plaquemines' Empire boat yard, the nation's third-largest seafood port, the so-called "safe harbor" where many left their boats or rode out the storm looks more like a scrap yard. An oyster boat dangles 20 feet in the air, its fiberglass hull gored by pilings in three places. Jack-up barges, boxy vessels that plant their steel feet on the bottom to service oil rigs, lie upended in the grass beside the remains of fishing camps that washed hundreds of yards out of the marshes.

At the yard's entrance, a battered fiberglass trawler with a Vietnamese name sits across the access road. The shrimper groans and creaks as a barge-mounted crane hoists a 47-foot aluminum oyster boat off its buckled bow.

The oil refineries that sprouted here earned the parish the nickname "Kuwait." Katrina has turned one of the parish's industries against another.

A 100-foot breach in the levee along Bay Vacherie ruptured a Shell Oil pipeline, fouling some of the area's most productive oyster beds with a gooey mess that turned the marsh grass black to the high-tide mark. Containment booms meander along the grass lines like an ungainly orange and white snake.

As third-generation oysterman Mitchell Jurisich motors slowly through the slick, a blackened bird floats by, riding unusually low in the water.

Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production, 250 million in-shell pounds, accounting for about 40 percent of the total harvest. That harvest pumped $288 million into the state's economy last year, creating 10,000 jobs.

That was before Katrina.

Between the battering surf and the toxic runoff being drained out of New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain, state officials have declared two-thirds of the beds off limits. It could be weeks before the oysters can be sampled, months before the beds can reopen, years before the oysters will have rebounded enough for harvest.

Mike Voisin, chairman of the state oyster task force, says he thinks underutilized beds to the west can be coaxed into boosting production back up to 50 percent within a year. To get back to full production, it likely will take four years and $1 billion to replace a ruined hatchery, rebuild a demolished lab and refurbish untold acres of ravaged bottom, he says.

Jurisich is hopeful it won't take that long.

Several times since the storm, he has been out to his Plaquemines beds, tapping the bottom with a bamboo pole. Sometimes, the pole finds only mush, a sure sign the beds are silted over; but just as often, he hits something solid, meaning the limestone and crushed-shell cultch to which the oysters attach themselves has not washed away.

Using a pair of metal tongs, he rakes a pile of oysters from the bottom. Many of the shells are specked with tiny red dots, about the size of a pen point.

This is spat. Katrina has forced the oysters to reproduce early.

"There's still some life," he says. "As long as there's life, there's hope. We can rebound."

But even if the beds were to open tomorrow, many here would not be able to go out.

Ronnie Kennair stands in chest-deep water, pressing an epoxy-smeared piece of plywood against the bottom of an oyster boat that is jammed, bow first, into the wharf. Inside the hatch, his 71-year-old father, Dickie, is past his waist in diesel as he tries to pull the board tight with ropes to plug a foot-long hole in the Galeb — Croatian for "seagull."

The younger Kennair hopes the patch will hold long enough for him to pump out the bilge and get the vessel to dry dock.

"I've got 25 years in that boat," he says, wiping a brown-stained arm across his forehead. "Luck of the draw."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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