THE END OF THE WORLD
The biggest stingray in Louisiana’s history was caught by a retired health and safety worker named Bebe McElroy in the summer of 2013.
It weighed 185 pounds. “And that’s 10 hours dry,” says the 65-year-old, who can’t be more than half the size of the broad-winged beast she somehow vanquished that day in July. Had the gatekeepers of Louisiana marine lore managed to weigh the stingray when it was still fresh out of the water, she swears it would have touched 200.
The house in which Ms. McElroy and her husband, Vic, intend to live out their retirement – a beautiful, single-family home built high on seven-metre stilts – is a 90-minute drive southwest of New Orleans, located along a narrow claw of land just a couple hundred feet wide in places. Three kilometres down the road, Highway 56 comes to a dead stop at the shore of Bay Cocodrie, one of a million bays and bayous that signal the eventual submission of a shredded Louisiana coastline to the vast, looming expanse that is the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a place the locals sometimes call the end of the world.
It was here where the disaster-response teams set up shop following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. It was from these shores that shrimping boats set out with oil booms instead of nets, hired to contain the spill through a program dubbed “Vessels of Opportunity.”
In this part of the state, you can see the signs everywhere: The canal that borders Ms. McElroy’s backyard is widening, the ridge of marshland on the other side is shrinking. Westward, in the far distance, stands a ghost forest of dead oaks, their branches like smoothed bone, victims of unbearable salinity. “The water is creeping in,” Ms. McElroy says. “That’s man doing that. That’s not nature.”
The worst environmental crisis in North America is happening in southern Louisiana. In the time it takes to read this story, a parcel of Louisiana wetland the size of a football field will have sunk into the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the past century, about 5,200 square kilometres – a land mass roughly the size of Prince Edward Island – has vanished in one of the more culturally and environmentally exceptional regions on the continent.
This has wreaked havoc on wildlife, displaced 10th-generation homesteaders and left major population centres such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the capital, far more vulnerable to the wrath of passing hurricanes.
But as Louisiana sinks, it booms.
Thanks to a concentration of industrial plants and a 3,700-kilometre waterway leading into the heart of the country, the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana is now home to the busiest port complex in the world. Some 65,000 people make a living in the state’s bustling oil and gas industry – the same industry whose vast network of canals and pipelines has emerged as one of the leading causes of Louisiana’s vanishing coast.
The result is one of the more extreme illustrations of what will likely be the defining political and societal challenge of this century – the head-on collision of economic bonanza and environmental ruin.
“There’s a lot at stake,” says Jonathan Foret, executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center and a southern Louisiana native. “There’s the energy sector, there’s a large fishing industry, but there’s also the beautiful culture of a beautiful people.
“Our land is sinking.”
THE GRAVES AT OAK ALLEY
It was a Canadian who discovered it, insomuch as someone can discover a place already inhabited. Sailing under a French flag in 1699, Quebec-born Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville navigated the delta that today makes up the southeastern end of the state of Louisiana. A few years later, one of his 11 brothers showed up and founded New Orleans.
What d’Iberville would have seen as he passed through the the yawning mouth of the Mississippi three centuries ago is a delta composed of more than 15,000 square kilometres of marsh and coastal wetland, much of it sustained by the whims of the fourth-longest river on Earth.
Left unleashed, the Mississippi is a sidewinder. For centuries, cartographers recorded a waterway that, rather than adhering to a single path, swung wildly across a 300-kilometre stretch of southern Louisiana. Everywhere it moved, the river deposited silt and sediment, the stuff of new land.
Everywhere you go in southern Louisiana, the Mississippi’s impact on the state’s very identity is clearly evident. In Oak Alley, a former sugar-cane plantation about a half-hour south of Baton Rouge, a tour guide points north to the grounds where the slaves who built the plantation mansion were buried. Just a few hundred metres away, partly obscured by a gently sloping, grass-lined levee, is the water.
“Some of their graves are under the river now,” the guide says, “because the Mississippi, it moves.”
As it moved, the Mississippi took as much as it gave, making it a dangerous neighbour to the cities on its banks. In 1927, after months of unceasing rain, the river broke through its levees in almost 150 places. When the flooding finally subsided, 500 people were dead, and another 600,000 were homeless. It was, at the time, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
In response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized by Congress to build a series of levees that essentially locked the Mississippi in place. The levees were seen as a godsend to places such as New Orleans – a port city that lies below sea level.
But the imposition of geographic order on a naturally chaotic waterway soon began to starve the outlying wetlands. Deprived of silt and sediment, the coastal areas beyond the river’s reach began to disappear.
Today, the elaborate system of walls and levees that bridle the river is seen as a chief culprit in what is happening to the state.
“It’s bad, and in a couple of different aspects of being bad,” says Darryl Malek-Wiley, senior organizing representative of the Louisiana Sierra Club.
“But if that was our only problem, that would be great.”
TEN CHAIRS OR FIVE?
On Highway 10 just north of New Orleans, where the road is suspended over the southwestern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, a pickup truck passes in the fast lane. On its rear window is a decal – a gushing oil well circled with the words “Oilfield Trash.”
In southern Louisiana, the Mississippi is a river of industry. Driving south from Baton Rouge to the southernmost edges of the state, the scenery is of stone yards, concrete plants, barge docks, refineries. A Potash Corp. fertilizer plant neighbours a Total polystyrene facility. Some of the plants are the size of small towns – a vast, labyrinthine metropolis of pipes and smokestacks whistling vapour and flame.
Other than its centuries-old fishing culture, no industry has had a greater impact on Louisiana’s landscape than oil and gas. In the last century, the state has approved some 50,000 oil wells along its coast. To reach these wells and connect them to the wider infrastructure, the industry dug about 17,000 kilometres of canals.
This network of canals and pipelines, many researchers and environmentalists say, has greatly accelerated the rate of coastal land loss – not only by physically removing soil to make room for artificial waterways (which were sometimes 45 metres wide) but also by allowing saltwater to enter the Mississippi wetlands. The salinity killed off many of the trees, whose roots had helped to keep the soil in place. In most cases, because it was cheaper than diverting it to land-building projects, the sediment from digging and dredging the waterways was simply dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
But there’s also no doubt that many people reaped enormous financial benefit. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association pegs the industry’s direct and indirect impact on the state economy at about $70-billion (by comparison, the total funds available for the state of Louisiana this year, according to the state budget, amount to about $25.5-billion). In areas such as Plaquemines Parish – in the far southeast, where oil and gas activity is especially high – the impact is even greater.
“Plaquemines, 50 per cent of every dollar that they have comes from the oil and gas industry,” says Gifford Briggs, the association’s vice-president. “So you walk into a room with 10 chairs, you take out five, you throw them away, and that’s more or less what it would look like.”
The other side of that monetary equation, however, is geographic. Plaquemines Parish, like so much of southern Louisiana, is disappearing.
BAND-AID VS. TOURNIQUET
Walking down a hallway in Louisiana State University’s Energy, Coast & Environment building, John Snead points to one of the many maps lining the walls. It’s a political map, concerned chiefly with hard, binary boundaries, such as those between parishes, or between water and land. It is a map of Louisiana adjusted to eliminate ambiguity.
On the wall opposite, a close-up map of the southern coast shows something entirely different. The land drawn as uniform in the political map appears here as a gold leaf, full of fractures and corrosion. Slivers of creeping water are visible everywhere. In places, there is land that isn’t – marsh grass that, should you step on it, would give way instantly. This is in part why the state’s analogy of choice for the rate at which the coastal land is disappearing – football fields – is so hard to pin down. Depending on where you measure, it’s a football field’s worth of land loss every hour, or every 45 minutes, or every half-hour. The division between water and land is anything but clear.
“The coastline in Louisiana is ephemeral,” says Mr. Snead, a cartographic manager at LSU’s Louisiana Geological Survey.
But the distinction between land and water matters. Resources found underground belong to the property’s owner, but those found underwater belong to the government. In an area rich with oil and gas, billions of dollars are at stake.
“Coastal land loss can be a very controversial topic,” Mr. Snead says. “Landowners and parishes have a very different view than scientists.”
Making Mr. Snead’s job even more difficult is that fact that, in some parts of the state, the landscape changes not just from year to year, but from month to month. As a result, the official illustration of the state of Louisiana – the one that adorns the highway signs, and shows the landmass as a boot-shaped whole – is a lie. Places that once existed as broad shoulders of land are now thin strips; where once residents raised cattle, they now catch shrimp.
To the people who live here, coastal land loss has been a concern for decades. Fifteen years ago, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana published a report on the crisis; it was titled “No Time To Lose.”
All over southern Louisiana, attempts are being made to stem the tide. Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation, a project that diverts sediment, has resulted in 400 acres of new land in just nine months. Signs of “terracing” programs, which place small strips of land in the water to capture passing sediment, are visible throughout the region. As part of its youth outreach, the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center takes kids out to the swamps to plant marsh grass.
But compared to the overall rate of land loss, these efforts are of little practical impact.
“They’re not on the scale and scope that we need to restore our coast,” says Mr. Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club. “They’re Band-Aids when we need, you know, tourniquets.”
By far the biggest, most sprawling weapon in Louisiana’s fight to save itself is the state’s Coastal Master Plan. Revised and published in 2012, the plan contains some 109 different projects to be completed in the next half-century – everything from sediment diversion to salinity control to riverbank stabilization. In a state where the interests of environmentalists, politicians and industry groups rarely align, the master plan has the blessing of all three.
However, there are several problems. For one thing, the benefits of many projects being proposed are hypothetical – it will take years to find out if they are worth undertaking in the first place. And even the master plan’s best-case scenario is unlikely to stand up to the worst-case scenarios of climate change and sea-level rise over the next half-century. At best, the plan will greatly decelerate or possibly stop the coastal-land loss – most observers agree that the lost landmass equivalent of PEI is never coming back.
But more than anything, the master plan has a money problem. The midway estimate puts its cost at about $50-billion over 50 years (a recent study from Tulane University argues that the true cost is closer to $94-billion). Louisiana is among the gulf states to begin receiving a greater share of federal off-shore royalty payments in 2017, but that will likely amount to hundreds of millions of dollars – far too little to finance the plan alone.
So far, the chief source of support appears to be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The exact figures are yet to be disclosed, but the final amount is likely to be around $20-billion, most of it to be allocated to coastal projects.
The BP spill “hasn’t had a silver lining – it’s had a platinum lining encrusted with diamonds,” says John Barry, a part-time New Orleans resident who has become a central figure in the land-loss crisis. “If it were not for the BP money, the state wouldn’t have a dime to spend on the coast right now.”
But that still leaves the master plan well short of its financial target. Mr. Barry, however, has found a way to make up the difference: He’s suing the oil and gas industry.
“This is about three things that you hope parents teach their kids – keep your word, obey the law, and take responsibility for your actions,” Mr. Barry says. “The industry has failed on all three.”
A historian by trade, he became well known as an advocate for rebuilding New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Eventually, he managed to secure a seat on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which is responsible for overseeing flood protection in an area that includes New Orleans.
Nominally, the agency is supposed to inspect measures – primarily levees – intended to ensure that New Orleans never goes through another post-hurricane devastation. But Mr. Barry turned his attention to the role played by oil and gas in eroding the coastal wetlands that serve as natural protection against severe weather events. If the industry is, indeed, part of the problem (a report with input from its own researchers holds it responsible for about 36 per cent of the damage), Mr Barry reasoned it should help to pay for a solution.
The result was a multibillion-dollar lawsuit, filed by the flood-protection board, against almost 100 oil and gas companies. Both in scope and value (a settlement could well rival that of the BP spill), it is unprecedented.
“The idea that a state agency of Louisiana would sue 97 oil and gas agencies, that’s amazing,” says Mr. Malek-Wiley. “I didn’t think I’d see that in my lifetime.”
In essence, the suit claims that companies operating in the coastal areas over the better part of the last century have not adhered to the terms of their state permits – specifically, the obligation to restore and repair the myriad canals they have dug. The industry vehemently denies the accusation and, in a place where oil and gas account for 60,000 jobs and 17 per cent of the money generated by the state, the lawsuit has faced immense political opposition. The same day that Mr. Barry announced it, Governor Bobby Jindal issued a statement calling the suit nothing more than a cash grab by lawyers.
“These trial lawyers are taking this action at the expense of our coast and thousands of hard-working Louisianans who help fuel America by working in the energy industry,” he said.
Mr. Barry makes no secret of the fact that he prefers a quick settlement to a lengthy trial. But the industry sees things very differently.
“The reason there won’t be a settlement,” says Mr. Briggs of the oil and gas association, “is because the legal exposure and the liability that gets put out there when the industry steps forward and says, ‘Okay’ …
“Then every single community, every single person that’s ever had their house flooded, every hurricane from now going forward, they’re going to say … ‘Industry, money, pay.’ ”
Broadly, the industry’s defence is threefold. Primarily, it argues there has been no violation of any permit (and if the state finds evidence there has been, it can take action). Mr. Briggs also echos the governor’s criticism of trial lawyers, who he says stand to make billions. Finally, the industry says the levees built to lock the Mississippi in place are the prime cause of the erosion.
Mr. Briggs also complains of bias. “No one’s gone to the charter-boat fishermen and said, ‘We need you to put up 50 per cent or 20 per cent of the revenue you generate working on the coast.’ No one’s gone to the oyster fisherman and said we need you to put up 20 per cent. No one’s gone to all the people that own duck camps, and the crawfish fisherman.
“We’re not the only industry in coastal Louisiana; we’re just the only industry that’s being asked to pay.”
The outcome of the suit is far from certain and, as much as Mr. Barry hopes for speed, a settlement may take months, if not years, to resolve. Whatever happens will likely set a precedent for myriad regions across the continent where the brittle balance between economy and environment is coming undone.
In the meantime, Louisiana – its history and culture along with its land – continues to vanish.
THE SWAMP AND LA BUTTE
About three kilometres north of where Bebe McElroy lives near Chauvin, construction crews are busy building a levee that crosses the narrow strip of land upon which her home sits. Once complete, the levee is supposed to protect the area to the north from hurricanes and flooding. But the unsaid message to everyone living on the six kilometres to the south is clear: In the long run, you’re on your own. Signs of such calculus are evident all over southern Louisiana, as the state decides which areas are worth trying to save.
And yet Ms. McElroy has no intention of leaving the place she loves. “I was here before the levee,” she says, casting a line into the canal that borders her front yard, a bucket of croaking catfish at her feet. “And I’ll be here after.”
Over the years, the violent ecology of southern Louisiana has created a unique base of expertise in this state. Home builders have learned how to construct houses that, when hovering on stilts above the treeline, can better withstand high winds. Some houses in the rebuilt portion of New Orleans’s ninth ward are designed to float when flooded. Louisiana firms have won contracts worth hundreds of millions to use their expertise to help rebuild and protect parts of New York and New Jersey hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. In all, Louisianans have developed a knowledge base about how to cope with unwelcome water that is second only to that of the Dutch.
“People here enjoy living in a prosperous community economically,” says Mr. Foret of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center. “But they also enjoy living in a place where they can go fishing and hunting and eat things from the water – and not worry about what they’re eating.”
On a warm, faintly muggy afternoon, he drives to a spot near Ms. McElroy’s house, a 1,000-year-old piece of Louisiana history called La Butte. Once a native burial site, and later a grave for hurricane victims, now it, too, is slowly sinking. At the mound’s northern edge, the swamp has consumed half the chain-link fence; a rotting fish head lies among the gravestones.
“I think that we had a window, probably in the seventies, to really make this happen and work it out,” Mr. Foret says. “I’m concerned that it’s almost too late now.”
Behind the billion-dollar lawsuits and grand coastal plans and all the outward optimism that a balance between environment and economy can yet be found, there hangs a fatalistic resignation in the Louisiana air – an understanding that the next Katrina may render all the state’s best-laid plans moot; or that, without oil and gas, southern Louisiana’s level of national influence drops precipitously; or that, should climate change cause sea levels to rise another metre, most of the land south of Baton Rouge may end up underwater anyway.
Mr. Foret pauses for a moment, thinking carefully about how best to put it.
“I think the thing that people are not saying, because they can’t say it … is that, when Mother Nature handles this issue, and finishes it, then Mother Nature will make that decision for everyone.”