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Experts: Spill’s Impact on Coast is ‘Going to Be Bad’

BATON ROUGE, La. - Day one of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill making its first contact with Louisiana's fragile wetlands found oil-soaked birds and emergency closures of fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting zones.

Wind and waves pushed a light sheen of oil that escaped protection booms against the coast at South Pass, the southernmost point of Louisiana, said Rodney Mallett of the state Department of Environmental Quality. A separate report Friday afternoon said no oil had gotten deep into the saltwater marsh that is the breeding ground for much of the nation's seafood.

Wetlands preservation officials expressed concern that it will get worse, especially since the weekend forecast calls for tides up to 2-feet higher than normal. Wave action from high winds is likely to drive the oil slick over protection booms.

"On top of all of the other problems Louisiana has with its coast - subsidence, climate change and hurricanes - this is the last thing Louisiana needs," said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Change Network and author of "Bayou Farewell," which recounts his experiences in Louisiana. "It's going to be bad."

Veterinarian Jim LaCour of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said seabirds soaked in oil were being transported to rescue sites in Venice and Houma, where rehabilitation experts with the agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will first check what medical care they might need and, if healthy, clean the oil from their feathers with dishwashing detergent.

"They first triage to see if they're in good condition," LaCour said. "Birds have a high metabolic rate" so if they've been struggling in oil for hours, they'll be dehydrated and need intravenous fluids before being cleaned.

Without the fluids and possibly activated charcoal to flush their systems, he said, the stress could kill them during the cleaning process.

LaCour said the same will apply for other creatures that will be oil-coated.

"They're just starting," he said. "It will get worse over the next few days. Most will be birds but there probably will be alligators and land mammals."

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham closed oyster beds east of the Mississippi River off Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.

He also shut down commercial and recreational fishing from the Louisiana-Mississippi border to around the tip of Plaquemines Parish. Aerial observations found the spill moving up the eastern coast toward the Mississippi border.

Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said that although the oil is threatening an essential area of seafood production, shutting it down will affect only 23 percent of the state's seafood.

Smith said he supports the closure because "we want to make sure no product goes out" that could be tainted.

"We have a lot of product in storage," he said, so the public might not notice much of a shortage.

Louisiana's $2.4 billion seafood industry produces one-third of all of the seafood consumed in the United States, ranking first in shrimp and blue crab production and second to Alaska in finfish production.

Coastal protection officials say they fear the worst for the coast as millions of gallons of oil head in that direction.

"Only the experts know how bad it will be," said Val Marmillion of the America's Wetlands campaign to restore Louisiana's coast. "The real concern is that we have had deteriorated wetlands for decades - since 1927."

That's when the federal government started building levees that guided the natural flow of the Mississippi River off the Outer Continental Shelf, instead of allowing it to disperse silt to continue building the delta.

"The nation needs to realize the importance that wetlands have," Marmillion said.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said "The immediate concern is to do everything (the CPRA) can do to help minimize any impacts of the oil coming ashore. The CPRA is working closely with other state and federal agencies to direct every resource available to contain this leak and protect our fragile marshes."

The CPRA authorized the opening of two Mississippi River diversion projects, greatly increasing flow into the marsh to battle the oil encroachment into coastal estuaries. It also is working with local officials to identify key waterways for placement of oil booms to minimize intrusion, he said.

Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, described the explosion and spill as "catastrophic," but he points out "this is the first accident of its kind" in 75 years of oil production.

"Any time you're dealing with energy, whether it's mining or nuclear, it's risky," he said. "Blowout preventers are required. It's redundancy times three" because three separate preventers - the main shut-off at the base and two blowout preventers above that - are on such wells.

"This shouldn't have happened, but it did," John said. "Until the investigation is complete, we won't know why."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's call for inspecting blowout preventers on all wells operating in the Gulf is valid "to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service requires regular inspections, John said, and "this blowout preventer was tested back in January and it was working fine."

The Coast Guard and British Petroleum response to the spill is proceeding as it should, he said: "Focus on applying the best technology and do everything that's possible to stop it, not focus on who's to blame" - until the crisis is over.

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