GRAND ISLE, La. (CN) - A billboard on Highway 1 says: Devastating Spill, Devastating Feelings. Inside the Gulf Coast Claims Facility building on the far end of Grand Isle, about 60 people have turned out for a National Resource Damage Assessment public scoping meeting. "You talk about 18 months or so before we get started," a resident tell trustees. "That's a long time for us who live here, while our environment and animals are dying."
"We have a huge problem," Beverly Armand, continues. "We have to stop denying it. We can't fix the problem if we deny it is there."
The National Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, is being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the Department of the Interior, and the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Because of the magnitude of the oil spill and its effects, the earliest that the NRDA plans to have a restoration plan in place is 18 months from now.
The NRDA has held public scoping meetings along the Gulf Coast all month, to find out what concerns residents have and to hear ideas for restoration.
"Medical issues," Armand says, "many residents have medical issues. BP is not cleaning the beaches. They are burying the problem. We will have children on these beaches. First thing they do will be to dig in the sand, and they will come up with oil.
"The air quality - I don't even believe anyone is even testing the air anymore."
"People are suffering," Armand says. "And please be honest about the continued use of Corexit. They're continuing to use it. It's washing up on our beaches all the time."
Corexit is the brand name for the dispersant BP used to break up the oil that spewed from a broken wellhead for 10 weeks after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.
Cheryl Brodnax, habitat restoration specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the impacts of the oil spill "have been so vast" that creative ideas are a necessity.
"These types of conversations are important," Brodnax said toward the meeting's end. "Even if they feel frustrating, they are important."
The broken wellhead under the Deepwater Horizon, before the drilling rig exploded, is 50 miles offshore from Grand Isle.
Eight miles long and a mile wide, Grand Isle has almost 10 miles of white sand beaches. It once was home to 1,100 residents. With salt water on one side and fresh water on the other, it was a nature lover's paradise and a fisherman's dream, with 46 species of game fish.
During his public comment, Wayne Keller from the Grand Isle Port Commission referred to a NOAA check sheet listing resources that may have been affected by the oil spill.
"Probably 99.9 percent of everything you could check off has been impacted," Keller said. "This is Ground Zero."
Concerns raised at scoping meetings have varied by location.
At a scoping meeting last week in Biloxi, Miss., Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day's catch, or pretend they don't see the oil.
John Iliff, a supervisor with NOAA's Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil. Simply lowering a camera to the Gulf floor can take as long as 4 hours. The oil may have sunk in part because of dispersants. Other factors such as sediment might also have caused it to sink, Iliff said.
Shrimpers in Biloxi also said that in places where shrimp have been plentiful, there are no shrimp now.
Fishermen in Pensacola and Panama City, Fla. brought a day's catch to a scoping meeting to show that several fish had lesions. The fishermen were concerned the lesions were a result of the oil spill.
"Lesions do occur in fish," Iliff said. "Typically, they are a low occurrence, but fishermen there are saying they are coming up every catch."
Dr. Susan Shaw, an independent marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, Maine, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that from a toxicology standpoint, dispersed oil is more toxic than oil by itself.
Shaw said what was supposed to happen with Corexit didn't happen.
BP has acknowledged that it sprayed and injected at least 1.8 million gallons of the toxic dispersant on the oil, expecting to disperse it into the water rather than float on the Gulf's surface. But rather than simply disperse the oil, the Corexit caused the oil to change into massive subsea plumes.
Animals, including dolphins, swam through the several-mile-wide plumes.
"We were very concerned last fall about the dolphins," Shaw said.
She said fishermen have reported that dolphins are coming up to their vessels, looking sick, and sometimes swimming in circles.
indicate that since February 2010, 2 months before the disastrous oil spill, dolphins have been dying at unusually high rates. Over the past year there have been three spikes in dolphin deaths. This year alone 136 dolphins have been found dead along a portion of coast off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Shaw said that dispersants work by breaking the outer membrane of cells: organs and oil alike. The effect on marine life is that the oil can enter the body more readily. Shaw said there is no hard data about the dolphin deaths.
"I don't feel convinced there is enough testing going on," she said, adding that it only takes a few hours for decomposition to set in, making it difficult to get good samples.
Scientists conducting the dolphin autopsies are considering all options, NOAA said.
Shaw said she hasn't seen an autopsy program that includes a test for contaminants, such as dispersants.
Many have attributed the recent spike in dolphin deaths to the oil spill. But assumptions about the oil spill are tricky. To link dolphin deaths to the spill, there must be evidence of death caused by oil and hydrocarbons. Results of such studies could take months, if not years, according to NOAA documents.
Now the dolphin death investigation has been closed by the federal government because its results have to be kept for litigation purposes.
"Now we're going to know less about it," Shaw said. "At this point, there are more questions than answers."
In January, Louisiana Senator A.G. Crowe sent a letter to President Obama, expressing concern that dispersants are still being used in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Mr. President, my concern is that this toxic and damaging chemical is still being used and it will compound the long-term damage to our state, our citizens, our eco-system, our economy, our seafood industry, our wildlife and our culture," Senator Crowe wrote.
"Many are concerned that the oil laced with this toxic dispersant is still in the Gulf being moved constantly by currents throughout the ecosystem spreading contamination."
Shaw was on Grand Isle March 12 and 13, collecting samples for research.
"You can see black oil in the soil," Shaw said. "There is a noticeable absence of marine life and animals. If you dig down 6 inches, oil is coming up - not tar balls, oil.
"There were dolphins in shallow water, swimming."
Shaw said Grand Isle residents who have had their blood tested for chemicals are finding they have high concentrations of solvents - the chemicals found in dispersants.
Shaw said it is easy to find people who are sick from solvent contamination on Grand Isle.
Libby Comeaux, a Louisiana native, likened the Gulf of Mexico to mother's milk.
"It's what we carry with us," she told the group Monday. "If we slow down, get more information, and make sure we don't do anymore harm to it. If we can just stop hurting the Gulf ..."
Scoping will last until May 18. Public comments are posted on NOAA's website