Oil shows up in Louisiana’s iconic Lake Pontchartrain
ATLANTA — Anne Rheams saw them this week floating in the water, small and scattered and about the size of silver dollars. Some had washed up near boat docks, others near lakeside subdivisions — tar balls, most likely from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
This week, they drifted into Lake Pontchartrain, the oval body of water that hems in New Orleans to the north and defines the city’s character almost as much as the Mississippi River a few miles south.
By Tuesday, cleanup crews had collected more than 1,020 pounds of tar balls and waste from the lake and the Rigolets, the strait connecting Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and the broader Gulf of Mexico.
It was a relatively small smudge for a lake that is 630 square miles and one that won’t pose a direct public health problem: New Orleans gets its drinking water from the river.
But Rheams, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, described the occasion as a psychological blow for New Orleans.
The city is more than 100 miles from the shores of the Gulf, and though the worry and gloom about the spill penetrated the metro area months ago, there was no oil — until now.
“People love the lake, and they live around the lake,” Rheams said. “It’s really bringing this closer to home for our folks in the basin.”
Crews have put 600 feet of boom at a choke point in the Rigolets to prevent more oil from making it to the lake, according to the oil spill response headquarters in New Orleans.
On Monday, more than 20 skimming and decontamination boats were working to clean it up. But on Tuesday, bad weather kept the boats docked, and workers were left to try to skim the water from the shore, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Parker.
Tests on seafood taken from Lake Pontchartrain haven’t turned up any oil contamination, said Brian Lezina, a state biologist. But he also noted the deep emotional attachment that many people in Louisiana have to the lake.
“You won’t hear songs about a lot of the marshes in south Louisiana, but you will hear songs about Lake Pontchartrain,” Lezina said.