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Gulf oil spill: Slick, tar hit Louisiana wildlife refuge, witnesses say

May 4, 2010 |  6:10 pm

Pelicans

Mark Stebly, who said he holds the only lease for a fishing camp on the Chandeleur Islands, said within the last few days he has found balls of tar on the beaches of the uninhabited crescent-shaped Chandeleur island chain, which was hammered and shrunk by Hurricane Katrina, and had just begun to recover.

The tar balls were ranged from the size of a finger to the size of a hand, he said, adding that the air smelled of petroleum. “You could smell it strong,” he said.

Lyle Panepinto, a seaplane pilot out of Belle Chasse, La., returned from a trip by air from Panama City, Fla., at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, and said he saw the largest concentration of oil beginning to lap at the Chandeleur Islands, home to the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s second-oldest wildlife refuge.

”It’s orange-y colored. It’s mostly on the surf side,” he said.

Panepinto said he was about halfway down the main island, Chandeleur, when he saw the band of oil lapping about 50 yards off shore. It was thin band of oil with the appearance of axle grease, stretching northward several miles around the tip of the isle in a band about 10 feet wide, he said.

Panepinto, who works for Southern Sea Plane Inc., said a little oil seems to have made its way to the inside of the island, off the coast. There, he saw cloudy water, and a little sheen. “That island is the most pristine island in the gulf,” he said.

The National Wildlife Foundation also reported spotting an oil-covered turtle struggling in the slick. It did not specify where the animal was located but said it alerted authorities to its location.

Stebly said the Chandeleur Islands have the "best fishing in the Southeast.”

“I’ve never seen any pollution of any kind out there. The islands are absolutely pristine. Barren, beautiful beaches.”

He said he worried that because the slick was moving so slowly, the nation would lose interest. “This is like a bomb slowly going off,” he said. “I can’t bear to watch it on television. It brings me to tears.”

-- Jill Leovy

Photo: Pelicans in Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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