Oil Spill Just Latest Wound to La. Coast

Gulf fisherman Danny Diecidue fished the waters near Hopedale, La., since he was a kid. Even before oil started washing ashore along the coastline, he was worried about the harm engineering projects inflicted on the waters.
Restoring the Louisiana coastline to its original beauty would require much more than cleaning up after the BP oil leak.

For coastal Louisiana's wetlands, this oil spill is just the latest wound, CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

Danny Diecidue's fished these waters since he was a kid.

"Biggest worrisome change is loss of land, loss of islands, which we used to fish five, six, seven years ago," Diecidue said. "There's no island left. Gone. Just totally gone."

Generations of engineering projects have carved up and starved Louisiana's coast, which represent 30 percent of America's wetlands, for navigation channels, dykes, levees, canals and pipelines for oil and gas companies.

"If you were to say what is the most abused landscape in the United States, it would be the Lousiana wetlands," Rice University's Douglas Brinkley said.

The system in Hopedale, La., has to keep supplying fresh water and sediment or it will go under. Right now, every day it's losing an area the size of 38 football fields. That's another football field every thirty-eight minutes.

This coastline was in crisis long before waves of oil washed ashore. And the spill? Coastal ecologist Paul Kemp compares its impact here to a "sunburn on a cancer patient."

"If we continue as we are - there's no treatment - then this patient will die," Kemp said.

With this spill, this resilient coast also got lucky because the oil was light crude, the gushing well was far offshore and warm Gulf waters helped degrade it. While the spill was an economic disaster - by one estimate costing the Gulf 17,000 jobs and a billion dollars in economic growth - its environmental impact could have been much worse. Only 9 percent of the Gulf Coast saw heavy oil.

"It won't go underwater because of the oil," said Kemp. "It will go underwater because of all the other things that we've done to it."

The spill is just the latest manmade disaster here, and environmentalists hope it spotlights the need for recovery that for generations is long overdue.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.