Alumna Gives an Assist in the Gulf
matter how much they wipe and scrub, Rachel Rock-Blake ’09
and Miranda Mickiewicz ’10
cannot completely remove the crude oil baking into the concrete sidewalk under
the afternoon sun, creating durable dark splotches.
Mini oil spill: Rachel Rock-Blake ’09 struggles to remove
“This is what BP is spewing out into the ocean right now,” says Rock-Blake as
she scoops a finger full of the thick sludge.
The mini oil spill didn’t happen
in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s mid-July at the in Mystic, Conn. The spilled oil, on the steps of the science center,
is the same substance that is currently mucking the gulf waters off the coast
of Louisiana and other southern border states.
Rock-Blake, who works as a teaching
assistant and laboratory manager at the Williams-Mystic Center,
visited Grand Isle, La., last month. The island is taking
a particularly hard hit to its industry and lifestyle as
a result of the oil leak at the bottom of the gulf. Home
to only about 1,500 permanent residents, the population swells
to more than 20,000 people during typical summers.
spill, the largest in United States history, started on April
20 when the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing
11 platform workers. Still active, the spill is estimated
to be leaking between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil per
Rock-Blake collected samples
of the sludge from the rocky shore in Grand Isle. Back in
Mystic, she wiped a small sample into a glass jar, along
with some salt water, screwed on a cap and set it outside
in the heat for about 10 minutes. When she returned, the
jar had burst, its contents spilled on the ground, providing
a microcosm of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.
She and Mickiewicz, who recently
joined her on the Williams-Mystic staff, apply paper towels
to the spill to no avail. “You can see, it’s really
gloppy,” says Rock-Blake. “Down there [in the Gulf of Mexico] you get mats of
this stuff, sometimes eight feet deep.”
Rock-Blake wrote a while visiting Grand Isle
Even before the oil spill in
the gulf, Rock-Blake explains, Grand Isle—the only
inhabited barrier island in the Barataria Bay area—and the
land areas nearby were in trouble. Because of land erosion
and rising sea levels, the marshes along the Louisiana coast
are estimated to be losing the equivalent of several football
fields of land every day, says Jim Carlton, director of
the Williams-Mystic Program and a professor of marine science
at Williams College.
The oil spill will only
make things worse, says Rock-Blake.
“It’s disgusting to go out there,” she says. “Everything they think of is oil
right now. Down there, the ocean is their whole life, and that’s destroyed.”
It was the latest of several
visits to Grand Isle for Rock-Blake, who spent a semester
studying at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Center while at
Smith. Students at the center—including several Smith students every year—visit the island each
fall to study the effects of land erosion along the coast, and have befriended
people in the Grand Isle community.
Rock-Blake, who had traveled
there in March—prior
to the oil spill—returned for a stay after the disaster to
help establish a fund to provide groceries and household
supplies to fishermen whose livelihoods have been destroyed
due to the oil spill. She continues to raise funds through
the organization .
Upon arriving on her most recent
visit, Rock-Blake smelled the oil, she describes, as it covered
the beaches she swam from less than two months earlier. That
wasn’t the only difference. Military
vehicles swarmed the roads, hired workers cleaned the beaches, and throngs of
media were everywhere.
“Grand Isle is like occupied territory,” she says. “It’s not their home anymore,” she
says of the residents.
Rock-Blake plans to return to
Grand Isle later this summer, but she’s not sure what she will find. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration predicts a particularly heavy hurricane season, the future of
Grand Isle and the Gulf coast is precarious.
“If there’s a storm that pulls oil up onto Grand Isle, they’re probably going
to condemn the island,” says Rock-Blake. “An entire community that’s been there
over a hundred years…gone.”