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By Eric Weld   Date: 7/16/10 Bookmark and Share

Smith Alumna Gives an Assist in the Gulf

No 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 spilled oil.

“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 Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Center 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.

The oil 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 day.

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 Weblog while visiting Grand Isle in June.

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 New Englanders for the Gulf.

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.”


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