Oil from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico is seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, threatening another environmental disaster for the huge body of water which was rescued from pollution in the 1990s.
Tar balls and an oil sheen pushed by strong winds from faraway Hurricane Alex slipped past lines of barges which were supposed to block the passes connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the lake.
“Our universe is getting very small,” said Pete Gerica, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fishermen’s Association.
State authorities closed the lake’s eastern reaches to fishing on Monday, though most of it remained open. Barges were lined up at bayous and passes to stop the oil from coming in, and yesterday clean-up crews used nets to collect tar balls from marinas and docks.
They also planned to lay 9,000 feet (2,700m) of special permeable booms, but the lake was too choppy for skimmer vessels to operate.
About 1,700lb (770kg) of oily waste has been collected, said Suzanne Parsons Stymiest, a spokeswoman for St Tammany Parish.
The amount of oil infiltrating 600 square mile (1,500 sq km) Lake Pontchartrain appears small so far. And tests on seafood have not turned up any oil contamination, said Brian Lezina, a state biologist. But the pollution is distressing to the many people in Louisiana who have a deep attachment 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,” he said.
Lake Pontchartrain, named after the French Count of Pontchartrain from the reign of Louis XIV, is on the northern edge of the city. For centuries, it has been a playground, a source of seafood and a backdoor route to New Orleans for invading British troops and hurricane storm surge.
Until the 1970s, its shores were a top destination for city dwellers who took streetcars and buses to the lake to swim and to dine at restaurants which cooked up the lake’s crabs and other seafood.
They played in penny arcades and rode the Zephyr rollercoaster at the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park.
But pollution shut down the swimming and chased away marine life, and the amusement park closed in the early 1980s.
Slowly, the lake revived. In recent years, sightings of dolphins and manatees have delighted locals, and commercial and recreational fishing is thriving.
But Hurricane Katrina knocked out seafood docks and lakeside restaurants in 2005. The lake’s water quality also took a hit when the Army Corps of Engineers drained the city’s contaminated floodwaters into the lake.
Anthony Montalbano Jr, the chef and owner of Il Tony’s, an Italian seafood restaurant next to the lake, said it has been a struggle to stay open. Katrina swamped his restaurant at Bucktown, a lakeside community in New Orleans that has the feel of a bayou town.
“This was going to be our best year since Katrina for sure, but not now,” he said as the TV in the bar showed an ad for a law firm suing BP.