NEW ORLEANS – In the midst of a huge public relations problem, BP now appears to be using a Louisiana scientist who was praised for his work after Katrina to try to minimize the damage.
Marine Scientist Ivor Van Heerden, who was working for LSU at the time Katrina struck, led the Louisiana investigation into why the levees failed – an investigation that was often highly critical of the Corps of Engineers.
Since that time, Van Heerden was fired by LSU and he is challenging his dismissal in court.
Now, following the BP rig explosion and the subsequent oil spill, Van Heerden has what appears to be a much different role from his post-Katrina investigations.
“What we have seen in many locations is that the fringe of the marsh has been oiled,” he said in a video on the BP web site. “The plants, the stems are so dense that they almost act like a barrier, so the penetration has been minimal – often a foot. The worst we have seen is six to eight feet.”
Van Heerden now works for Polaris Applied Sciences out of Seattle – a firm that specializes in something call SCAT – Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Techniques.
He said he leads a team that includes an archeologist, plus representatives from federal and state governments and that the group makes cleanup recommendations. BP, he said, ultimately pays for what they do.
“My allegiance is to Louisiana,” he said in an interview on Sunday Edition with Dennis Woltering, which airs on WWL-TV. “The client is the environment.”
Yet the video in which Van Heerden appears on a BP web site appears to diminish the impact of the oil spill.
“The public gets the perception that this is the black, tarry, heavy stuff that is in the ship’s bunkers and covers everything and smothers it, and just kills it,” he said in the video. “But, that’s not the kind of oil we’re dealing with. It’s a very, very light oil, almost like diesel and it breaks down very, very rapidly.”
Van Heerden said despite any perception, he is not selling out.
“Not at all,” he emphasized. “I’m working from fact-based knowledge as the data that’s been collected.”
Van Heerden says 63 miles of Louisiana's coastline has been oiled. He says he did the video that BP is using to explain the shoreline cleanup assessment technique. And he agrees it is still too soon to know the extent of the oil that is still washing ashore.
“There’s definitely been a loss of birds and other animals,” he said. “But, every day we see schools and schools of speckled trout and redfish and all the bait fish in abundance. We have yet to find dead fish.”
Despite the video on the BP site, Van Heerden said his work is not unlike what he did after Katrina – collecting scientific information.