ATLANTA — Anne Rheams saw them this week floating in the water, small and scattered and about the size of silver dollars. Some had washed up near boat docks, others near lakeside subdivisions — tar balls, most likely from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
This week, they made their way to Lake Pontchartrain, the vast estuarine oval that hems New Orleans to the north — and defines the city's character and destiny as much as the winding Mississippi River a few miles south.
By Tuesday, cleanup crews had collected more than 1,020 pounds of tar balls and waste from the lake and the Rigolets, the strait connecting the Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico.
It was a relatively small smudge for a lake that is 630 square miles, and one that will not pose a direct public health problem: New Orleans gets its drinking water from the river.
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But Rheams, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, described the occasion as both an emotional and psychological blow for New Orleans. The city is more than 100 miles from the shores of the Gulf, and while the worry and gloom of the catastrophe penetrated the metro area months ago, there was no oil — until now.
"People love the lake, and they live around the lake," Rheams said. "It's really bringing this closer to home for our folks in the basin."
Crews have put 600 feet of boom at a choke point in the Rigolets to prevent more oil from making it to the lake, according to the oil spill response headquarters in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, bad weather kept skimming and decontamination boats docked, and workers were left to try to skim the water from the shore.
Rheams, whose group heads up the effort to protect Lake Pontchartrain's fragile ecosystem, was trying to be optimistic Tuesday. She said she hoped that the oil showing up in the lake would be more weathered, and thus less toxic, than the heavy goop out on the open sea.