Smoke billows from a controlled burn of spilled oil off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico on June 13, 2010.Reuters
Venice, La. — From Saturday’s Globe and MailPublished on Friday, Jun. 18, 2010 9:36PM EDTLast updated on Friday, Jun. 18, 2010 10:06PM EDT
On a coast besieged by crude, Alan Allen rises early each morning, boards an airplane and flies out over the Gulf of Mexico. He is looking for oil, the thicker the better.
When he finds it, he will dispatch a small ragtag navy of fishing and shrimping boats to the area. Their job is to use booms to corral that oil into even thicker mats, then set fire to it and watch it burn.
That, at least, is how it’s supposed to work.
Occasionally, by the time he wings over the choicest oil patches, the fishermen have beat him there.
“These fishermen, they’re so competitive as to who is going to get the biggest burn they get up early and sneak off and go and look for heavy oil,” Mr. Allen said. “Sometimes we’ll arrive and they’ve found it with their flashlights.”
Mr. Allen is one of thousands of soldiers in an army of spill chasers. They are professionals and they are amateurs, drawn from local communities ravaged by the spill as well as from far away. Despite the oil-soaked pelicans, despite the dead dolphins and despite the wrenching images of degradation that have dominated the discourse about this catastrophe-stricken place, they have been able to claim remarkable progress against the leaking oil.
Their work has become increasingly critical as estimates of the oil leak soar far beyond BP PLC’s current capacity to capture crude. For most of the up to 60,000 barrels a day flowing from the well, the spill chasers are the first, last and only line of defence.
Miles from shore, far from sight, an armada of ships of all shapes and sizes is hard at work, some using 11,000-kilogram skimming units built by a Vancouver company to suck oil from the surface, others spreading chemical dispersants on the water, others vacuuming away the spilled crude, others sampling the water to measure the scale of the problem.
On land, convention centres have been transformed into mobile command posts and vacant industrial parks have become staging areas, where armies of vacuum trucks, tractors, graders, storage tanks and other equipment await deployment.
The Gulf spill is like no other in U.S. history, and the response has, according to those involved, been equal to it. More than 5,000 vessels are involved, some part-time. Billions have been spent and committed to be spent. More than 30,000 people are helping. President Barack Obama has authorized deployment of 17,500 National Guard troops. That contingent alone is equivalent in size to the total number of people employed by Louisiana’s commercial fishing industry.
And they are doing work that has never been done this way before, in an effort that leaves many of the spill chasers with as few as two hours of sleep a night.
“I’m in my 70s now, and if I ever retire, this will certainly be the jewel in the crown of achievement,” Mr. Allen said in an interview from Seattle. He will spend this weekend there on only his second break since he flew to the southern United States just days after oil began to leak, to lead the spill’s oil-burning operations.
The challenge facing the spill chasers is enormous. If you were to drive from the Texas-Louisiana border to Tampa, Fla., along the sections of coast that are most threatened by the spill, you would travel roughly 1,500 kilometres. But if you were to take a boat and duck into every one of the myriad bays, indentation and open bayous that exist along that extraordinarily complex coast, you would travel somewhere between 16,000 and 21,000 kilometres.
Fully three-quarters of that length is marsh, the most difficult type of shoreline from which to scrub oil. Some of it is so delicate that biologists believe they would do more damage by attempting to clean the oil than by letting nature run its course.
Government scientists have found massive clouds of undersea oil up to 80 kilometres from the leaking well in concentrations high enough to cause marine death and gruesome genetic deformities. Worse, those areas are vital breeding grounds for shrimp and fish harvested nearer to shore. There is little any of the spill chasers can do to clean up those plumes, and to the scientists who have studied it, that fact is an ominous one.
“These things are going to disperse everywhere, and they’re not something you can stick a net in the water and scoop up,” said Graham Worthy, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida.
“You’re talking about massive, massive destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.”
But Ed Owens, an oil-spill specialist with Polaris Applied Science who is co-ordinating efforts to survey the damage, says there are successes to report as well. Much of the Gulf shore has been unaffected. Of the 561 kilometres that have been affected, only 145 are moderately to severely affected.
“The combination of burning, dispersants and skimming is phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve burned more oil than most spills ever produce.”
Mr. Allen did not actually think he would be able to burn the spilled gulf oil. Before crude began gushing from a broken well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, crews had used flames to scour a spill-sullied ocean only once before. It was in 1989, on Prince William Sound, on the day before an Easter Sunday tempest roiled the waters around the leaking Exxon Valdez.
Mr. Allen was there, directing the effort. He saw it work. He was persuaded that burning oil is a good way to mop up crude. But when he was called to the Gulf in the first few days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20, he was not persuaded it would work.
“Oil coming up from a mile deep leaves a lot of uncertainties as to its combustibility,” he said.
Now it’s working so well, that he has established a system. Every day, after finding the best oil to burn, he forms a 15-kilometre by 15-kilometre “burn box.” Inside it, two dozen ships – 20 of them shrimper boats – work to corral oil into fire-resistant “burn-boom.” They then light it, setting off a bright ocean torch that spews thick black smoke.
“We’ve literally been able to get to burn many thousands, well over eight, 10, 12,000 barrels in a single burn. It’s pretty incredible,” said Mr. Allen, who has helped to co-ordinate more than 200 such fires that have consumed 160,000 barrels of oil.
It is, relative to the 60,000 barrels a day that scientists believe could be leaking, only a moderate success. But combined with the crews who have skimmed 500,000 barrels of oil-water mix, others who have applied five million litres of dispersant and natural evaporation – by some estimates, as much as half the crude becomes airborne when it hits the surface – Mr. Allen said, “we must be making a pretty significant dent in it.”
Any progress comes as good news to many of the spill chasers, who are local workers torn between the immediate need to make money and the long-term prospect of losing their livelihoods to one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history.
On those many miles of coast that surround those areas of burned oil, the spill isn’t just the best business on the coast these days.
“It’s the only business around here now,” says Billy Wallbaum, a sport-fishing guide who is now using his boat to ferry Coast Guard members and others responding to the spill.
The small town of Venice is a coastal Louisiana hot spot for the offshore oil industry and, now, the spill. Hotels are sold out, their parking lots dominated by Greyhound-sized Coast Guard mobile command stations. In an area so devastated by Hurricane Katrina that some communities have yet to rebuild churches and schools, new construction is happening, with BP building housing for 1,000 workers. Trucks loaded with bright yellow boom roll down the roads, and the air chatters with a half-dozen helicopters.
Fishing guides accustomed to making $600 a day are now pulling in $1,500 in their new ferry duties.
At Cypress Cove Marina, the Venice haven for yacht owners and sport fishermen, BP has spent $60,000 on gas, another $12,000 to fix a ramp it damaged and more to station a police officer at the marina’s Harbor Seafood and Oyster Bar to keep in check rowdy workers after hours.
It has also rented part of the parking lot and is spending $250,000 to resurface it.
But the influx of money has brought all manner of mixed blessings. Take the guides, for example. Determined to employ many of them, BP has them working a rotation of 14 days on, 14 days off, which brings their monthly income to roughly $21,000. Had they been guiding, some would have worked nearly every day, leaving them with a monthly wage not far off what BP is paying. The difference: Before the spill, fishing could be counted on for years to come. Now, the spill work is likely to leave soon – and it’s unclear whether the fishing will return.
Or take an even larger example. Of the dozen underwater robots BP has used in its attempts to block and capture oil, eight come from Oceaneering International Inc. The spill may seem like a boon for the company, but has been anything but. In fact, Oceaneering was forced to cut its quarterly earnings expectations by about 15 per cent. The reason: It expects the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling to cancel a greater quantity of work than it has gained through the spill.
Or, finally, take Cypress Cove’s new parking lot. Mike Ballay, the marina’s harbour master, considers it grimly. He worries what will happen if the spill seriously hurts fishing. Some guides are determined to profit while they can, before retiring, convinced their region’s now oil-sodden image will not recover any time soon.
As thousands along the Gulf Coast burn, rake, vacuum and skim away what oil they can, it’s the worry about a lost future that weighs over any cleanup bonanza giddiness.
After all, you can have the prettiest asphalt lot on earth, Mr. Ballay says, “but what’s the use of redoing a parking lot if you have no customers?”