By Becky W. Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I came to Louisiana to ask a question that likely no other reporter covering the BP oil spill is thinking about: “How does the response to the Gulf spill compare to that of the Bouchard 120 spill in Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay?”
I got an answer Wednesday night after waiting two hours outside the locked gates of a Shell Oil training facility in Robert, La., a small, rural town about 130 miles from the coastline where oil from the leaking Deepwater Horizon well continues to wash ashore. The Coast Guard and BP have set up a command center at the site to direct spill response and cleanup activities.
Around 7 p.m., I joined a handful of print and TV journalists who entered the facility for a press conference in an air-conditioned trailer. After Coast Guard and BP officials briefed us on the “top kill” effort to plug the well, I pitched my question to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the spill.
Landry served the same role during the Buzzards Bay oil spill of April 27, 2003. As much as 2,350 barrels of heavy fuel oil gushed into the bay after the B120 barge drifted out of the shipping lanes and tore its hull open on a rocky shoal. The spill killed hundreds of federally-protected birds, shut down thousands of acres of shellfish beds and polluted more than 90 miles of beaches and wetlands, which provide crucial habitat for juvenile fish, much like the wetlands of Louisiana.
But as Landry pointed out to me, it is hard to compare the response to the two spills given the difference in magnitude.
“I remember with the B120 we had the risk of an endangered species, the roseate tern, and we sat there thinking we do not want to lose this species,” she said. “Well, now we have an ecosystem at risk, so the scale and scope of this is so much more significant.”
The Deepwater Horizon well, which ruptured on April 20, is spilling 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, according to independent estimates by a government panel of experts. To date, the oil has polluted about 100 miles of Louisiana coastline. BP has spent more than $750 million on the spill response and the federal government has spent more than $100 million, which will be reimbursed by BP, Landry said.
Response and cleanup activities for the Buzzards Bay spill lasted about three months, though removal of residual oil from area beaches continued for several years. Bouchard spent at least $36 million on the cleanup.
More than 20,000 people are involved in the response to the continuous leak in the Gulf, Landry said. Among them are many of the same experts who responded to the Buzzards Bay oil spill.
“I’ve seen many people from the B120,” she said. “The world experts in how to handle marsh cleaning are here. We have all these same people here at our finger tips to put their heads together and bring the best resources we can to this fight.”
During my short trip to Louisiana, I ran into some responders who have worked on both spills. At Ft. Jackson, I found Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue scrubbing oil off the feathers, beaks and webbed feet of pelicans and gannets that had plunged into the Gulf oil slick (see “The Pelican State”). Miller said the BP spill is different from the Bouchard spill due to the heat (90 degree days versus cool New England temperatures) and the number of birds rescued per day (a trickle spread over many weeks compared to hundreds over a matter of days.)
In Massachusetts, I am not alone in seeking connections between the two oil spills. When I flew home to Boston on Thursday, I checked email during my layover in Dallas, Texas. A press release from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office announced that it has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to reverse a lower court ruling that prevents the state from enforcing key provisions of the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2004.
The act, which was passed in response to the Bouchard 120 spill, aims to make oil transportation safer in Buzzards Bay. The provisions in question include 1.) mandatory tug escorts to shadow all barges carrying 6,000 or more barrels of oil and 2.) increased manning requirements for vessels towing barges through the narrow bay (see “Much Ado About Tugs in Buzzards Bay”).
“The Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act includes common sense measures to prevent spills from occurring in the first place,” Attorney General Martha Coakley said in the release. “It is unfortunately ironic given the circumstances in the Gulf right now, that we are being forced to challenge the Coast Guard to protect our coast and coastal waters from oil spills.”