BP Oil Spill

A TALE OF TWO SPILLS

May 28, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry speaks at a press conference in Robert, La.

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.”

THE PELICAN STATE

May 26, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

An oiled brown pelican is cleaned by bird rescuers Tuesday in Venice, La.

NEW ORLEANS, La.– People here love their pelicans. So much, that some homeowners mark the entrance to their driveway with pelican statues.

Images of pelicans grace state license plates and bridge signs. There is even a cartoon pelican throwing away trash on the adopt-a-highway signs. After all, Louisiana is known as “the Pelican State,” and the state bird is the brown pelican.

The long-billed birds thrive along Louisiana’s coast, where there is plenty of fish to scoop up with their stretchy pouches. But now that much of the Gulf of Mexico is covered with toxic oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, many pelicans are in danger. The oil clings to their feathers in clumps, disrupting their function and making the birds susceptible to stress from air, water and sun.

“It’s like a hole in a wetsuit,” said Rebecca Dunne, senior coordinator with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. of Newark, Delaware.

Dunne is part of a team of bird rescue experts who are trying to scrub BP oil off brown pelicans and other birds, including gannets, cattle egrets, common terns and royal terns. The group operates out of a warehouse at Fort Jackson in Venice, La.

On Tuesday, bird rescuers cleaned a brown pelican, who had likely plunged directly into a patch of oiled water, Dunne said. The oil had stained the bird’s white head a reddish-brown color. Rescuers donned gloves, aprons, sleeves and eyeglasses before handling the pelican, an adult male. They first lathered his feathers with canola oil to loosen the BP oil. Then they plunged him into a tub containing a mixture of water and Dawn liquid soap. To keep the struggling pelican comfortable, the water temperature was set at 104-degrees Fahrenheit, the same as the bird’s body temperature, Dunne said. Using their gloved hands along with toothbrushes and Q-tips, the rescuers scrubbed the oil off the pelican’s squirming body, around its eyes, along its beak and inside its pouch. The effort took about a half hour. Next, the bird was hosed down to remove any soap that could also limit the function of his feathers. The pelican was then rubbed dry with a towel before being carried into a special room for blow drying.

When the birds are clean and dry, they are moved into plywood pens with small pools, where they recuperate from the stress of human handling. The birds stay in the recovery area for about 10 days before being released into the wild, said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, based in Fairfield, Calif. Pelicans and other large seabirds are being released as far away as Tampa Bay, Florida due to the wide expanse of the Deepwater spill, he said.

Over the last few weeks, oiled seabirds have been arriving at the center in small numbers, ranging from 1 to 4 birds per day, Holcomb said. He estimated that the survival rate was about 75 percent, with some birds dying from injuries unrelated to oil coating. BP will pay the full cost of bird rescue operations, said Holcomb, who could not offer an estimate of that cost. Dunne noted that the cleaning process is water intensive, often requiring up to 300 gallons of water per bird. The oiled water must be placed in barrels and disposed of properly, she said.

Dr. Erica Miller, a veterinarian who works for Tri-State Bird Rescue, said with most oil spills, bird rescuers  handle a large number of birds over a short period of time. Miller was posted in New Bedford, Massachusetts following the April 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay. Working out of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, she and other bird rescuers removed oil from about 100 oiled birds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls.

“In the New Bedford spill, we had lots of birds right away,” she said. “Here they just trickle in.”

For Miller, rescuing birds that are injured during oil spills is both “fun and fascinating.” But she admits that part of her motivation is fueled by guilt related to her own, and society’s, consumption of oil and oil-related products.

“We did it to them,” she said. “I kind of feel this obligation. I know we have the skills and knowledge and training and experience to rectify it, so I can’t just walk away from it.

FOLLOWING LISA TO LOUISIANA

May 25, 2010

By Becky W. Evans (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

EPA Chief Lisa Jackson speaks at a press conference Monday at Venice Marina in Venice, LA.

A day after EPA chief Lisa Jackson landed in Lousiana, I followed her to a small fishing port at the southern tip of the state, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The two-hour drive from New Orleans to the port of Venice brought mixed views of cattle ranches, oil refineries and egret-infested estuaries. My journey ended at the Venice Marina, the self-proclaimed “fishing capital of the world.”

After a boat tour of oil-soaked coastal marshes, Jackson joined me and fellow journalists at the marina for a short press conference in the sweltering afternoon heat.

Jackson described the tour as “heartbreaking.”

“I saw literally pools of oil staining those marshes,” she said, noting that the wind was favorable and blew the oil out to sea making it easier for cleanup crews to collect.

She said she wants BP to make major cuts, between 50 to 80 percent, in the use of toxic chemical sprays to break up surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The dispersants have unknown impacts on the sensitive marine environment. With deep-sea spraying underway, there is little need to attack oil floating on top of the Gulf with the same chemicals, she said.

“The use of dispersants means we are inevitably making environmental tradeoffs,” Jackson said. She announced that EPA is now searching for a less toxic dispersant after BP failed to provide an alternative to the Corexit dispersants used over the last 30 days. (Corexit was pre-approved by the EPA.)

After the press conference, I spoke with Capt. Mike Frenette, who once chartered fishing trips for tourists who wanted to reel in red fish, blue marlin and other saltwater species.

Since the oil spill, fishing bans have put a stop to his business and that of the other 50 or so charter boat captains who keep their boats tied up at the Venice Marina.

“Our business is shut down …we are not allowed to fish,” Capt. Frenette said. He and the other captains are on standby to earn some money assisting BP with the oil cleanup, but the work is limited. Frenette said he has only worked four days since the April 20 spill.

On my ride back to New Orleans, I passed a house with a red sign reading, “Damn BP.” Another sign thanked all those who are “helping with the oil spill.”

Here are some photos from the day:

SPILLING OFF THE PAGE

May 11, 2010

By BECKY W. EVANS (reporter.evans@gmail.com)

Oil spill headlines grace the front pages displayed outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.– During my pilgrimage to the Newseum on Monday, I found it impossible to stop thinking about the ever-expanding oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico — and my delay in writing a post about the disaster  for ThreeBeats.

After all, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the perfect ThreeBeats story: an event that impacts the environment, commercial fisheries and immigrant communities (think Vietnamese and Cambodian shrimpers).

Outside the museum’s Pennsylvania Ave. entrance, I found a display of the latest front pages from newspapers around the country. Many of them bore grim headlines detailing BP’s failed attempt to cap the blown-out oil well, where an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil gushes daily into the Gulf. Inside the museum, a giant news ticker flashed Associated Press headlines updating the latest plans for testing the effectiveness of deep-sea chemical dispersants.

Determined to contribute to the Deepwater coverage, I took a break from my tour of the six-floor museum and phoned into a press briefing staged at the Unified Area Command center in Robert, Louisiana. The briefing featured representatives from BP, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which are among the many agencies coordinating the oil spill response and cleanup. I was most interested in hearing from Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. Earlier in her career, Landry oversaw the federal response to the 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass., where up to 98,000 gallons of thick, fuel oil spilled from a Bouchard oil barge that drifted out of the shipping lanes and struck an underwater ledge.

For seven years, I have covered the progress of the Bouchard oil spill cleanup. I am wondering if Landry’s experience managing the response to the Buzzards Bay spill has influenced her approach to this much larger spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately Monday’s press briefing ended before I could pose this question to Landry, but I have since submitted my request to a Coast Guard petty officer working out of the command center in Robert, La.

Landry’s comments during the briefing reflected determination in tackling the oil spill at sea, and confidence in cleaning up any pollution that reaches land. “We’re ready for this should it come ashore,” she said.

Check out this slideshow of oil spill headlines from the Newseum display:

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