A Few Drops from an Oil Spill Story

by Becky W. Evans

A decade ago, I had never heard of Buzzards Bay, a finger-shaped estuary in southern Massachusetts ringed with rocky beaches, salt marshes and winding tributaries that provide critical habitat for juvenile fish, bay scallops and a variety of bird species, including the endangered roseate tern. When a large oil spill threatened the sensitive bay exactly ten years ago today, I was here in Boston completing a master’s program in print journalism.

Today, as SouthCoast residents remember the environmental and recreational destruction wreaked by this spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of home-heating oil, I am once again far from the scene, completing assignments for another master’s degree program at Boston University.

But in the ten years between my schooling, I spent six years living beside Buzzards Bay, reporting on its oiled ecosystem, kayaking though its meandering inlets and even celebrating my wedding beside its shining waters.

On Sunday, April 27, 2003, the Bouchard 120 barge operated by Bouchard Transportation Co. entered Buzzards Bay on its way to the Mirant Canal Station power plant in Sandwich.  At approximately 4:10 p.m., the barge was negligently towed outside of the navigation channel and dragged over rocks that gouged a 12-foot hole in one of its starboard tanks providing an escape for the heavy fuel oil.

In the days after the spill, winds and tides pushed the oil ashore, where it washed up on more than 90 miles of shoreline encircling the bay. The black, sticky oil clung to bird feathers and beach rocks and fouled hundreds of thousands of acres of shellfish beds.

When I became The Standard-Times environment reporter in 2005, I inherited the Bouchard 120 beat. For years, I chronicled beach cleanups, oil spill response drills, class-action lawsuits, legislative battles and regulatory changes—all part of the spill’s toxic legacy.  When I left The Standard-Times in 2009, I was determined to write a book on the historic spill and its impact on what had become my beloved bay. The goal was to have it published in time for the spill’s tenth anniversary—today. Well, there is no book; only this blog post. But I do want to share a few “drops” from this oil spill story that I’ve continued to chronicle as a freelance writer.

Breakfast for Birds and Beach Crews

In May 2010, while reporting on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I visited a bird rescue center where veterinarians used toothbrushes and Dawn liquid soap to scrub oil from distressed pelicans. One of the veterinarians, Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue, said she had also responded to the Bouchard 120 spill, where she employed the same methods to save oiled seabirds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls. (Her team saved over 100 birds, but another 450 federally-protected birds died in the spill.)

Miller said the Bouchard 120 spill was the only time she has washed oiled horseshoe crabs. “It’s really difficult to remove the oil from all those gills on the underside,” she said. New Bedford’s chlorinated city water proved an added challenge since it was toxic to horseshoe crabs, though not birds. So Miller and her team took turns filling buckets with seawater that better maintained the “physiological balance” of the horseshoe crabs.

During her month-long stay in SouthCoast, Miller slept at a Holiday Inn Express with a complimentary, self-serve breakfast bar stocked with hardboiled eggs. She soon learned that seagulls had an appetite for this human breakfast food. With no kitchen stove to boil her own eggs, Miller relied on the breakfast bar.

“We kept sneaking them out and mixing them with the fish and they really liked it.”

While Miller was busy feeding eggs to oiled seagulls, Fairhaven resident Cathryn Brower was feeding beach clean-up crews hot coffee and day-old pastries from the local supermarket.

“It was such a freezing cold, windy, raw April and May … and these guys were freezing,” she said. “When they left, they sent me this beautiful big card. It said: ‘Thank-you, from all of us.’”

She said the workers, who wore protective suits, spent weeks “picking up pebbles” from Fairhaven’s oiled beaches, including the one deeded to her family home.

“I never swam on my beach ever again,” said Brower, who sold her house three years after the Bouchard 120 spill. “I just didn’t have the confidence.”

Now that I think of it, Brower baked me homemade blueberry muffins the morning I interviewed her years later at her New Bedford apartment. They were delicious, but I now realize that I never sent her a thank-you card. I hope this counts.

Chasing the local connection

What brought me to Louisiana was not so much the BP oil spill that began on April 20, 2010, but rather, the woman charged with managing its response: Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. You may remember her from the daily press conferences where she joined BP executives to update the media about the latest “top kill” effort to plug the leaking Deep Water Horizon well. I wasn’t so interested in talking to Landry about the “top kill,” but rather, her role in managing the response to the Bouchard 120 oil spill, for which she was also the federal on-scene coordinator.

As soon as I arrived in Louisiana, the daily press briefings suddenly stopped, foiling my plan to find Landry. I knew there was no hope of getting her to return my calls when I, a blogger for ThreeBeats Media, was competing with hundreds of reporters from respected national and international media outlets. My only chance was a press conference at the command center in the rural town of Robert, La. about an hour’s drive from my hotel in New Orleans.

For the first two days, I found other stories to cover: the oiled pelicans and a speech by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. On the third and final day of my trip, I headed to the Garden District and ordered eggs and grits at a small cafe. As I read the Times-Picayune, I monitored my email for news of a press briefing at the command center. Within an hour, the announcement arrived in my inbox, and I drove my rental car out to the Shell Oil training facility that housed the command center.

I waited for hours outside the facility, talking to reporters from The New York Times and the local TV stations. During that time, I thought to scribble a note on the back of my business card in case I had the opportunity to hand it to Landry. During the press conference, I managed to get the floor. I identified myself as a Boston reporter and asked Landry to compare the management of the B.P. spill (172 million gallons) to the Bouchard 120 spill (100,000 gallons). There was a spark of recognition in her eyes before she answered me.

“I remember with the B-120 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.”

At the end of the press conference, Landry was quickly ushered away from the podium. But I did slip my business card into the hands of one of the Coast Guard public affairs officers. The next day when I returned to Boston, I received the following email:

Becky,

It was great to see you at the press conference yesterday and I apologize that the demand of this operation did not allow me any time to visit or shake your hand … I read your note and look forward to sitting down with you sometime to discuss the book you want to write about the 2003 oil spill.

Warm regards,

RADM Mary Landry

Meticulous Mitt Romney

A year after the Bouchard 120 oil spill, state legislators responded with the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act (MOSPA), which introduced a series of protective measures including requirements for oil transport companies to hire tug escorts and state-licensed pilots to assist in navigating the shallow waters of Buzzards Bay. A year and a half later, the federal government challenged the constitutionality of these and other provisions of the state law.

One provision that escaped the federal suit was the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Trust Fund, which set a fee of up to 5 cents for each barrel of petroleum product. Oil transporters had to pay the fee when their products were received at a marine terminal within the Commonwealth. The fund’s proceeds have been used to purchase oil spill response equipment and training for state municipalities.

State Rep. William Strauss, a Democrat from Mattapoisett, was among the many SouthCoast legislators who helped draft MOSPA. Strauss said he was unsure at the time how Republican Governor Mitt Romney would receive their bill, particularly the fee for petroleum products. “I am happy to say he viewed the per barrel fee … favorably and agreed to it,” Strauss said. “When there was an important local issue, Romney was willing to make the [oil] industry pay.”

Strauss recalled the signing ceremony for MOSPA that took place in August 2004 along the Boston waterfront. “Why he signed the bill near Boston Harbor, I will never understand,” said Strauss, who thought a Buzzards Bay backdrop would have been more appropriate. He said Gov. Romney’s well-planned signing events were “amusing” when compared to those of previous governors who “had been pretty laid back.” The signing of MOSPA proved no exception.

“We got there and he wasn’t there yet but there was a desk and a chair where he was going to sit,” Strauss said. “His advance team had so much practice for presidential campaigns. His staffers had put pieces of masking tape in a semi-circle and written our names on them to show where we were supposed to stand. I switched the location of my tape with a rep that had not arrived yet so that I could stand where I wanted— closer to the center.”

At the Helm of a Tug Captain’s House

Arthur Fournier is everything you’d expect of a tugboat pilot who has spent five decades pushing and pulling barges through New England harbors at all hours of the night. The short man with a weather-beaten face and gravely voice revels in telling stories about his many misadventures at sea and on land, including the time he survived twelve gunshot wounds during a dispute over his towing business.

Fournier was a frequent source in my stories about tug escort provisions in Buzzards Bay. Most of our interaction took place over the phone, but two summers ago, I paid the 80-year-old, retired pilot a visit at his modest home, which sits appropriately on the northern edge of the Cape Cod Canal tucked in between the US Army Corps of Engineers field office and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he docks his fleet of tugs. Fournier was late for the appointment and when I called his cell phone, he told me he was about 20 minutes away in Fairhaven. “Just let yourself in,” he said. But I waited outside until he pulled his black SUV into the driveway and shuffled us into the house.

We sat in his office, which resembled a tug’s wheelhouse, complete with a blaring marine radio scanner and a wide view of the canal. A salty breeze blew in through the open living room slider as we discussed the economics and logistics of escorting oil barges up Buzzards Bay and through the canal.

My favorite memory of the visit is when we heard the blast of a tug whistle and Fournier raced onto the back deck and stared at a smoke-shrouded tug towing a barge up the canal from Buzzards Bay.

“Guess what tug that is!” he shouted. “I can smell it! It’s the Doris Moran. I love that class of boat. It’s the best in the business.”

I waited several minutes for confirmation and wasn’t surprised to see the words “Doris Moran” printed across the bow. My ears buzzed from the pulsing groan of its engine.

“God, I love that drone,” Fournier said.

A View from the Exxon Valdez Spill

With a doctorate in marine biology and a specialization in oil pollution, Riki Ott was well-placed when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled at least 11 million gallons of black crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. She was living in Cordova and working as a fisherman when the oil spill—at the time the nation’s worst environmental disaster– devastated the Sound and Cordova’s fishing-based economy.

For 20 years, Ott used her scientific training and family-bred activism to force Exxon to compensate the losses suffered by her community, which included environmental destruction, sick clean-up workers and a broken economy and community spirit. As she explains in her book, “Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” she found that healing and recovery would ultimately come from the people of Cordova working together, not from the corporation responsible for the mess.

I first met Ott in October 2011 when she stopped in Boston during a cross-country book tour. Ott delivered an impassioned lecture about oil spills and corporate personhood at Lasell College, where I teach media writing and communication courses. I approached Ott after her talk and asked her to sign my copy of her book. She took it in her hands and started beaming when she saw the dog-eared pages and underlined passages accented with stars and exclamation points. I explained that they were notes for a book I was writing about the Bouchard 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, which she said she had heard about. She signed the book:

To Becky

In solidarity

Riki Ott

A month later, I interviewed Ott by phone for an article I wrote but never published. Here are some of my favorite moments from our conversation about the Exxon-Valdez spill and her life as an environmental activist.

BE: Can you describe the visioning process that helped transform Cordova’s economy after the oil spill?

RO: Basically, Cordova became a case study in disaster trauma. What happened in Cordova was that we were naïve enough at the beginning to believe Exxon when it promised to make us whole. It didn’t dawn on us until four years after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster— when the economy completely collapsed because the fisheries collapsed— that nobody, except us, was going to help us.

Really what I’ve been doing in my tour around the country is sharing an exercise that we came up with after our economy collapsed. Basically we had to figure out how to diversify our economy. As long as we had to figure out how to diversify it, why couldn’t we bring in businesses that actually matched our values, human values. To do that, we had to figure out what it was that we liked about our community, what it was that we wanted to change, what action steps would be taken to make those changes, and how could we prioritize those action steps.

What came out of it was that our vision was to be a commercial fishing town. We wanted to diversify our economy in ways that were compatible with that vision. People came to realize of their own volition that strip mining and clear cutting and industrial tourism really weren’t compatible with that vision. Once people realized that, we then thought, “What is it that we can agree on?” We were able to start ecotourism and Copper River Wild, a massive marketing campaign for the only fishery on the West Coast. It was a huge success story.

BE: What role did your father, a student of Aldo Leopold, have in shaping your passions for community activism and environmental advocacy?

RO: My father’s role was huge and greatly underappreciated as a kid. I think as a kid your mom and dad are just your mom and dad, and you don’t really make heroes out of them until much, much later in life when you learn how hard it is to be a hero. With my dad, it was really role-modeling. We didn’t use the word environmentalist in our house.

When I was 13-years-old, the robins were dying. I would walk to school and literally birds would fall out of the sky at my feet. So I went home and called to my dad and said, “Why? Why are these birds falling out of trees, dying? What is going on?” He picked up one and put it in my hand and explained about the neurotoxin DDT. Then he gave me Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,”  and he explained that he was doing something about it. What he was doing was suing the state of Wisconsin to ban this toxic chemical.

It was a shoestring operation. I saw him going off to work in the morning and earning money and then making phone calls for his friends at night to raise money for this. We had this biologist that was working for Environmental Defense Fund stay at our house and an attorney. I would race home every day after school to see this trial unfolding on our dining room table, practicing the arguments and everything.  To me, that was a huge teaching of my father’s. Wisconsin banned DDT in 1971, and the nation followed suit in 1972, the year I went off to college to be a marine biologist.

When I flew over Prince William Sound in 1989 and saw this huge mess in my backyard, I literally had this flash back. I flashed all the way back to Wisconsin, and I saw how my life had kind of hip-hopped through all these generations to land me at this place, at this time, with this critical knowledge in marine toxicology that my new adopted home community would need. I could see it all, and I realized it was my turn to step up just like my dad stepped up.

In Conclusion

As I was sifting through paper and audio files from years of reporting on the spill, I was struck by something else Dr. Miller, the bird rescuer, said during our interview in Louisiana. I think her answer to my question, “Why do you do what you do?” is the best way to end this long tale of an oil spill:

“I think it’s because of guilt…most of the impact that we see to the wildlife is something that we, as a people, have done,” she said. “No, I didn’t cause the spill out here, but I drive a car. My home is heated by oil. I’ve got a propane gas stove…I’ve got a lot of plastics, I’m drinking water out of a plastic bottle right now. They’re all petroleum and they’re all things I want. I want to be able to drive somewhere; I want to be able to go in a plane somewhere…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.”

Maybe that’s why I can’t walk away from this story.

Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Looking out to the scene of the Bouchard 120 grounding from Gooseberry Neck in Westport. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)

The author kayaking on a Buzzards Bay tributary (Photo courtesy of Rob Mark)

The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)

The author and her husband celebrate their wedding beside Buzzards Bay. (Photo courtesy of JCrest Photography)

Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Dr. Erica Miller (right) washes oil from a distressed pelican at a bird rescue center in Venice, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)

Beach clean-up crews remove rocks that were oiled in the Bouchard 120 spill. (Photo courtesy of Cathryn Brower)

A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

A CNN reporter posing outside the Deep Horizon Response Unified Command Center in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, La. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and BP COO Doug Suttles at a press briefing in Robert, Louisiana (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Retired tug pilot Arthur Fournier in his home office (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photography by Becky W. Evans)

The Doris Moran pulls a barge up the Cape Cod Canal. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crow following a lecture at Lasell College. Photo by Becky W. Evans

Scientist and activist Riki Ott speaks to the Boston Occupy crowd following a lecture at Lasell College. (Photo by Becky W. Evans)

A Tale of Two Spills

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.”

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The Pelican State

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.

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Spilling Off the Page

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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