by Sean Boone
Behind the Scenes of an Environmental Disaster
Since the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig ignited on April 20, killing 11 people and placing the entire Gulf Coast at risk for economic and environmental fallouts, the potential damage that could be inflicted is greater than that of any hurricane. The mantra “Drill, Baby, Drill” that Republican heartthrob Sarah Palin, Congressman Jeff Miller and U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio have preached for months has now become “Spill, Baby, Spill.”
Gov. Charlie Crist and President Barack Obama have begun to rethink their lemming-like endorsements for increased oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Even the Florida Legislature is backing off its goal of allowing drilling three miles off the shores of Florida beaches. Representative Dean Cannon, the Speaker Designee of the Florida House of Representatives announced on Tuesday, May 4 that oil drilling off of Florida is a dead issue.
For years, we have been told that offshore drilling is safe, and that the oil spills of the past century would never happen again. If they did, then the oil companies had contingencies in place to mitigate any damage.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster literally blew apart those myths as Gulf Coast residents currently wait for what could be an environmental equivalent of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the 1980s.
More than two weeks have passed since the oil rig exploded and sank, and few questions have been answered as to how the accident happened, who is to blame and exactly how long it will take to seal the underwater leaks, which are dumping an estimated 250,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.
WHO OWNS WHAT, DID WHAT
British Petroleum, who owns the mineral rights to the rig, contracted Transocean to excavate the 18,000-foot underwater well. The global oil giant has stated that it takes economic liability for the spill but has stopped short of saying it is entirely at fault.
“We take responsibility for it under the Open 90 Act (1990 Environmental Protection Act), but the rig was Transocean’s…the riser was Transocean’s,” says Daren Beaudo, a British Petroleum representative for the company’s Unified Command in Mobile, Alabama. “BP was not conducting the drilling.”
There are reports BP and Transocean could be facing permit violations due to the depth of the initial well and the absence of vital emergency equipment.
Environmental attorneys Mike Papantonio and Robert Kennedy Jr. head a legal team that is filing multiple class-action lawsuits on behalf of shrimpers, oystermen and fisheries across the Gulf of Mexico against BP. Their investigators have found that the well not only lacked the acoustical, emergency valve that could have initially shut off the spill as has been widely reported, but that it also did not have a deep-hole valve that could have also been used to stop the leaking.
Furthermore, Papantonio claims that the Deepwater Horizon well was only permitted to be at a depth of 18,000 feet, but BP was drilling the well to 25,000 feet, which has made it difficult for engineers to compute the magnitude of the disaster.
On May 3, Beaudo told reporters that the company possessed no answers concerning the incident, but would be working until it “exhausted all efforts.”
“We don’t understand what happened on that platform…we don’t know what the cause of the fire and explosion was and we don’t understand why the blowout preventer failed,” he said. “We will keep working until we’re successful or have exhausted all possible efforts.”
Beaudo’s response echoes what his company has said for two weeks — they just don’t know how bad things will get.
Right now, the company is one week into the development of an underwater containment system that will funnel the leaking oil from the ocean floor through a pipe into a containment vessel. The system will be a quick fix until BP completes the drilling of a relief well — somewhere in the ballpark of mid-summer.
BATTLING THE APPROACHING OIL SLICK
On Monday, May 3, the IN joined other local media to watch Coast Guard crews move about, secure boom lines and make final preparations for departure from the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
For the 50 who call the Oak their home vessel, they face what they hoped to have trained for — the unknown.
“This is the first time our ship has worked to collect oil,” Michael Glander, commanding officer of the Charleston, S.C.-based cutter ship told reporters. “We are normally a buoy tender.”
The Oak is one of three Coast Guard cutters that have been deployed to skim the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Although the 255-foot vessel is equipped with bladders that can handle 75,000 gallons of oil/water mixture and its crew is trained annually for oil cleanups, it is, in many ways, a rookie responding to what may go down as the worst drill-related disaster — ever.
Around 1,000 ships of all sizes have either been deployed by the federal government or contracted by BP to not only skim, but to also lay out boom lines along the coastlines of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
“Weather has hampered us, but we’re still in action,” said Beaudo. “We’ve put out 275,000 feet of booming and we’re adding more every day.”
Despite washing booms ashore and halting crews from leaving port due to high seas, Mother Nature may still be our biggest ally in the cleanup.
Dr. Joe Lepo, a microbiology professor at the University of West Florida and Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation (CEDB), says bacteria and evaporation break down a good portion of the oil naturally because of its light texture.
“Our oil is sweet ‘light oil,’ and a lot of it…and I would say about 50 percent of it…is already gone because it evaporates. Unfortunately, there is still stuff that remains because there are much more complex chemicals (within the oil) to break down.”
Lepo initially came to Florida to work on a bioremediation project with the EPA right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He eventually began a grant program through the university and has tested the use of bioremediation (through fertilizer) on oil mixed with our local sand.
“We used Pensacola Beach sand and watched oil degrade,” he says. “The best approach…the best thing to do first is scoop up what you can scoop up. If you can get 99 percent of it up then you just replace the sand. The bioremediation approach, using indigenous bacteria or brought in from elsewhere, is slow but it works.
“The amount of oil in the spill is a lot, but it’s a lot because it’s in one place,” Lepo adds. “There is more oil coming out of the Gulf of Mexico every day, but it is spread out. When we have a spill like this, you have a concentrated area that is near the shore and it is going to affect that shore in a concentrated area. It’s nerve wracking watching this when there is nothing you can really do at this point.”
LOCALS PREPARE FOR PENDING LANDFALL
Last week, when it became clear that the ever-growing oil spill was headed to Florida, Escambia County Commissioners held an emergency board meeting to discuss appropriate steps in addressing the impending spill. They declared a local state of emergency following funding approval from Gov. Charlie Crist.
County Administrator Larry Newsom began developing a local action plan to protect beaches, waterways and fishing beds. On Friday, April 30, Robert Turpin, the manager of Escambia County Marine Resources, unveiled a proposal to use 30,000 feet of boom to create a series of V-shaped barriers outside of Pensacola Pass to prevent oil from entering Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound.
The plan was presented by Commissioner Grover Robinson to Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole, the Coast Guard and BP at a special briefing at the Chappie James Building across the street from Pensacola City Hall. Gov. Crist was excited about the idea, but the plan only received a lukewarm reception from the Coast Guard, DEP and BP. It would take four more days and another visit by Crist to Pensacola to get the local action plan approved.
Fellow County Commissioner Gene Valentino told the governor at the same briefing that the county had 300-500 volunteers at the Perdido Bay Community center waiting to help clear the local beaches of debris that might later hinder an oil cleanup operation. Valentino said that they are ready to be trained to do whatever is necessary to help, which seemed to upset DEP Secretary Mike Sole.
The debris was picked up from the shores of Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach by volunteers. Hundreds have signed up for HazMat training to help with the oil cleanup efforts along the coast. Workforce EscaRosa is also currently in the process of contracting and training 500 people to help with cleanup for up to 18 months.
Local fishermen have already committed their boats to help. BP has reported that it has over 700 charter and commercial boats from Louisiana to Florida helping to deploy boom. Those same charter contracts led to protests from commercial fishermen along the Gulf Coast about a waiver form that they were all required to sign.
BAYOU LA BATRE BLOW-UP
With lawsuits bubbling across the coast, BP representatives have held town hall meetings across the Gulf Coast, urging locals to take a $5,000 buyout for losses in exchange for, what many consider, releases from any future lawsuits.
On Saturday, May 1, a packed Bayou La Batre, Ala. community center housed hundreds of concerned fishermen and citizens — many of whom were visibly angry and confused with BP’s answers to their questions.
After representatives pitched the proposal, Mayor Stan Wright urged the crowd not to sign anything and to wait on responses from their trade associations and government officials.
BP later refuted the claim and said the waiver and release form was not legally binding, chalking it up to a mere “formality.”
But according to Spencer Collier, the director of economic development for Bayou La Batre, the company still has not answered the questions it needs to answer regarding the forms.
“We have not seen the actual forms, so until we see those, we are encouraging people not to sign anything,” he says. “We’re going to trust them to be good corporate neighbors, but that includes them answering our questions.”
IN publisher Rick Outzen went on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann to show the public that the waiver forms were very specific and much more than just a boilerplate form that had accidentally been inserted into the claim packet.
Outzen told Olbermann that BP has had several environmental problems in recent years.
In 2007, BP entered into an agreement with the Justice Department and agreed to pay $373 million in fines and restitution to settle criminal charges stemming from a deadly explosion in Texas, an oil spill in Alaska and allegations of price-fixing in the nation’s propane markets.
In March 2005, an explosion at BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 contract employees and injured 170. BP pleaded guilty to a one-count felony violation of the Clean Air Act in the case and agreed to pay $50 million in criminal fines.
A year later, oil from BP’s Alaskan exploration subsidiary leaked from pipelines on the tundra and in a frozen lake. BP pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act and will pay $20 million in criminal fines and restitution to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Alaska.
It’s still too early to tell just how serious the economic implications from the spill will be, but experts already warn they will be far-reaching.
Dr. Rick Harper, director for the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida, says Escambia County’s losses will be dependent on a number of variables.
“They will be substantial of course. We can’t know with precision right now (how much of a loss we will see), but the longer answer will depend on tourism, leisure, seafood and the time-associated costs of dealing with the process.”
The county allocated roughly $5.3 million for tourism promotion for the 2009/2010 fiscal year — a figure generated through tourist bed taxes. Much of these TDC funds rely heavily on hotel stays and rental properties on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.
Harper says the Haas Center has been working with the County for some time on a plan for development on Pensacola Beach, for such things as beach re-nourishment, based on tourism dollars that come in each year. Now, the oil spill adds a new spin to projections.
“You must assess the economic output,” he says. “Do businesses in the county and city generate tourism (dollars) or just property on the beach? What we are looking at is the value of area residence and tax base here at our project. What happens if the beaches are fowled?”
But many beach businesses are already feeling the effects of the potential “fowling.”
Comfort Inn on Pensacola Beach has reported numerous cancellations since last week, as well as fewer calls coming in to book.
“We’ve had 16 cancellations (as of Tuesday) since then,” says manager Amanda Donaldson. “The Santa Rosa Island Authority is advising all of us to keep track of cancellations and inquiries.”
Paradise Inn employee Megan Nelson says they have been trying to talk people out of canceling by giving them the opportunity to cancel the day they check in — many to no avail.
“People are scared. They are worried they are going to get here and not be able to eat seafood and play on beach.”
On May 2, federal officials initiated a 10-day ban on fishing from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Pensacola Bay.
According to NOAA, the commercial fishing industry provides roughly 103,000 jobs to Floridians and generates $2.4 billion in sales to the region affected by the ban.
“This all is sickening to me,” says Capt. Mike Thierry, who owns Capt. Mike’s Deep Sea Fishing on Dauphin Island, Alabama. “I’ve spent more than a third of my life in the Gulf and don’t know what to expect.
“We’ve had hurricanes, but nobody around here has ever lived through something like this. Hopefully we’re overreacting…I just don’t know what to think.”
April 20 — The Deepwater Horizon oil platform ignites in flames, killing 11 and seriously injuring two
April 23 — British Petroleum claims the underwater well that Transocean is drilling is not leaking
April 24 — BP says the well is now leaking 1,000 barrels of oil per day
April 28 — Amount of oil estimated to be leaking grows to 5,000 barrels per day
April 28 — Coast Guard approves the burning of 100 barrels of surface oil
April 29 — President Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar make first public comments on spill
April 30 — Air Force deploys spraying of fertilizer over slick
May 4 — An Escambia County plan to implement a booming device outside of Pensacola Pass is approved by the Coast Guard and BP.
May 4 — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announces that BP has offered a $25 million grant for recovery efforts for Gulf Coast counties