Launch Slideshow

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Battle at the beaches

Battle at the beaches

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    Louisiana's National Guard laid 8 miles of “tiger dam” to protect the beaches of Grand Isle. When filled with water, the flexible tubes keep oil from moving further inland during high tide. Photo: Craig Guillot

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    By June 14, oil from the April 20 explosion (see orange star) reached Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Later that month, 2010's first hurricane — Alex — temporarily stymied cleanup in Louisiana and Texas. Map: Dan Swenson/The Times-Picayune

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    By the end of June, 39,000 people and 5,000 vessels were sucking and skimming oil from deep waters as well as bayous, marshes, and streams throughout the Gulf Coast. Photos: Thompson Pump

By Craig Guillot

BP had dozens of contracted laborers collecting tar balls on foot when oil from the nation's worst ecological disaster began turning the white sugar sand of Alabama's beaches black. But when Orange Beach Public Works Director Tim Tucker saw how little progress they were making, he sent 20 of his 52 employees out for a three-hour cleaning marathon that netted a ton of tarballs.

“BP just doesn't service it like we want to,” he says. “But we can't do this every day and keep the city running.”

Operating under heat indexes of more than 100° F and strict supervision by OSHA inspectors, BP contractors must take 15 minutes off for every 15 minutes they work. Add that requirement to lunch hours and safety meetings and less than half a workday is actually spent cleaning.

“There's so much red tape with BP, and the government compounds the problem,” says Tucker, who describes the fight against the oil as a losing battle. “In an eight-hour workday they're only working for two hours.”

And that's when contractors follow instructions.

Since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil well, containment boom was used to keep oil from entering waterway openings and ecologically sensitive areas. One contractor showed up in Orange Beach with the wrong type when he was supposed to be down the road in Florida. By the time the contractor realized his error, more than 4,000 feet of boom had washed up. Tucker's employees had to pull it off the beach and load it into trucks.

Even though responding to such requests took up more than half his time, Tucker wished his operation could get more involved. But because of a lack of resources and time, he's let BP do most of the dirty work. “These things just eat up our time,” he says.

Having more equipment would have helped. Usually, beach cleaners push a large rake through sand to sift it and remove trash. But because the process breaks large chunks of oil-bound sand into smaller pieces that are harder to clean, equipment manufacturers recommended removing tines and shake-screening the sand.

As of press time, BP had committed 10 Surf Rakes, a brand manufactured by H. Barber & Sons Inc., to Baldwin County in Alabama. But with 40 miles of coast in the county and 9 miles in Orange Beach, it isn't enough. “If they would've furnished the machines, we'd have run crews at night,” Tucker says. Sand is easier to clean at night because the oil coagulates when the temperature drops. “Not to take away from the guys who were working, but we've got a vested interest in doing it quicker.”

So does Gulf Shores, Ala.

“We have about 15 weeks out of the year to make our money, and this happened at the wrong time,” says Public Works Director Mark Acreman, PE. “Tourism's down probably 80% since this started.”

After installing finer tines on the rake of a three-year-old BeachTech cleaner, his crew cleaned 5 miles in the same amount of time that it took BP's to clean one-tenth of a mile. As news of the equipment revision worked its way up the ladder, Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft invited BP officials to a demonstration of Acreman's setup. BP bought 25 of the German-made cleaners.

“It was their cleanup; we just demonstrated a better method for doing it,” Acreman says. “We wrote protocols on operating the machines, cleaning operations, and things like how to watch out for endangered species like sea turtles.” Acreman's department also recommended volunteer turtle watch organizations for BP to hire as consultants for nighttime cleaning operations. BP's Joint Information Center did not respond to requests for comments to this article.

By August, according to Acreman, more than 35,600 tons of solid waste had been collected from the Gulf Coast. Oiled waste is hauled to more than 50 regional storage sites in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi to be packaged in lined dumpsters that are transferred to landfills, most privately owned. Louisiana's defunct Grand Isle Shipyard collected more than 7.7 million gallons of oily waste by early August.

Though the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality issued emergency exemptions to allow landfills to accept the waste, some operators decided not to ask for one. The only oiled waste the Jefferson Parish Landfill in Westwego accepted, for example, was a couple of loads of Tyvek suits and cleanup materials shortly after the disaster.

“There was a question about the characterization of it,” says Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs Landfill Engineer Rick Buller. “Oil field exploration and production waste has an exemption from hazardous waste regulation and we were just concerned it wasn't properly tested.”

In some jurisdictions, such as Harrison County in Mississippi, officials blocked waste from being dumped anywhere in their communities.

SLOW-MOTION MESS

Stripping oil from sand and returning it to the beach requires constant sweeping. Even though the leak has been sealed, some experts say it could be months, possibly even a year or more, before all of the oil washes ashore. In the meantime, refuse continues washing up.

It's a disaster in slow motion because the damage unfolds daily.

“In any given season the occasional tar ball washes up, but we're going to see this for quite some time,” says Acreman. “It took two months for the oil to get here, so I figure it'll be coming for at least two months after they cap it.”

While the full environmental impact of the spill may not be understood for years, the potential long-term damage isn't limited to beaches.

Most of Louisiana's 397 miles of coastline is comprised of wetlands. Unlike beaches, there's no effective way to clean oil from vegetation without doing further damage. The key is to prevent oil from reaching sensitive areas and waterways that could carry it further inland. Public works managers had a very limited role in marsh cleanup and protection because BP took the reins, but like their cohort in Alabama they held the front lines in the early days of the disaster.

On May 9, Plaquemines Parish Public Works Department crews helped the Louisiana National Guard fill sandbags that were dropped by helicopter into openings in bays and waterways to keep oil from traveling further inland. Director Kerry Babin brought down seven employees and equipment — backhoes, front-end loaders, and dump trucks — to work with the Guard for a week. By the time the Coast Guard established the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, Babin's department was no longer needed.

“They brought in outside contractors,” he explains. “We're operating under the directives of the state and working when we're needed.”

In neighboring Jefferson Parish, the small fishing village of Grand Isle was Louisiana's ground zero. Tourism and commercial fishing died after federal authorities closed the waters. As in Plaquemines, Jefferson Parish Public Works had a limited role in cleanup efforts once BP took over. In May, department crews hauled sand, built levees, and helped place a dam on the beach.

“It was pretty much just us when it started,” says Jefferson Parish Public Works Director Kazem Alikhani, PE. “Our state homeland security and emergency management department started preparing, and if they needed something from public works, they just used us as they needed us.”

POTENTIAL COMPLICATIONS

Gulf Coast managers had another potential concern stemming from the explosion: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expected the 2010 hurricane season, which began June 1, to generate three to seven Category 3 or larger events by the time the season ends Nov. 30.

With that threat looming, operations had to consider the implications for oil still making its way shoreward. It wasn't far-fetched to imagine it could be carried ashore and inland in a tidal surge. Once there, it could inundate streets and drainage canals.

In Louisiana, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security was coordinating much of the response efforts, so Jefferson Parish's Alikhani could only speculate on what his team might be asked to do in such a scenario.

“We'd probably provide portable pumps and crews to help clean out the ditches and canal systems to make sure we can get the water out,” he says. Sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, the parish's 47 pump stations house more than 130 pumps. With 12-foot discharge tubes on some, Alikhani thinks there's little threat that oil would interfere with operations.

Though some Gulf Coast residents have questioned the safety of drinking water, public works managers so far aren't concerned. Located more than a mile inland, for example, the aquifers that provide source water for Gulf Shores, Ala., are naturally protected from storm surges.

In Jefferson Parish, intake pumps are located dozens of miles up the Mississippi River. With a flow rate of up to 700,000 cfs , the river actually helps keep the oil at bay. Even in a worst-case scenario, it's highly unlikely that oil would enter water supplies.

“Our intakes are just too far up-river and the current protects it,” says Alikhani.

—Guillot (craig@craigguillot.com) is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bankrate.com, and Nationalgeographic.com. His September 2007 cover story (“Aftermath: No time for cafe au lait,” page 32) explained how PUBLIC WORKS readers rebuilt New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Web Extra

Oil remains just below the sand two decades after the Exxon Valdez tanker dumped 11 million gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound. To learn how one town is faring, click here.