What’s Next for Oil Spill Affected Areas? Advanced Biofuels?
Finally, the state thought they saw renewal. The new, sturdy 900 foot-long fishing pier jutting out toward riprap barriers opened in December 2009. Newly completed protective levees were planted with erosion resistant plants courtesy of volunteers. Two to three miles of beach recreated from dredged sand opened on Good Friday, 2010.
In mid-May the beaches have closed, fishing is restricted and visitors have dwindled to a trickle. Most come to observe and photograph the damage from the gooey, sticky black and reddish brown ponds of oil and oil residues making their way over, under or around protective booms and past un-netted shrimp boats skimming the surface, as it washes over the beach sands.
What’s the plan for the park? “There is no plan right now,” explains Augustine on May 23, the second day after the oil has hit park property. It’s hard to anticipate what is going to happen; hard to determine if or how the beaches and marshes of the park will be cleaned; what the effect on visitors would be; whether beaches can be reopened or when; and whether fishing and marsh activities will be restricted. Right now they are just leaving things as they are, restricting visitor access.
Augustine understands that volunteers may want to help out. She suggests that they contact the Red Cross or the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP.org) for now. She currently has no operations planned for the park.
Anderson doesn’t specifically say it, but British Petroleum is supposed to be in charge of the oil spill recovery and response; with oversight by the US Coast Guard. Coming to this job only 7 months ago, expecting to be running an eco-tourist attraction and summer fun beach and campsite, she’s instead found herself faced with an eco-disaster of indefinite scope; something it appears no one on this coast has seriously contemplated or prepared for.
As sad as the damage at the park is, it is so far nothing compared to the red and black goo being scooped up a 15 minute drive to the west at the 12-mile long beach near Port Fourchon. Representatives of the US Coast Guard and British Petroleum were available to the press on May 23. No wonder Tamara Anderson, the Grand Isle State Park Manager had no idea what to do. The BP representatives could give no concrete answers about the anticipated scope or duration of the damage, response or recovery in general or about the specific Port Fourchon location.
They could demonstrate and describe the on-going local operations, but obfuscated and deferred most questions about how many Coast Guard or other personnel were involved, or were expected to be involved in a specific time frame; assured that there would be adequate Coast Guard personnel, although they had no idea how many would be needed; waffled about how many contract workers would be needed; or whom people interested in working on the response should contact, even though the US Coast Guard has a number to call for those interested in volunteering.
Lieutenant Michael Patterson of the Joint Information Center in Houma, however, gave a concrete personal example of the staffing issues. Coming from Virginia, he was ordered to this operation for a duration “not to exceed 31 days.” He said that for active duty Coast Guard, this was not an unusual order. He has been on site for 21 days and should be able to return to home base when his relief comes on board. However, Patterson acknowledges that although he expects to leave in 10 days, it has taken longer to get relief for others working on this project and he may have to stay longer.
When asked by a Reuters reporter what was being done with regard to the response effort, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Robert Forgit of Alaska spoke not so much of the specifics which he was overseeing, but generally about the controlled burning offshore (23,000 barrels in one day), about the booms and skimming operations to prevent (maybe more appropriately, to limit) the expansion of the spill area and to collect the oil; and about general responsibility of the Coast Guard to oversee BP’s response operations.
Kacy Louviere, BP’s Field Operations Manager (Port Fourchon Site), made every effort to have Forgit provide information to the press, especially on-camera, admitting that he did not know or was not prepared to discuss details about BP’s operation. On what should have been simple questions that a field operations manager might have easily known off the top of his head, such as names of contractors at the site (who were working only feet away from him), he promised to get back to the questioner; or looked to the Coast Guard personnel for answers.
Although the event was described as a “briefing” by BP and Coast Guard representatives, neither Forgit nor Louviere volunteered to give basic information about the immediate area operations such as to report how many bags or pounds (tons?) of contaminated sand were taken off the Port Fourchon or other area beaches; did not say how many people had been contracted to work on the project; how many hours they were working or what skills were needed to work on the spill; did not volunteer information on what plans were for addressing contamination of marsh areas other than Forgit saying that efforts could not include walking in the marshes to avoid making the problem worse, and would require “shallow water assets,” i.e., boats with shallow draft. Yet Forgit was very satisfied with BP and their contractors’ efforts.
Information available on May 23 from US Coast Guard and BP representatives:
- 65 miles of shoreline is affected;
- The public is supposed to call to report any evidence they see of oil coming onshore or into marshes. BP will arrange a rapid assessment to confirm the observation, take samples, assess the samples and determine appropriate response and remediation actions. (The next day I tracked down the number: 866-448-5816, monitored by BP.)
- No volunteers are working on the response. All workers are employed by BP through subcontractors. If someone is interested on working on the response, they need to go through contractors, obtain training in hazardous materials work and safety procedures. (Although the day after the briefing, I found that there IS a number to call for those interested in volunteering: 985-902-5231 x2)
- The Coast Guard is doing overflights everyday.
- The Coast Guard is responsible for overseeing the response and recovery efforts by BP; although it is not a requirement for Coast Guard personnel involved in these operations to have more than cursory training after being assigned to this project; there is no requirement that those involved in oversight of this project have any, let alone extensive, education or experience with oil/gas operations or oil spill recovery.
- Currently approximately 1000 active and reserve Coast Guard members are working on this project; with 300 working out of the Houma office alone; and with more expected every day.
- Birds caught are cleaned and released far away from the spill, in Florida, for example.
- Oil and residues recovered during the response are managed by a waste management contractor; some sold to be recycled into asphalt production, for example.
- The Coast Guard at Port Fourchon was “satisfied” with the efforts of BP in this area. Even though Forgit was aware of reports of complaints in the Grand Isle and Venice areas, such as statements describing the response as “FEMA-like.” And reports that Homeland Security took measures to get local work boats to join the skimming and response efforts, measures that BP allegedly failed to take.
Lieutenant Michael Patterson said the word the Coast Guard is using to describe the scope, duration and severity of the BP spill is “unprecedented.” “Unprecedented in scale, type of incident, response and coordination of state, local and federal agencies.” He said this operation was on a par with larger military operations; including not only the Coast Guard in an oversight role, but also the US Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage, the US Air Force dropping dispersants and engaging, along with the Navy, their combat camera operations; the Army Corps of Engineers and Army National Guard moving riprap and sand on the ground. The Coast Guard has activated the Command Center in Robert, Louisiana; and the Incident Command Posts in Houma, LA; Mobile, AL; and St. Petersburg, FL.
Rodney Verret is in charge of response management for O’Briens, an oil and gas risk management consulting firm that has moved from administering “table top drills” to “overseeing,” on behalf of BP, the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill He explains why no unaccompanied visitors are allowed on the clean-up site or anywhere along the beaches. Their concern is contamination from the hazardous materials (black and red goo); that even getting a bit on the skin could be a “light irritant;” and the desire to prevent people from tracking the sludgy substance into other areas of the beach or elsewhere.
Although some news articles have reported complaints from workers about discomfort or illness which they relate to their involvement in response efforts, Verret insists that he received no complaints from workers.
Similarly, even those suited up were not permitted to take samples of the substance or near-by water for examination by students or independent investigators without special permission.
Looking over a seemingly clean beach back on Grand Isle, a couple who own a house in the area were surprised that all the beaches were closed, regardless of whether oil spill damage was evident or not. They wondered what the reason could be.
They asked if we were there “on a mission.” The mission of Advanced Biofuels USA, I explained as I dug a copy of the Advanced Biofuels supplement to the Washington Post out of my bag for her, is to promote the understanding, development and use of advanced biofuels. I was inspired to come to meet with people covering the disaster, working on the response and living in the area to help with the conversation about “what next?”
So often with press coverage, talk shows and general conversation about the BP oil spill, examples of how to avoid or prevent this in the future dwell on development of wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power; yet none of those presents a viable, near-term solution to the need for liquid transportation fuels—the major use of petroleum. It will be a long time before wind, solar or nuclear power fuels our transportation system; a very long time for planes.
Advanced biofuels can be a big part of the solution as soon as there is adequate funding for research, development and plant construction.
It became clear from visiting the Dynamic Fuels plant in Geismar, Louisiana and from driving through Port Fourchon, basically an oil industry support industrial park, that the future of advanced biofuels will look much like the past petroleum/gas-based chemical industrial landscape. In some ways, only the feedstock will change. Yet underneath, it will be a less environmentally harmful industry and a safer industry.
As Brennan Matherne the public information officer for Lafourche Parish (including Grand Isle and Port Fourchon) explained, you may find more dissatisfaction with the response from people in Venice, Louisiana, because their livelihoods are based on fishing and the seafood industry.
In Port Fourchon, the beginning of the LOOP Pipeline which handles 13% of the nation’s oil, if you don’t work for the oil companies directly, you work for them indirectly or a member of your family and your friends do. Your livelihood depends on that industry. So, people in Lafourche Parish are more inclined to be more forgiving of problems with BP’s efforts, more understanding about the difficulties. And, as I saw in many eyes, afraid of what the future holds if this oil spill disaster is as bad as it is said to be.
If they once made a living from the tourism trade, they’ve seen that die; hoped for its recovery with the re-opening of the state park beaches; and are now let down again. If they work the shrimp boats or fish for recreation or to supplement other income, it is likely that will be shut down and damaged for some time to come; they may have jobs on other rigs or with other support businesses. But they see change coming.
Matherne reflected on the beginnings of Port Fourchon, intended to be a port for importing bananas from the tropics; then overtaken by the more lucrative oil industry.
What next? There’s extensive infrastructure. They ask about algae. I talk about the Dynamic Fuels plant just upriver; think about Verenium’s Jennings, Louisiana, plant using sugar cane residues as feedstock. Advanced biofuels? Dare they hope?
READ MORE (Leilani Munter on Huffington Post)
READ MORE (Mother Jones)