Battle against oil spill 'Blob' changing
HOUMA, La. - Inside a sprawling command post in southern Louisiana, The Blob is everywhere. It stains the many maps tacked to white walls. Computer monitors beam satellite images of it floating in the Gulf of Mexico, a magenta mass that looks more like an island than the colossal oil slick that it is. It sometimes changes shape on these screens, or breaks off into bits and pieces, but The Blob itself never vanishes. Coast Guard Capt. Roger Laferriere oversees this command center, coordinating the unprecedented cleanup of oil off of the Louisiana coast. There are other posts like it in Mobile, Ala., and Miami, but none has more manpower, equipment - or more of The Blob, as Laferriere and his staff have christened their enemy - than this base inside what once was a BP training facility for offshore oil production. On any given day, some 40,000 people are working all along the Gulf Coast to track where the oil is headed, lay protective boom, skim what they can and clean shorelines; nearly half of them are under what is known as the Houma Incident Command Post.Some are analysts who sit in darkened rooms at the BP warehouse, feeding satellite data into computerized maps that show where the oil is moving, what marshes have already been boomed and what areas skimmers are toiling. Others - many of them shrimpers and fishermen turned cleanup contractors - work out of quaint docks converted into "forward operating bases," hitting the water after sunup to do the hands-on tasks necessary to contain and clear the oil. There's displaced boom to be repositioned. Torn boom to be picked up, brought to shore and repaired. Absorbent boom soaked through on one side that must be turned or swapped out. The spilling may have stopped at least for now, but their work goes on. Before a new cap fitted onto the busted wellhead corked the leak this past week, anywhere from 92 million to 184 million gallons of oil had gushed into the sea. Somehow, it's got to be cleaned up. Leading that effort for the Louisiana coastline is Laferriere, a man of boundless energy and confidence who holds a degree in environmental science and has worked any number of oil spills big and small - from Exxon Valdez to the post-Hurricane Katrina spills that dumped more than 8 million gallons. Securing the leak does little to change his mission over the next weeks and months. "Even given that," he says, "we've still got a lot of oil on the water. We're going to continue to push forward until all the oil is removed and the people of Louisiana can get back to their way of life. We're going to be here until the end." Laferriere's job is to not only coordinate efforts on the ground, but to meet with parish presidents, city councilmen and mayors, to answer their many questions, and to fend off criticism that not enough has been done to stop and capture the crude. "Not enough" is something he's heard a lot since arriving in Louisiana on May 22, almost a month to the day after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It may be a complaint that there's not enough boom, or not enough skimmers, or not enough boots on the ground to pitch in. And so he's made it his job to explain to anyone who will listen just how this all works - which methods clean the most oil fastest and the many obstacles out there to getting the job done. One day it could be a thundercloud that shuts down work. The next, high waves that prevent vessels from skimming. Or a full moon that makes sea states even more challenging. Coast Guard Capt. Meredith Austin is Laferriere's No. 2 and runs the daily operations of the command center. "Normally when you do an oil spill response, you have a release of oil ... but at some point in the near term, the source stops and then you know: This is what I'm fighting. You've got to skim as much as you can and burn as much as you can, do protective booming and clean up what's on the beach. This one, you're doing that every day but you don't know when it's going to end" once and for all, she says. "We get up every day and say, 'Who's the enemy today? What does the blob of oil look like today? Let's go attack it.'" The surface slick from the oil covered 2,700 square miles on Thursday - down sharply from its peak on June 14 but still an area slightly larger than Delaware, says Hans Graber, who has been tracking its movements via satellite imagery from the University of Miami's Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. Although the heart of the slick has fluctuated with weather and the amount of oil coming out of the seafloor, Graber says 44,000 square miles of the Gulf have seen significant amounts of oil pass through. Even if the cap holds and no more oil spills, Coast Guard officials say cleaning what's left of the oil offshore could take anywhere from several weeks to several months. Long-term restoration of soiled marshes and other affected areas could take years, depending on the extent of damage. Barring bad weather, which itself can be a regular occurrence, the command post routine rarely changes: Mornings start with spotter flights to get a sense of where the oil is on any given day. While much of it remains amassed near the wellhead, other so-called streamers and ribbons have broken off and made their way into inlets such as Barataria Bay, forcing crews to constantly monitor the moving oil and shift resources as necessary. Data integration teams update computerized maps to depict where the slick has spread and to help operations managers in Houma communicate with nine forward operating bases scattered across the coastal parishes to determine where skimmers and boom-tenders should focus their efforts. Weather forecasters keep an eye on storms and tides, to help decide whether it's an optimal day to burn some of the oil closest to the explosion site or use chemical dispersants to break it up. It's a complicated effort that can be set off course merely by big waves or high winds. To understand how and why, consider the three primary ways the oil is removed from the water's surface. The first is skimming, and the Coast Guard has deployed a combination of vessels all across the Gulf Coast to help with the task. Closer to the source of the spill itself are some 19 to 23 Weir skimmers, which draw oil up through suction pumps and into tanks. Smaller skimmers, including ones that use drums to absorb the oil and others equipped with squeegee-like devices, work in shallow waters closer to shore. In all, nearly 600 skimmers are deployed in the response, although national incident commander Thad Allen said this week that the Coast Guard was on pace to almost double that number. Some of the vessels can remove up to 8,000 barrels - or some 336,000 gallons of oil and water mix - a day. The challenge is this: While some of the spilled oil is a thick, black mass, much of it is sheen, and sheen is too thin for skimmers to be able to collect. Even near the source of the spill, the oil is only about a tenth of a millimeter thick, Laferriere says, meaning vessels equipped with booms must first surround the oil and tow it into a thicker pool that can be sucked up. If the tides kick up because of a full moon or bad weather, the booms can't properly tow the oil and skimming is useless. "Six feet of water, we can't skim," Laferriere says, likening the effort to trying to capture oil being sloshed like water in a washing machine. A second cleanup method - burning the oil - is unsustainable if waves reach just 2 feet high, again because the oil must be towed into a thicker pile in order to catch fire. Even the slightest wave action can keep too much water splashing onto the oil, making it unlikely to ignite. The more controversial use of chemical dispersants, which are dropped from crop-duster type aircraft and help break up the oil so it can biodegrade, can potentially disperse hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil at a time, the Coast Guard estimates. But if winds reach 20 knots, those operations are ceased because gusts could carry the chemicals away from their intended target. Some combination of these three techniques have been used to purge the oil from the Gulf since the spill began on April 20. More than 30 million gallons of oily water have been removed from the surface, and another 10 million-plus gallons have been burned. More than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants have been dropped, and the Coast Guard estimates that with every gallon of chemicals used, up to 20 gallons of oil may be disseminated. Laferriere is explaining all of this one recent day at the Houma command post, as he paces a cavernous room dubbed the fish bowl. The walls hold maps of the Louisiana coast, all showing The Blob colored red. Under a label that reads "Weather Forecast," graphics are hung depicting tide patterns, winds, and tropical storm warnings and watches. Other maps show scheduled overflights to drop dispersants. Operational planning happens here, where dozens of men and women - some Coast Guard employees, other BP workers, other contract specialists (such as mapping experts from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) come together each day to develop a strategy that is passed to field branches in places such as Cocodrie, La. The fishing village two hours south of New Orleans has been transformed from a fisherman's paradise into a warehouse for oil removal equipment, like much of the Louisiana coast. At the CoCo Marina, the dock is blanketed with row after row of orange hard boom and softer absorbent boom, some awaiting repair or cleaning, other pieces ready to be ferried to oil-tinged marshes and bays. Anchors that hold the protective barriers into place are piled near dozens of blue buoy balls. Luke LeBlanc is 43 and used to spend days shrimping the many bays in and around Cocodrie. His job now is to help clean those waters. He's up every morning at 4 and over to the CoCo Marina, where he signs in and gets his orders for the day. Then he heads out in an airboat to check boom and, if necessary, help stretch and anchor it to protect the canals. "It's the same thing pretty much every day," he says. "Sometimes it's shifted. Sometimes it's busted. Sometimes it's on the bank. Sometimes the anchor's gone, and you've got to go find it. It's been a nonstop battle just maintaining. And then sometimes you maintain and the oil moves to a different area and you've got to start all over again." "Heartbreaking," he calls his daily trips down canals now lined with barges stacked high with all the tools needed to face down an environmental catastrophe. "There are certain days you go out there and you want to just put your head down and cry, but you can't. You've got to deal with it and get it cleaned up. As much as you want to point the finger and blame and get mad and relieve some frustration, that's not solving the problem." Despite that, much finger-pointing has ensued, especially from local Louisiana politicians frustrated with what they saw early on as a lethargic response on behalf of the government and BP. At one point, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and others questioned why more equipment seemed to be sitting on docks rather than in the water. But even Nungesser, who just last month told a congressional panel, "I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil," says the cleanup effort has improved. "In the last two weeks we have made unbelievable progress," Nungesser says. But the most significant step forward may be the 75-ton metal cap now in place at the bottom of the ocean. "It's somewhat a sense of relief knowing, hopefully, that every bit of oil we pick up from here on out will be a little less that's going to be out there, as opposed to picking up less than was being spilled and losing ground on a daily basis," Nungesser says. "It's a great feeling."