Long battle for N.E. crews answering oil cleanup call

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / June 7, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

HOUMA, La. — On Friday, Day 46 of the Gulf oil spill, Maine Maritime Academy graduates David Kendall and James Ramsay sat at their computers, trying to find more boats to help skim oil from the ocean’s surface and coordinate the ones already working offshore.

It’s a complicated, round-the-clock job with a serious objective:

Contain the month-and-a-half-old spill, now the largest in this nation’s history, that has been leaking an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil a day into Gulf waters, threatening sea life and the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida coasts.

Ramsay and Kendall work for a New York-based oil spill management firm, National Response Corp., which hired several New England companies to help with the cleanup.

They include Clean Harbors Inc. of Norwell, Trident Environmental Group of Marlborough, and Moran Environmental Recovery, which has offices in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

Those companies are supplying crews for beach cleanup teams and on-the-water oil containment efforts, scheduling flights over the oil spill, and training locals to deal with the mess. Efforts often move slowly, situations change quickly, and knowing how to adapt is essential.

“It’s a battle. It’s a war,’’ said Kendall, the marine fleet manager for National Response. “You have to start every day with a clear head and say, ‘OK, what is the day going to bring?’ and be prepared as best you can.’’

Since cleanup efforts began, roughly 15.5 million gallons of oily water have been collected, according to the official Deepwater Horizon Response website, a sizable portion of the roughly 24 million to 51 million gallons that by today will have leaked into the Gulf, based on government and other estimates. The website is run by the oil giant BP, its contractor Transocean — owner of the injured rig, which was drilling for BP — and government organizations.

As of Saturday, more than 20,000 spill workers were on the job. They had laid out 4.55 million feet of a floating blockade which helps contain, and in some cases absorb, oil on the water’s surface.

Some observers, like Boston College environmental law professor Zygmunt J.B. Plater, question how useful the Gulf efforts are, even as they note that every effort is needed. Plater chaired the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s legal task force after the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Many of the methods used to clean up that spill are now employed in the Gulf.

“I worry that much of what they are doing, even if it is in good faith, is following an antique set of technologies that should have been much more sophisticated by now, 40 years after Santa Barbara,’’ Plater said, referring to a 1969 drilling rig blowout that fouled the coast of Southern California. “[And] the people who come down from Alaska to help with the Gulf Coast just shake their heads.’’

While past spills spurred increased oversight and protection mechanisms, on paper, too often the vigilance needed to prevent a disaster has not been maintained, Plater and others said.

“The whole thing could have been anticipated a lot better, and we could have been a lot better prepared,’’ said James Tate Jr., director of the Center for Environmental Economics and Ethics at the Potomac Institute, a public policy research group. “We have had several warnings, and not paid attention to them.’’

Today is the 49th day of the spill, and the political blame seems to matter little to workers trying to control the spill. They can see the 16- and 18-hour days stretching into the months ahead, and they keep their focus on getting the job done.

“You can’t unplug from this,’’ said Michael Reese, a senior vice president for National Response, and one of the lead managers in the Houma Command Center that BP and the Coast Guard set up in neighboring Schriever.

“It’s kind of like being in a war zone. You can’t say, ‘OK, I’ve been here five days, I’m leaving Iraq.’ ’’

Reese has been in Houma 30 or maybe 40 days — he’s no longer sure. He spends much of the time on a cellphone, talking to his company’s contractors and helping his team’s members find and deploy resources.

Many companies and organizations have woven their efforts together.

Clean Harbors, for example, contracts with Trident, which has crews along the Alabama coast training teams and scooping tar balls from beaches.

Kendall, National Response’s marine fleet manager, jokingly described the coordinated effort as “loosely organized mayhem’’ subject to the weather, which here means daily rain showers and winds, and potentially tropical storms or hurricanes.

Nearby, Ramsay, of Scarborough, Maine, worked with a computer program that links to Google Earth and allows him and roughly 20 colleagues in Houma to track their boats.

Along the edges of the room, whiteboards list vessel names, noting which are out and which are in, while large paper maps show the position of cleanup efforts and the spill.

Skimmer boats like Seahorse VI, which docked in Venice, La., for repairs on Thursday, spend their days — and often, their nights — in the slick, sweeping the water, mopping up oil with each pass. When full, they visit a “decon station,’’ a barge acting as an on-the-water scrubbing area. There, crews surround the dirty vessels with containment booms and rinse them clean.

Boat captains like Alton Buhler, who pilots the Eveready, have been hired to stand by for supply runs to larger ships and decon barges like the IOS Pipeliner, where a Clean Harbors crew will live for a three-week stint.

There’s a lot of waiting as deliveries get stalled, ships are diverted, or inclement weather keeps workers from toiling offshore. Last week, Ramsay and Buhler waited at a dock in Venice to ferry degreaser to the Pipeliner.

“Welcome to spill life,’’ Ramsay said, noting that much of the job takes time to be done right.

At a staging area on Dauphin Island, near Mobile, Ala., Quincy resident Patrick Quinn, a Trident supervisor, said that cleanup efforts are starting to run more smoothly. He has been in the Gulf for five or six weeks, teaching locals how to, in his words, “do boom ops,’’ and pressure-wash oily boats.

“The days kind of blur together out here,’’ he said as a team prepped for a practice run, setting booms around a barge in the waters near downtown Mobile.

“Everything is going great. The guys are ready to go out.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at