The Magazine

Oil Messed Up

Anger grows along the Gulf Coast at the Obama administration’s pathetic response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By WINSTON GROOM
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Some brave souls are resisting this nonsense. A couple of fire chiefs from the Magnolia River and Fish River communities in Alabama got tangled up in five weeks’ worth of red tape just to bring in equipment to block the oil from getting into their rivers. “They can arrest me and Jamie if they want to,” one of them said, “This is the biggest damn mess I’ve ever seen.”

Fixing the oil leak at the bottom of the gulf is, understandably, not something the U.S. government could be expected to do very well. So the Obama administration put the Coast Guard in charge of overseeing BP’s efforts, as well as the containment and cleanup operations. But the president has been careful to distance his administration from the operation and any blame attached to failure, while never losing an opportunity to remind the public that it is all BP’s fault and that they must be responsible for fixing it, cleaning it up, and paying for the mess. 

The world has watched the excruciating process unfold and learned strange new expressions such as “Top Hat,” “Junk Shot,” and “Top Kill.” Nothing worked until finally some sort of contraption was lowered over the leaking well, which now captures much of the oil. But why did this all drag out so long, with weeks passing in between BP’s various attempts to stem the flow? Apparently BP would wait until one effort failed before starting another, instead of having everything in place for a new attempt as soon as they gave up on the last. What were our leaders thinking?

All the while, a gargantuan mass of oil has been accumulating in the Gulf of Mexico—not as a monolithic slick, but in many forms. It comes sometimes as thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of foamy fingers of “orange mousse” or as a sheen or as tarballs or in thick brown globs or pods of oily slab hundreds of acres (or even miles) wide. Day and night it drifts out there, twisting and turning amorphously with the wind, tides, and currents, and washing ashore from Louisiana to Florida—soiling, stinking, killing. And what were the responsible parties doing all this time—those institutions that are supposed to be protecting citizens from this kind of nightmare? From all appearances, they were doing squat!

Two months after the well blowout and the start of the great leak, plans for keeping the oil offshore remain hopelessly inadequate. The so-called “response” could comprise wonderful material for a new series of Keystone Kops movie shorts. Consider this recent newspaper account of BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles touring oil-fouled beaches: 

Suttles later flew over heavy [oil] sheens on Perdido Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. He expressed frustration that there was no way for pilots [of spotter planes] to communicate with skimmer boat captains working on the Gulf surface and direct them to areas thick with emulsified oil. “We’ve got to address that. We need to get the skimmers to the oil,” Suttles said.

Say what? These people have known for two months there was a giant oil slick forming out there, bound to come onshore, and haven’t figured out how to connect the scout planes with the skimmer boats? Haven’t they ever heard of RadioShack?

Aside from the so-called “dispersants” that BP has been spraying to dissipate the oil, the two main tools for keeping the stuff off the shores are boom and skimmers. (The dispersants themselves were an occasion for a hissy-fit between BP and the EPA, which first approved them, then in response to complaints by scientists, rescinded the approval, then gave BP a deadline to quit using the dispersants, then changed its mind again and huffily reapproved them.)

Boom comes in various forms—large ocean boom, smaller containment boom, absorbent boom—but not nearly enough of it has been available on the Gulf Coast. Alabama governor Bob Riley was infuriated when, after his office secured a dozen miles of hard-to-come-by ocean boom to protect Mobile Bay, he was summarily informed that the Coast Guard had confiscated it for use in Louisiana. 

But the most egregious scandal of all is the lack of skimmer boats to remove the oil from the water before it hits land. A few weeks ago, at the height of tourist season, as oil began washing up on beaches in Alabama, the Coast Guard announced that the best way to deal with the problem was to let the oil wash ashore and then clean up the beaches once the tide went out. That tactic proved sadly wrong. A story in the June 20 Mobile Press Register was accompanied by photographs of the vast layers of oily goo that had collected on the bottom in the shallows many yards out from the beaches, killing everything it settled on, and ruining swimming and wading for everyone. Apparently the Coast Guard claimed it was easier to clean up the beaches than to fight the oil before it landed because it lacked enough skimmers. 

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