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Grand Isle Tarball Rodeo

Four Years After Big Oozy, Oil Cleanup Continues on La. Beaches

Photos by Daniel Paschall 

April 20, 2014 -- In the parking lot of a nondescript office on Grand Isle, three petty officers stood over the gate of a pickup truck, and sifted through a pile of earthen clumps.


The office, which sits at the end of a dirt road, doesn't appear on GPS. But it remains a destination for the team of Coast Guard personnel and other officials that continue to work on cleanup of the oil disaster. On Thursday (4-17), some of the oil ended up there, too.


Four years ago, the 87-day Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was a drawn-out drama broadcast continuously on spillcams and 24-hour news networks. While pictures of oiled pelicans and blackened marsh grass have long since fallen out of network producers' rotations, the residual effects of the disaster linger in courtrooms, segments of beach along the Louisiana coast and, as ever, BP press releases.


Even as time has passed, many of the facts surrounding the incident remain in dispute. The enviornmental effects of the disaster will take years to sort out, though reports have raise questions about the deaths of dolphins, turtles and pelicans, while a recent study documented heart defects in developing bluefin tuna.  


Even the amount of oil that gushed from the Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico remains in doubt. At a 2013 trial that seemed to drag on for as long as the Big Oozy itself, the government claimed 4.9 million barrels leaked while BP maintains that 2.45 million barrels spilled forth. The dispute now lies in the hands of a judge, who has yet to rule. No matter the final tally, however, the petrol's weathered presence still rolls in with the tide.







While they appear to be dirt balls or, if in the right state of hunger, a cookie with an exceptional chocolate ratio, the clumps that the trio examined Thursday contain an important element, identified in Coast Guard parlance as "252." That's short for MC252, which, in turn, is the industry shorthand for the Macondo well.


Following a storm or dramatic tidal event, tarballs, or Surface Residual Balls (SRBs), continue to wash up. The areas that the Coast Guard continues to track closely involve three miles of beach spread between Grand Isle, Fourchon Beach and the two islands that make up Grand Terre. Until this week, the three miles were the last remaining area that BP classified under "active response."


"We're seeing this residual oil being worked inside the coastal process, then being redeposited along the shoreline," said Petty Officer Michael Anderson.




The tarballs, which on Thursday were recovered from one of the Grand Terre islands, are mostly made of sand, shell and rocks. About 10-20 percent of their makeup is oil, which is down from higher concentrations that were recorded in the immediate wake of the disaster. The color has changed and the balls are a little rounder these days, but Coast Guard personnel can still identify them as "252" on site.


"When you look at it you can tell visually it's consisent with the way that it's looked from the beginning...It's not quite as dark as it used to be but it still has all the outside physical characteristics," Anderson said.



When they were done measuring, counting and cataloging, the team concluded they collected 21.04 pounds of material. When it comes to counting tarballs, weight is more important than quantity.


"You'll see 1,000 tarballs and it'll only be like three pounds because they'll all be BB-sized," Anderson said.



Covered and Uncovered

On Thursday, the order of the day in Grand Isle was tarballs. But not all of the remaining oil washes up on the beach.


Over the last year, the Coast Guard found multiple tar mats, or slabs of residual oil and wet sand. In June, crews found a 43,000-pound mat on Grand Terre, which was about 10-20 percent oil.

Following Tropical Storm Karen, teams went out to see if the churning seas exposed any new oil.


On Fourchon Beach, they found a two-ton mat that was uncovered by the storm surge. In November, the Coast Guard hit the mother lode nearby with a million-pound mat.


Removing mats that are embedded in the sand is a different job from counting tar balls. In addition to requiring outside contractors for cleanup, the Coast Guard is occasionally met with disputes about cleanup methods.


When the post-Karen tar mat was found on Fourchon Beach, officials suggested plowing the sand to expose the oil. But representatives of the Wisner Trust, which owns the section of beach where the mat was found, would only allow the sand to be tilled. The area was cleaned, but crews are still monitoring the area to make sure they cleaned up every last piece.


In the first six months of 2013, the Coast Guard decided to go further underground. Using augurs, teams drilled 5,280 holes in the beach in search of oil. The auguring program, known around the Coast Guard as LASER, resulted in 1.7 million pounds of oily material.


From all the separate operations, about 6.1 million pounds of material was collected -- and disposed off -- in 2013. In all, 91,244,853 pounds of material has been recovered in Louisiana since 2010, with almost two-thirds of the total coming in the first year.



Though they're still collecting oil, the Coast Guard's cleanup operations have scaled back significantly over the last four years. When oil was still flowing from the Macondo well, as many as 7,000 Coast Guard personnel were in the Gulf. Now, 56 staffers are assigned to Deepwater Horizon cleanup in the four Gulf Coast states affected by the disaster. By the end of the month, the Grand Isle operation will have nine people.


The amount of ground covered is also down significantly. The three miles of beach around Grand Isle 3,190.


Nevertheless, their operations remain regimented. Each day, workers and equipment are staged in case of a report of oil. If a new report of oil comes in, a text message alert goes out to officials, a BP representative and the contractor Danos, which works on the larger cleanup operations. If cleanup is required, BP is billed for the costs.



"We're normally there and have eyes on within 20 minutes," said Brette Tingle, the Coast Guard officer who dispatches teams and sends the alert texts.


For Thursday's Grand Terre tarball trek, the Coast Guard didn't receive any third-party reports. Instead, they dispatched a team to the area simply because it has been prone to seeing new oil.


"This is stuff we went out investigated and cleaned up proactively, without anybody triggering it," Anderson said. "It was us going out for a routine investigation, and this is what we brought back."



'Not Over'

The routine went on as normal Thursday. But just two days earlier, BP issued a statement that declared "active shoreline cleanup" was over.


"The U.S. Coast Guard today ended patrols and operations on the final three shoreline miles in Louisiana, bringing to a close the extensive four-year active cleanup of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon accident," a BP press release said.


BP had already declared the active cleanup operations complete in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. In the company's own cataloging, however, Louisiana beaches remained under cleanup until the week of the anniversary.


Coast Guard officials said they weren't consulted about the release, and given the personnel still in place, were obviously taken aback.


On the same night BP issued their statement, the Coast Guard sent out a release of their own. Capt. Thomas Sparks, the federal on-scene coordinator for post-Deepwater Horizon operations, is quoted as saying the cleanup "is not over -- not by a long shot."


The Coast Guard is typically seen in public talking about process and protocol, but the BP statement brought a little more out of the Captain. Later in the week, Sparks fielded questions about BP's declaration at a meeting of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.


“I don’t view this as the time, just days away from the fourth anniversary, this is not a time for chest thumping,” he said. “This is a time for reflection on the 11 men who died on that rig.”


Contacted after the message was released, BP Senior Vice President for US Communications Geoff Morrell said the British oil giant's statement "never suggested the work of the U.S. Coast Guard or BP is over."


"Our announcement Tuesday merely highlighted the end of active cleanup of the Gulf shoreline," Morrell said. "We believe that is a very significant achievement that resulted from four years of sustained work with the USCG."


A BP spokesman also pointed out that the company's initial statement said, "Coast Guard personnel are pre-positioned to investigate any further reports of oil-based material."



Rather than tarballs, the base of the kerfluffle was language and perception. The Coast Guard had, in fact, transitioned to another stage of the cleanup, known as Middle Response. But, according to Anderson, they never intended to characterize any of their operations as complete. Instead, they were changing bureaucracies.


The localized Deepwater Horizon incident response team is no longer directly in charge of new oil discoveries. Cleanup of any Macondo well oil will now be reported as a case to the National Response Center (NRC), which handles all oil spill reports across the country. 

The NRC allows cases to remain open long past their immediate cleanup. According to Anderson, the method allows operations on those three miles of beach on Grand Isle to remain in place. Under the new method, which was in place on Thursday, teams of three people investigate rather than as many as 15. 


Over the next year, the Coast Guard plans to continue sending teams out to investigate after any major weather event, among other proactive measures. 



On Thursday, egrets and pelicans gathered on the beach on Elmer's Island, providing a reminder that it was spring nesting season. The Coast Guard hopes the reduced number of people on each investigation will lessen the environmental impact to the beaches, marshes and other sensitive areas where they're working. 


Until they hear otherwise, the goal remains as it has been: to remove any Deepwater Horizon oil that appears.  


"You're seeing where the marsh is growing, you're seeing wildlife and you're seeing it make that recovery," Anderson said. "But we're not comfortable with it totally being called good."


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