by Elizabeth Grossman
When the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 of the 126 workers on board and critically injuring three, the ruptured Macondo well – located nearly a mile beneath the sea surface about 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana – unleashed what has been called the largest accidental release of oil in history. By the time the well was capped on July 15th, an estimated five million barrels of oil had flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting more than 350 miles of Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida.
The clean-up response launched has also been unprecedented in scope – and hasn’t yet concluded. At the height of the response, just before the well was capped, the response effort involved more than 45,000 people. Response workers included employees of federal, local and state agencies, the military, BP and its contractors and subcontractors, along with community organizations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and volunteers. Their activities extended from the fragile Louisiana marshlands, to the fine sand beaches of the Florida panhandle, across coastal barrier islands and Gulf fishing grounds, and offshore to the well site and beyond.
A year later, we’ve learned a lot about the events that led to the rig’s explosion. Numerous recommendations have been made for reforming the off-shore drilling industry to prevent such disasters. Considerably less attention has been paid to the details of the clean-up effort itself – who was being hired and trained and by whom, and what kind of health and exposure monitoring was conducted to assess potential hazards in all clean-up locations – and how these efforts were being coordinated across the affected region. As efforts escalated and expanded it became increasingly difficult for anyone outside the Unified Incident Command to ascertain many details relevant to response-worker health and safety. Key pieces of such information are missing from the publicly available record. What follows is information compiled over the past year that describes the extent of the response and points to the importance of protecting first-responder health and safety in any comparable future emergency.
Rapid escalation of response and wide variety of worker backgrounds
Statistics available through the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Joint Information Center show that the number of people involved in the response escalated quickly. On April 26th 1,000 personnel were reported involved in the response; six days later on May 2nd, 2,000. By May 6th, that number had climbed to 10,000. Early in the reporting from the JIC, volunteers were counted separately from others involved in the response. At the beginning of May those numbers were combined. On July 15 – the day the well was capped – the JIC reported approximately 45,000 personnel involved in the response and more than 6,800 vessels. On October 1, the number of response personnel was reported at 20,642. On December 16th that number was 6,212. On April 7, 2011 the official US government account of the response listed “more than 47,000 federal, state, and local responders” involved in the clean-up and “more than 2,000” who “remain committed to cleanup efforts.”
Those engaged in clean-up work included federal agency employees from the 16 agencies and departments that make up the National Response Team, military personnel, state and local government employees – including local law enforcement and emergency medical teams – from Gulf Coast states, along with BP contractors and sub-contractors and their employees, community organization employees, including those from area hospitals, and volunteers. The roster of response workers included professionals with years of experience working with offshore oil platforms as well as people working around oil for the first time.
Clean-up workers were stationed on beaches as well as on boats in the Gulf. On-shore clean-up workers and supervisory or support personnel included Coast Guard, US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, BP contractors and subcontractors, members of the National Guard and other military departments, local law enforcement, and volunteers. Among the subcontractors’ crews were scores of people hired through a diversity of state jobs programs about which it was often difficult to obtain information. Those employed by BP contractors and subcontractors for offshore clean-up work included fishing and shellfish boat crews and owners put out of work by the oil spill and who were hired through what was called the Vessels of Opportunity program. Offshore response workers also included Coast Guard, people employed directly by companies that run and service offshore oil rigs and their support systems, and those hired by these companies’ subcontractors. No lists of the subcontractors for on- or offshore clean-up work were or are publicly available but among the companies involved were Ampol, Clean Harbors, Fluor, Marine Spill Response Corporation, PEC, and Seacor.
Wide variety of clean-up tasks
The oil clean-up and mitigation work involved a variety of activities on- and off-shore.
Clean-up activities continued after the well was capped on July 15th and after the well was plugged on September 18th. Some, including tar-ball removal, are on-going as of this writing. Oil clean-up included:
- Beach cleaning: Tasks included manual oil and oiled debris removal (using rakes, shovels, and garbage bags) and mechanical sand cleaning (using bulldozers and similar motorized equipment to remove oiled sand)
- Placing, cleaning, decontamination, and replacing of protective and absorbent boom both on shore and on the water
- Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation (capturing, cleaning, and caring for oiled wildlife as well as wildlife release and relocation after cleaning)
- Containment and collection of surface oil at sea, along with additional work on offshore vessels and platforms. This included cleaning and decontamination of boats themselves, and work on the drill-ships where flaring of oil was conducted. This work involved booming and skimming surface oil for collection and operation of pumps to move collected oil and oil-water mix from small collection barrels to large containers on larger vessels.
- In addition to booming, collecting, and skimming of surface oil at sea, among the measures involved in oil removal and mitigation were a reported 411 controlled in situ burns of surface oil near the rig site that were conducted between April 28 and July 15, 2010. The number and concentration of these burns was an unprecedented use of this oil spill mitigation technique. As far as has been reported, there was occasional, but no ongoing, on-site monitoring for particulate and other pollutants resulting from these burns.
- Mitigation of the oil also involved application of nearly 2 million gallons of chemical oil dispersants – primarily Corexit 9500 along with a smaller quantity of Corexit 9527, which was used for a short time and then discontinued after concerns were raised about the toxicity of some of its ingredients. According to the JIC, “approximately 1.84 million gallons of total dispersant have been applied: 1.07 million on the surface (much of this applied aerially) and 771,000 sub-sea,” applied underwater at the well-head. Both the volume of chemical dispersants used and the underwater application were unprecedented.
There is no official comprehensive account of who hired and trained which clean-up workers in which locations. Given number of people involved in the response, their rapid deployment, and the expanse of geography and diversity of work involved, some confusion is understandable. But trying to obtain this information was extremely difficult as virtually none of the private contractors would speak with a journalist and neither the JIC nor any individual federal agency ever provided this information. A number of state labor or workforce agencies were also confused about who was being hired. “If you find out, please let us know,” said a spokesperson for the Louisiana Workforce Commission when I made this inquiry in mid-June.
Studies, reports, and recommendations
The process of assessing damage to Gulf Coast communities and the Gulf Coast ecosystem is ongoing. Enormous amounts of information have been and continue to be gathered about the ecological impacts of the oil. On worker health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has launched a long-term study of health effects to clean-up workers. The President’s National Oil Spill Commission has issued a report on the event, as have other organizations, including the Center for Progressive Reform and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB). Systemic reform of the industry is key to preventing future off-shore drilling disasters. Key to preventing harm that can compound the effects of such disasters – industrial or natural – is ongoing, transparent and full accounting of all those involved in clean-up and response work, including details of hiring, training, contaminant exposure. and health monitoring. Doing so should help improve response-worker health and safety in any future comparable emergencies, particularly any that, like the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, may affect such a large extent of geography. “We hope people have gloves,” said an NIEHS official at a meeting held three weeks into the response. Ideally, in the future such speculation will be unnecessary.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.