This post is part of the Wonk Room’s exclusive investigation of the private contractors working under BP’s control to respond to the foreign oil giant’s Gulf Coast disaster. The results of the investigation are being tracked at BP’s Contractor Army.
“I am confident that we’re going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” President Barack Obama declared after visiting the oil-soaked region in June. The long-term restoration of the coast will require radical changes in waterway management, land use, and reversal of the global warming that threatens to inundate the subsiding shores — challenges independent of the toxic black tide of BP’s oil. However, cleaning up the toxic sludge is the first task on the path to restoration.
The task of deciding where the Gulf Coast shoreline needs to be cleaned of the Deepwater Horizon oil falls to BP contractors and government employees known by the jargon of Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team (SCAT) personnel. Working as rapidly as possible, teams survey contaminated beaches and marshes before cleanup crews are deployed, recommend the cleanup methods, and determine whether the cleanup has been as successful as possible. The work of the SCAT teams is a first step in the long-term natural resource damage assessments overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determine the liabilities of BP for damage caused to the United States. This conflict of interest should be resolved by taking BP out of the loop — SCAT contractors should work directly for the government, using BP funds.
Incident Command organizational chart. Click to expand.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shoreline assessment manual, last updated in August 2000, the shoreline assessment teams are usually led by a Team Coordinator from NOAA Scientific Support, from the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R;), Emergency Response Division. Field teams divide the shoreline with a grid, use overflights and direct examination to judge the degree of contamination, and establish the cleanup guidelines used by the hazardous waste cleanup contractors, from mechanically plowing oiled sand off beaches to dabbing oil off of marsh reeds with sorbent booms.
Under the guidelines of the Incident Command System, SCAT personnel are part of the Planning Branch, whose guidelines direct the cleanup workers in the Operations Branch. (The other branches of the Incident Command System are Logistics and Finance.)
In an exclusive email interview, Greg E. Challenger, Principal Marine Scientist of Polaris Applied Sciences, told the Wonk Room how his company is “working to help coordinate the effort of assessing shorelines and recommending cleanup out of Houma, Mobile and Miami.” Polaris, a private company of scientific experts based in Washington state, has worked for governments and the oil industry on dozens of oil spills, coral reef groundings, research projects, and disaster exercises since its founding in 1998. Mr. Challenger explained how SCAT are the “eyes and ears” of the coastal spill response:
SCAT systematically segments the shoreline by habitat type and oiling zones and characterizes the oiling conditions for Operations. After the recommendations and instructions go to Operations, SCAT will re-survey when it has been cleaned and make further recommendations or sign a shoreline off as complete. This sign off can only occur after oil is off the water and overall is process meant to prioritize sensitive or heavily areas for cleanup in a systematic way. Essentially the “eyes and ears” of operations on the shoreline.
Polaris employees include “numerous international experts who have helped develop and refine this process, including local Louisiana university professors.” Polaris, Mr. Challenger informed the Wonk Room, is “helping to provide training in Key West and other locations” to local and state officials as a BP contractor.
The SCAT teams “operate every day in challenging conditions using helicopter, boat and their feet to get around in difficult terrain,” he said, “along the thousand mile field of operations.” He stressed that both the efforts to hold back oil from the shoreline and then to clean it up will only ever be partially effective:
Many times the typical level of tarballs are not visible from air. Boat teams need to find and characterize oil and get operations to the site to address it. There are many ways to effectively clean oil and help shorelines recover…but at the same time there is no good way to clean up oil as fast as people would like or to rapidly change aesthetics. It’s ugly for a while under the best of circumstances once it is out of the box and there is nothing anyone can do to change that aspect. It can be held back, or briefly retained, but it can’t be stopped by boom and it can’t all be picked up by sorbent. In many cases, we know from study after study that some of the worst things we could do is to go into the marsh and help oil penetrate into the sediment or to trample it such that the next wave of oil goes further into the marsh. Hence, marsh is often treated with kid gloves, meaning leaving some of it alone is indeed the best approach. The literature is full of studies to support this approach. Sand beaches can be more aggressively cleaned. These are just a few examples of the things SCAT teams consider.
BP contractors supplying SCAT scientific personnel include RM Safety, WT Resources, Entrix, Aerotek, and Matrix New World Engineering. NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney informed the Wonk Room that the agency has pulled people out of retirement to respond to the BP disaster as well.
President Obama’s pledge to “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before” is a remarkably tall order, which will take not only the coordinated effort of thousands of people for many years but also a Gulf of Mexico freed from ongoing environmental threats.