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May 122010
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Ironically, our latest fossil fuel disaster is providing some needed green jobs.

I just wish I could say it’s great to see America back at work.

So far, about 13,800 people “have responded” to the call to help minimize the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, prepare for the giant oil slick’s landfall and clean up the shoreline afterward, according to BP.

A welder works on a pollution containment chamber at Port Fourchon (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)

A welder works on a pollution containment chamber at Port Fourchon (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)

Most of these people are already employed with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy, other U.S. agencies and of course, BP, the oil company whose deep sea well head ruptured on April 20. People have been deployed to the coast to help in a variety of roles and learn oil disaster remediation skills that we hope they won’t often have to use.

But among the respondents are some 5,000 new employees. They’re working on boats that have been hired to skim oil, laying containment boom to catch the tarballs and oil froth, and serving in a variety of support posts. They’re answering phones, preparing food and cleaning the latrines (hopefully in that order) at various staging sites along the gulf coast.

These jobs can’t make up for the loss of fishing industry employment and the many lucrative tourism-related enterprises (deep sea fishing outings, beach house rentals, water recreation) that will be stung by this disaster.

Imagine booking a bird viewing outing, or a charter fishing boat for your stay in Biloxi or Destin. Despite the debate about the impact of this spill, it’s fait accompli at this point that many tourists won’t gamble on a white sandy gulf vacation this year. Even hard-core sport fisherman will have to acknowledge that what comes up may not be dinner-ready. You can’t see those pictures of dead dolphins that washed ashore today and not face this reality.

Many of those idled by fishing moratoriums will receive compensation from BP, the corporate giant whose leaking oil well is the source of all this angst and busy work. This will take the edge off. On Monday, BP COO Doug Suttles reported that the average claim for economic impact paid to those who’ve applied so far has been $5,000; hardly a windfall but enough to pay the bills, for a time.

The total cost of the complete response effort at this point is an estimated $350 million. A big number, but one we can hardly feel good about since it might have all been avoided.

BP contracted workers move oil containment booms at Orange Beach, Ala. (Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Comm. Spec. 2nd Class Thomas L. Rosprim

BP contracted workers move oil containment booms at Orange Beach, Ala. (Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Comm. Spec. 2nd Class Thomas L. Rosprim

Many fisherman also now have secured jobs laying boom to catch the oil, though they’d certainly rather be fishing. Three weeks into this continuing disaster BP has hired 464 “vessels of opportunity” — fishing, tug and other types of boats — in the clean up, said BP spokeswoman Rebecca Bernhard.

Altogether those boats, their crews and others have laid an impressive 1 million feet of boom, which is about 186 miles of the barriers designed to capture much of the oil washing ashore. Another 1 million feet of boom is on the way.

These new hires, along with military operations, are making real headway against the three week flow of oil, Bernhard said. They’ve skimmed nearly 2 million gallons of oil mixed with water out of the gulf.

About 9,100 barrels of oil have been burned off the surface of the water — or nearly two days worth of leaked oil, if the government estimates of a leak rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day are true, according to BP.

(But the oil leak rate could be up to 10 times greater, BP officials have told investigators.)

Bernhard couldn’t say how much the people working in this endeavor are earning. So we’re left to wonder if they’re making not-so-much or something that would attract a crowd of  wannabe skimmers. Who knows?

As long as we’re unfurling the numbers, there are another reported 14,000 volunteers standing by to help with the spill. This small city of at-ready workers stand to earn $75 a day each if and when they’re called up to help out.

This is either a testament to Americans’ willingness to help or a statement on how many retired baby boomers and unemployed folks are drifting around in our battered economy available for odd jobs.

Let’s just say “Main Street” has shown up for work.

Many of these people will ultimately toil in the great tradition of other work service jobs, that is, with shovels, hammers and buckets.

That’s because cleaning beaches is a painstaking task, requiring a careful, hands-on combing of the soiled sands.

While the oil slick continues to bob and weave off shore, leaving meteorologists vexed about whether it will hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or be swept off on the loop current to Florida, it will someday, when prevailing winds are right, sully swaths of ecologically sensitive marsh and beaches.

Crews look for tarballs on Dauphin Island, Ala., where some oil has washed ashore. (Photo: U.S. Navy, XXXXXXXXXX)

Crews look for tarballs on Dauphin Island, Ala., where some oil has washed ashore. (Photo: U.S. Navy, Specialist 1st class Misully huge swaths of ecologically sensitive beaches.

And according to a 1993 manual that will inform the clean up, the beaches will need delicate handling. The Shoreline Countermeasures Manual breaks down specifically how each micro habitat should be handled, from Mangrove Marshes to coarse or fine sandy beaches. In most cases, the beaches will be best cleaned manually — with those shovels and buckets — to avoid having machinery press oil deeper into the sand or dirt.

The manual is quite clear that the last thing you want to do is press the pollutants into the ground.

Trained volunteers or whomever also will have to take care to avoid carting off too much sand, which would leave beaches vulnerable to erosion.

At the moment, there’s no major beach clean up under way, given that the giant oil blob continues to feint and duck.

And Bernhard warned that volunteers won’t necessarily be called out to save the shoreline and handle the wildlife. Many of those tasks will be left to experts, and the entire shoreline clean up will likely be contracted to firms that specialize in environmental recovery, she said.

In other words, the volunteers may be stuck in rear support jobs, cooking and cleaning those latrines.

For now, though, employees and volunteers alike are watching the progress, or devolution of this slow-motion calamity.

The appearance of the fatally oil dolphins is a reminder that the environmental damage goes far beyond what is visible right now. And the handful of birds that have been oiled, cleaned up and released are likely just the very beginning. The few tarballs that washed ashore and were “easy to work with,” in the words of Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry. But the clean up in its totality certainly won’t fit that description.

The 1993 manual notes that the beach remediation will vary greatly depending on the type of oil involved.  BP says the oil being released is a lighter weight oil — but then the company isn’t sure how much oil is leaking.

The stuff that’s made landfall initially is a whipped mix of oil and water, which has been referred to as like a “brown mousse” (talk about strange metaphors). This could be partly the effect of the dispersants that have broken up the oil slick and also because the leaking oil is a lighter variety.

This whipped oil-water mix comes as a mixed blessing. It can have less impact on living things; it can also spread farther.

Should the mousse turn to pudding, bringing a heavier crude ashore,  the clean up would be more complicated. BP has discounted that possibility. Still, this is a disaster unfolding with a major unanswered question at its core: When (and how) will the leak be stopped?

If efforts to plug the leak with rubber debris and cement fail, the deep sea oil gusher could grow in size, a nightmare scenario if the flow is already greater than government estimates.

All bets would be off. And should the oil breach the booms (shades of Katrina), the mess to come won’t look like the sporadic damage we’ve seen so far.

According to Countermeasures an incursion of heavy crude  would make “shoreline cleanup difficult under all conditions.”

Shovels ready!

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