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Louisiana Parishes Fault Coast Guard For Slow Removal Of BP Oil

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This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Nov. 4, 2012 edition.

BP oil and tar that washed ashore or was uncovered in Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Bernard and other Louisiana parishes during Hurricane Isaac is settling into wetlands and shutting some public beaches. Parish leaders want the Coast Guard, the lead agency for cleanup, to ensure that BP removes its oil. Since BP's Vessels of Opportunity program--which used fishing boats for cleanup--ended last year, the Guard and the oil company have been slow to get rid of 2010 spill remnants.

A year ago, the Coast Guard announced its Shoreline Cleanup Completion Plan, directing the removal of BP oil in a process overseen by the Guard's Federal On-Scene Coordinator, Capt. Samuel "Duke" Walker. Parishes aren't satisfied with the way that plan has been implemented, however.

P.J. Hahn, Plaquemines Parish environmental director, said last week "we're very frustrated because we have local people who know where the oil is better than anyone and can get to it with their boats. But we aren't being given the resources for that." Oil washed up in Bay Jimmy, Barataria Bay and Grand Terre in Plaquemines after Isaac struck in late August, he said. Sampling showed it was BP oil or MC252.

With millions of gallons of BP oil unaccounted for since the spill, Hahn worries his parish may deal with it for decades.

Jefferson Parish spokeswoman Kriss Fortunato said last week "tar balls and other residual oil products washing up on parish beaches have increased substantially since Isaac." But she said "the Coast Guard's response, regarding the number of crews conducting cleanup, along with Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Teams or SCAT visitation schedules, remains unchanged and woefully inadequate." A shoreline assessment team is usually made up of several trained, government employees or contractors assigned to evaluate a coastal section.

In Jefferson Parish, Grand Isle Port Commission executive director Wayne Keller said last week "Isaac broke loose a large amount of oil as tarballs that have been showing up on the beach. And areas where oil pooled during the 2010 spill, forming mats, have been uncovered as beach sand eroded after Isaac."

Keller said cleanup activity on Elmer's Island involves what appear to be daily patrols of BP subcontractors and possibly the Coast Guard, along with around thirty BP subcontractors from ES&H removing tarballs. ES&H is an environmental cleanup firm with an office in Houma, La.

But Keller said "oil removal has been very slow, preventing the reopening of some beach areas on Elmer's Island to the public."

Jefferson Parish environmental affairs director Marnie Winter said BP employs a limited number of contractors to work on active cleanup. "Though some segments of Grand Isle, Elmer's Island and Grand Terre are still being cleaned by BP contractors following the 2010 spill, little is being done through patrols to locate tar mats and inspect areas for heavy oiling outside of established, visitation schedules," she said.

Winter said "BP's failure to provide additional patrols and cleanup crews since Isaac raises risks that oil and tarballs exposed or cast ashore will be covered with sand by the tides, compounding the need for collection."

Winter continued, saying "the Coast Guard has been reticent to schedule routine inspections of Jefferson Parish marsh areas despite requests from state and parish officials. Post-Isaac inspections have been slow coming and have consisted of limited SCAT surveys."

Last week, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Glenn Sanchez in New Orleans said that 88 segments of Louisiana shoreline were investigated by the Guard following Isaac at the request of the state. Only two of those segments--Comfort Island in St. Bernard Parish and Bay La Mer in Plaquemines--were found to need cleaning, and the Guard directed BP to address them.

Hahn said parish leaders meet with the Coast Guard periodically to provide updates on oil. He said "we met with Captain Duke Walker not long ago in Houma, and he told us 'we'll take your recommendations into consideration and get back with you.'" Little has come of that discussion so far, however, Hahn said.

Hahn worries about BP not monitoring certain coastal areas that are no longer designated as under post-spill, "active response." Local authorities must report oil in those areas to the Coast Guard, which has the oil tested and contacts BP if it's their material. But that process may not be thorough or timely enough. "Exxon was allowed to sign off on areas affected by the 1989 Valdez spill, and more than twenty years later Exxon oil remains in parts of Alaska," Hahn said.

In Jefferson Parish, the Coast Guard continues to "sign out" or exclude areas from active response, despite vehement objections by state and parish officials, Marnie Winter said.

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chair Garret Graves, testifying before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security on Sept. 25, said "large oil mats and tarballs were exposed or re-suspended as a result of Hurricane Isaac. Some of the areas that experienced extensive re-oiling during the hurricane are the same areas that BP was pushing to remove from active cleanup operations just prior to the storm."

BP talks about caring for the coast but is mainly concerned about its liability, critics said. At an Oct. 2, U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works committee hearing in New Orleans on BP's cleanup, at which La. Senator David Vitter and Congressmen Steve Scalise and Cedric Richmond spoke, "BP was invited but didn't show up," Hahn said.

For this article, BP said it would provide answers to questions about its cleanup policies but didn't do so over the course of two days.

Hahn said "the Coast Guard should be vigilant and should hold BP's feet to the fire on oil that's washing ashore. BP's looking out for its bottom line and we need the Guard to look out for the public."

Hahn also faulted the Guard for a hit-or-miss approach. "The Coast Guard goes out and investigates when it wants to," he said. "We report oil to them, only to be told for instance that they don't have a boat" to check on the situation.

In one recently serious incident, the Coast Guard did act, however. Capt. Duke Walker issued a Notice of Federal Interest on Oct. 10, informing BP and Transocean that samples from a four-mile sheen--spotted on Sept. 16 in Mississippi Canyon, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana--matched oil from the 2010 spill. Both companies could be liable for any costs associated with the sheen, the notice said. In late October, BP capped and plugged an abandoned piece of subsea equipment called a cofferdam that was thought to be the sheen's source.

Hahn said oil needs to be removed as soon as it's found on the coast. "I stand on the shore and watch land disappear beneath my feet," he said. "When land is saturated with oil, killing vegetation, water can just carry it away."

Marnie Winter agrees with the need for urgency. She said "it's the position of the state and Jefferson Parish that the level of effort from BP and the USCG has been less than adequate to address the oiling that continues."

During Isaac, about 565,000 pounds of oiled material from BP's 2010 spill came ashore, according to Louisiana's CPRA. That amount exceeded the total collected during the previous eight months. Oil seen on beaches and in wetlands should be reported to Coast Guard Sector New Orleans at 504-589-6225 or the National Response Center at 800-424-8802. end

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