When the official Deepwater Horizon response website each day updates the status of the monumental Gulf oil spill cleanup effort — the miles of new boom deployed, the millions of gallons of oily water collected and the army of workers sent to scour beaches for tar balls and injured or dead wildlife — it is describing only the first steps along a long road.
That’s because the recovery sets in motion a lengthy and elaborate process designed to safely dispose of a wide array of hazardous materials. Even bird and turtle carcasses face a lengthy journey before they reach their final resting places.
“A lot of oily stuff has to be brought back to be properly treated,” said Albert Huang, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The oil doesn’t just disappear. … It isn’t just shot out into space.”
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The massive cleanup is governed by EPA-vetted plans that vary from state to state, and is carried out by scores of private contractors working for multiple state agencies, except in areas that are the province of federal agencies. The intention is to make sure that cleaning up the coast doesn’t spread the toxic mess farther inland.
The good news, according to BP, is that the makeshift cap-and-pipe containment system it rigged up last week at the broken wellhead is now capturing about 15,000 barrels of oil a day. After the methane and natural gas is burned off, that oil that can be transferred to tankers and moved directly to refineries.
But that isn’t much of a dent in the total amount of oil that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon accident April 20. The most recent estimate by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen Thursday is that the leak was spewing as much as 40,000 barrels a day before BP cut the pipe on June 3 to make way for the cap. The cut may have increased the flow.
It is unclear how, or if, the oil in massive diluted plumes under the water can be corralled.
But where the oil is concentrated in slicks on the surface, some of it can be burned off. The Deepwater Horizon response website said that as of Saturday, more than 95,000 barrels had been disposed of that way.
After that it gets more complicated. More than 400 skimmer boats are collecting oily water from the surface of the Gulf — about 474,000 barrels as of Saturday. That mixture, as well as the runoff from rinsing down oily equipment or washing oiled birds, is supposed to be collected and transported to facilities like the River Birch Landfill near Avondale, La.
There the oily water is trucked in and pumped into separation tanks, explained Vic Culpepper, technical director at the facility. After a several hours, gravity separates the oil and water. Most of the oil is recovered and sent to a refinery.
The leftover water contains oil residues and a lot of salt, so it requires special disposal as well.
“You also can’t take high salt content water, remove the oil and dump it in with freshwater, which would destroy freshwater life,” said Culpepper. At the same time, “It’s not economically feasible to truck (the water) back to the ocean.”
Instead, the facility uses an injection well to dispose of the brackish water — pumping it 7,000 feet underground, where it is trapped in rock and sand formations.
River Birch has so far handled a few thousand barrels of the oily water. According to Culpepper, most of the liquid waste is instead being moving by barge to Texas, where there are docking facilities and larger processing facilities to handle such large volumes.
Each of the four states impacted by the spill so far — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — has slightly different requirements for disposal of oil-contaminated liquids and solid waste.
In Louisiana, the liquids are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources. Solid waste — oily sand and driftwood, oil-soaked booms and rags, protective suits worn by cleanup workers — are the province of the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The department stipulates that oil must be removed from all solids “to the extent practical” before they are documented, put in appropriate containers and finally dumped in a landfill. Given the magnitude of the spill, that makes disposing of solid waste a major undertaking.
“The amount of waste generated in the spill response is pretty amazing,” said Scott Pegau, research program manager for the Oil Spill Recovery Institute at Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, Alaska. “In 1989 — the first year of response for Exxon Valdez — there was 25,000 tons of oiled solid waste.”
That waste ended up largely in landfills in Oregon, because Alaska did not have clay-lined facilities to prevent the oil from leaching into groundwater.
In and near Louisiana there is plenty of landfill capacity, according to Sam Phillips, administrator of solid waste permitting for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Experience with the massive amount of waste produced by Hurricane Katrina — which dwarfed the volume that will be generated by this disaster — allowed his department to pull together an emergency response plan quickly this time.
Lessons from Katrina
“Our emergency response efforts are much improved after the lessons learned from Katrina,” said Phillips. “If there’s any advantage over a hurricane, it's that this is a slow process — debris will not be generated in one day. It’s not in the thousands and thousands of truckloads we were seeing after hurricanes.”
Enforcement and interpretation of rules is more likely to be an issue than the regulations themselves.
“All too often you find waste thrown in the wrong place,” said Pegau of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute.
That has already been happening. Down on Grand Isle, La., a sandwich shop owner reported that he arrived to open on May 29, a day after President Barack Obama visited the area, to find that the commercial Dumpster behind his store was full of protective suits, gloves and bags of tar balls from cleanup workers.
“That is not what we want to happen,” said Phillips, the Louisiana solid waste administrator. “We have round-the-clock supervision in those areas to make sure it doesn’t.”
Under Louisiana’s regulations, waste is supposed to be sorted according to the dirt and sand content. Loads where dirt predominates are to be sent to landfills under the Department of Environmental Quality, whereas those that are mostly oil are supposed to go to recycling stations under the supervision of the Department of Natural Resources. It is unclear who makes the call.
Meantime, oiled booms are supposed to have as much oil removed as “practical,” before they go to the landfill, but in Culpepper's view, there's not enough oil in them to bother with.
"I don’t know if they are trying to extract oil from the booms, but if they are, they are wasting their time," he says.
RIP … later
Even dead birds are not allowed an immediate burial. Handling the oily carcasses is the province of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which treats them as contaminants and as legal evidence. All dead birds first go to freezers, says Katherine Berg, head of the contaminant program at the department's Anchorage field office.
At the moment, the storage units are at rehabilitation sites along the coast, said Berg, who just returned for a stint working on the Gulf spill response. If the number of dead birds gets very high, she said, Fish and Wildlife will need to use “reefer vans” — refrigerated trailers — to store the birds.
The carcasses can be disposed of only after the U.S. Justice Department determines it no longer needs them for possible criminal proceedings. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, that meant 36,471 birds remained in cold storage for as long as five years.
When there is no longer a need to preserve evidence, universities and museums are allowed to take specimens for their collections. Then, scientists are allowed to take tissue or other parts of the animals for their research. The remaining carcasses are burned, she said.
A similar process is used for dead sea turtles and marine mammals, said Berg, but those creatures are handled by NOAA. If there is any good news about this process, it's that the dead wildlife affords scientists an opportunity for research.
“There’s a huge amount of data there that you are not going to get under normal science study conditions,” she said. “You wouldn’t go out and kill that many animals for studies. When you have it made available all the sudden, you try to use it as much as you can.”