More than three year’s after the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, crews are still searching the Louisiana coast for evidence of oil pollution.
Ninety contract workers in Louisiana, the only state that still has active cleanup workers, are patrolling for oil on 76 of the 3,192 shoreline miles that were part of the oil response effort.
Despite their work, a state official contends the U.S. Coast Guard isn’t doing enough to hold BP accountable in looking for oil that still could wash up on Louisiana shores.
“There’s an incredible amount of oil that’s still out there,” said Garret Graves, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities and chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
State officials have said there are 200 miles of shoreline that still have some level of oil pollution, and they are still concerned about oil that could resurface in storms.
On Thursday afternoon, a line of 11 people stretched across the beach in Grand Isle, slowly walking and studying the sand. The crew was one of several in Louisiana looking for oil along the beaches of Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island and Fourchon.
So far this year, the crews have collected 2.9 million pounds of material, but more than 85 percent of that was sand, shells and water, not oil, according to the Coast Guard.
“You look at that and say wow, that’s a lot of oil, but you have to look at all the other material that includes,” said Pat Howell, the Coast Guard’s Louisiana branch director.
The bulk of that material came from actively looking for oil buried beneath sands of the beach and in waters near the shore, he said.
In January, crews began using a mini-excavator with a auger drill to look for buried oil in areas along Louisiana barrier island beaches, Howell said. The areas were selected based on historical information on the shape of the beach to determine if there were spots that got filled in with sand that could have been previously covered in oil.
That work has been largely completed, he said.
The Coast Guard also has supervised crews wading in the water just off shore, in a foot or two of water, using shovels to locate any tar mats or oil. That work, also largely completed, helped pick up about 200,000 pounds of oiled material.
Both the auger and the near-shore work occurred on sandy beaches at barrier islands like Fourchon Beach, Grand Isle, Elmer’s Island or West Timbalier, for a total length of 24 miles. About 34,000 holes were dug for the oil search.
Although beaches weren’t the only areas impacted by oil, or still containing oil, the situation is much more difficult to address in marsh areas like northern Barataria Bay, Howell said.
“They don’t want to destroy the marsh,” Howell said. “They get what they can off the surface without doing damage.”
Graves said he would like to see water monitoring done across the coast to look for hydrocarbons, allowing the search for submerged oil to be laid out in a systematic and focused way.
The augering operation done earlier this year “proves that this unaccounted-for oil isn’t a dream, it’s a real deal,” he said.
“Setting up a monitoring network is what makes the most sense,” Graves said. The augering work was only done on beach shores and the underwater work only in very shallow near-shore waters, he said.
“That’s not representative of our shoreline,” Graves said. He said he met a few weeks ago with U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Spark, the federal on-scene coordinator, to discuss continuing cleanup concerns and the monitoring idea.
“He didn’t say no,” Graves said. “What we’ve seen in the past is if BP doesn’t want it, Coast Guard doesn’t push it.”
He’s also concerned the Coast Guard and BP are trying to lay the groundwork to “walk after hurricane season,” and call the cleanup complete.
Coast Guard and BP officials say there is no timeline for when the cleanup response will be completed.
“I think that’s the million dollar question,” said the Coast Guard’s Howell.
The answer will be determined when the Coast Guard and all parties agree that the coastal land and waters have been significantly cleared of the BP oil, he said.
Meanwhile, what the crews are finding fewer oiled materials on the beaches, he said.
“Collection has been pretty low as far as tar balls,” Howell said. “We’re seeing a drop in numbers.”
Danny Wallace, BP incident commander, said the primary focus for the future will be on beaches that get public use, like Grand Isle, although they are still concerned about potentially affected marsh areas.
“I think we’ve made significant progress,” Wallace said.
Asked about Graves’ concern that BP dictates the direction the Coast Guard takes in the cleanup process, Howell replied: “At the end of the day we follow the direction from the federal on-scene coordinator,” a Coast Guard official.
Howell also urged anyone who sees oil on the coast or in the Gulf of Mexico to report it to the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.