Inside Report: Oil cleanup not over ‘by a long shot’

The U.S. Coast Guard has moved almost three miles of Louisiana beach into a new phase of cleanup called a “Middle Response” following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oilfield disaster at the Deepwater Horizon.

This end of “active cleanup” of remaining oil and tar balls that continue to wash up onto Fourchon Beach, Elmer’s Island, Grand Terre I and Grand Terre II was hailed by BP as a milestone. The announcement also was bemoaned by others as a sign that BP and the Coast Guard were finished with work they were going to do on cleaning up oil from disaster.

That’s not the case, Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Sparks told state officials during a Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meeting.

Although it is a different phase of the cleanup, Sparks said the cleanup and the agency’s presence on those beaches is far from over. Sparks said there are still active teams of Coast Guard members and contractors on Grand Isle and more can be mobilized if necessary.

“It’s been four years. We’re still here and we’re not going away any time soon,” he said.

In addition, if there is a tropical storm or even a significantly high tide, the Coast Guard will study the situation and Sparks can call out contractors to look for any oil that may have been washed up on the beach, much like what was done after Tropical Storm Karen last year.

Although some like Jefferson Parish President John Young expressed disappointment about the change, CPRA Chairman Jerome Zeringue said he believed the new phase of response for those portions of beach would be nimble enough to respond to additional signs of oil pollution.

BP took some criticism for sending out a news release on April 15 to praise the end of the active cleanup stage.

“BP has spent more than $14 billion and more than 70 million personnel hours on response and cleanup activities,” said Laura Folse, BP’s executive vice president for Response and Environmental Restoration, in a news release. Some people took this to mean the cleanup efforts were over. Although that could have been one intention, the next statement from Folse doesn’t show it.

“Even though active cleanup has ended, we will keep resources in place to respond quickly at the Coast Guard’s direction if potential Macondo oil is identified and requires removal,” Folse said in a news release.

A follow-up emailed statement from BP press officer Jason Ryan further stated, “We have never suggested the work of the U.S. Coast Guard or BP is over. Our announcement Tuesday merely highlighted the end of the active cleanup of the Gulf shoreline.”

BP didn’t help the situation by starting out its April 15 news release by saying the Coast Guard “ended patrols and operations on the final three shoreline miles in Louisiana, bringing to a close the extensive four-year active cleanup of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon.”

That’s overstating the situation, said Michael Anderson, Coast Guard public information officer. The almost three miles of beach in question did go into a “Middle Response,” but the Coast Guard also opened active files with the National Response Center, the official reporting clearinghouse for oil spills.

Anderson said there will be teams going out to investigate these areas on a regular basis and there’s no timeline for when that will end.

In a news release, Capt. Sparks made it clear again that the response is not over.

“Not by a long shot. The transition to the Middle Response process does not end cleanup operations, and we continue to hold the responsible party accountable for Deepwater Horizon cleanup costs.”

Amy Wold covers the environment at The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @awold10.