Coast Guard OKs winding down BP spill cleanup

Published 3:21 pm Thursday, November 10, 2011

A government plan that ends most of BP’s responsibility for cleaning up oil washing onto the Gulf Coast marks a shift toward restoration efforts by the company, but many in the region are worried about who will handle the monitoring of long-term effects from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Under the agreement approved last week by the U.S. Coast Guard, BP PLC won’t be required to clean up oil unless officials can prove it came from the blown-out well that caused the 2010 catastrophe. The plan was obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press.

BP will shift its focus to restoring areas damaged by the spill that began on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers. About $1 billion has been set aside for projects that could include planting new vegetation and adding new sand to beaches, an official says.

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About 90 percent of the Gulf coast has been deemed clean, according to officials. The plan spells out protocol for when an area still needs to be cleaned and when BP’s responsibility for that ends.

Louisiana officials wouldn’t give their approval because they were concerned about what they perceived as a lack of long-term monitoring in the document. They also complained that the Coast Guard gave them only five days to review the plan, according to a letter sent to the agency by Garret Graves, a top aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal for coastal affairs.

Despite the concerns, the Coast Guard said its finalized plan would apply to Louisiana and all the Gulf states.

Ralph Portier, an oil spill cleanup expert with Louisiana State University, said he shared the concerns of Louisiana officials.

“If we have learned anything from Valdez and Ixtoc, there needs to be an awareness for long-term monitoring,” Portier said.

He was referring to the Exxon-Valdez tanker spill in 1989 in Alaska and the 1979 Ixtoc oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said the Coast Guard should have a plan to respond to problems that may arise.

On Florida’s Panhandle, some people reacted with skepticism. Kenneth Collins, who rents fishing poles to tourists and spends his days with local fishermen at the Pensacola Beach pier, said he doesn’t think the effects of the spill are over.

“It’s not ok at all. We aren’t scientists or anything but we are out there all the time and we can tell things aren’t right,” Collins said. Red fish, cobia, grouper and other species caught off the beach pier have oily deposits in their intestines when they are carved up for cleaning, he said.

“Everything is just not how it used to be. When you pull a fish up, it doesn’t look like it is supposed to look, like they did before,” said fisherman Ryan Johnson. Johnson said many fish now have an unnatural brownish color.

New oil that shows up on clean shores would be treated “as any kind of oil response,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Suzanne Kerver. Officials would try to determine where it came from. If a link to BP’s now-plugged Macondo well was found, then the Coast Guard would ask the oil giant to clean it up.

BP can now start work on restoring areas damaged by the spill. Restoration plans could entail plantings, placing new sand on beaches and establishing new marsh.

“This is an important milestone in the recovery process for the Gulf Coast,” said Mike Utsler, head of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization.

The company is responsible for trying to fix the plant and wildlife ecosystems that were disrupted by the spill.

“We still have ongoing cleanup in sensitive wildlife nesting habitat and archaeological sites,” said Coast Guard Capt.  Julia Hein, the federal on-scene coordinator. “However, there are significant portions of our coastline that are ready to move into the next phase, so that the Gulf Coast can start restoration projects critical to help heal the region.”

Edward Owens is a technical adviser for BP and a veteran of the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He said the Gulf cleanup was in its final stages.

“We call it the polishing stages, where you try to get that nice shine on your car,” he said.

Under the plan, the cleanup standards will depend on the terrain.

A bit more oil will be allowed to remain on remote wild beaches where intense cleanup could do more damage. On beaches where people live and play, BP will be off the hook once there is no visible oil or oil is “as low as reasonably practicable” to clean up.

Marshes will be deemed clean when there is no thick oil left or when officials decide that it’s best to let nature clean up the mess.