The U.S. Coast Guard and BP announced Monday June 10th that the company will end active Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup operations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida by mid-June. A Coast Guard news release also said future response efforts in those states, if needed, will no longer be led by its Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, which will continue to oversee cleanup efforts in Louisiana.
Response operations remain active along 84 shoreline miles in Louisiana, according to a BP news release, with another 20 miles in the state awaiting approval as being cleaned or awaiting final monitoring or inspection. There are 18 Coast Guard officials and 87 contract employees working on the Louisiana response, said Lieut. Cmdr. Natalie Murphy, with cleanup operations taking place on Grand Terre Island, Grand Isle, Fourchon Beach, Elmer's Island and part of West Timbalier Island. She said there's still no time frame for the end of response efforts in Louisiana.
"This is another important step towards meeting our goal of returning the shoreline to as close to pre-spill conditions as possible while managing the scale of the response to meet conditions on the ground," said Capt. Duke Walker, Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon Response.
Louisiana officials contend they have documented oil in locations along 200 miles of the state's coastline and have repeatedly objected to earlier proposals by the Coast Guard to reduce spill response operations in the state, and to require that oil finds in areas declared clean to be reported through the National Response Center.
"Resorting back to the legacy NRC system is flawed," said Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves. "We have seen numerous times where responders have come hours or days later -- in some cases without access to boats.
"Coastal Louisiana is very dynamic," he said. You must have first responders capable of deploying immediately, or the oil will be reburied, wave-washed, or otherwise out of sight."
Graves said that during the past three years, workers have collected about 1.1 million pounds of oil and oily wastes from beaches and waters along Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, while in the same period, more than 11 million pounds were collected in Louisiana, including more than 2 million pounds in the last three months.
"The take-away is that conditions in the eastern states versus Louisiana are night and day," Graves said. "It's premature. On the ground conditions should dictate cleanup, not someone's summer vacation schedule."
Graves said he also remains concerned about responses to oil resurfacing during and after tropical events this summer.
Under the new Coast Guard strategy, for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, future sightings of oil or oily debris along their shorelines must be reported to the Coast Guard's National Response Center, which takes reports of releases of oil and other chemicals in water bodies around the nation and in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. ocean waters, and then contacts local Coast Guard marine response offices to have them checked out.
Sightings of oil can be reported to the National Response Center by calling 1-800-424-8802 or filing a report online at http://www.nrc.uscg.mil/.
"Transitioning these areas back to the NRC reporting process is part of the National Contingency Plan," said the Coast Guard news release. "The Coast Guard will maintain oversight of the responsible party and continue to follow established protocol including sampling, fingerprinting and other investigative means to identify the source of the pollution and find the responsible party. If oil is found to be MC252 oil, BP will be held accountable for the cleanup."
"We will continue to respond and cleanup MC252 oil that can be removed without further damaging the environment creating the conditions for continued restoration work," said Walker. "However, we've reached a point in some areas where the impact to the environmentally sensitive land outweighs the minimal amounts of oil being collected. Making the transition at this time will allow us to adjust to a smaller footprint for cleanup while being environmentally friendly."
The reduction in cleanup effort also was criticized by the National Wildlife Federation, which also cited concerns that tropical storms could result in more oil surfacing.
"As much as one million barrels of oil from the disaster remains unaccounted for, and tar mats and tar balls from the spill continue to wash up on the coast," said David White, director of the federation's Gulf of Mexico Restoration Campaign. "Regardless of how our shorelines are monitored, BP must be held accountable for the cleanup. We cannot just accept oiled material on our beaches and in our marshes as the 'new normal.' In particular, we need be sure that there is a rapid and proactive assessment and cleanup of our shorelines in the aftermath of storms."
According to the BP news release, the company has spent more than $14 billion and 70 million personnel hours on response and cleanup activities in the aftermath of the April 2010 BP Macondo well blowout, which resulted in explosions and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, the sinking of the rig and the death of 11 workers.
BP said cleanup operations ended on 4272 shoreline miles in the four states.
The company cleaned so-called "amenity beaches" in tourism areas to depths of up to 5 feet, using mechanical equipment to sift out oil and other debris and returning clean sand to the beach.
Where oil reached marshes, contractors tried to identify treatment methods that limited damage to plant life and wildlife.
"The transition is a significant milestone toward fulfilling our commitment to clean the Gulf shoreline and ensuring that the region's residents and visitors can fully enjoy this majestic environment," said Laura Folse, BP's Executive Vice President for Response and Environmental Restoration. "Even as the Coast Guard has made the decision to move these states to the National Response Center reporting system, should residual Macondo oil appear on the shoreline, BP remains committed and prepared to address it under the direction of the Coast Guard."