BP begins downsizing oil cleanup crews

By Rena Havner Philips, Press Register

Two weeks after BP PLC placed a temporary cap on the well spewing millions of gallons daily into the Gulf of Mexico, the company on Thursday continued to downsize the number of local workers hired to skim oil from the water, scour beaches and perform other cleanup tasks.

While acknowledging that complaints about spill residue persist, BP spokesman Ray Melick said the oil giant would pursue cleanup efforts until “the beaches are exactly the way people expect them to be.”

“There’s no question it’s not perfect,” Melick said. “I’d love to say we’ll have it done in two months or six months, but I don’t know. It won’t be a job that’s done until everybody feels like it’s done.”

Meanwhile, Alabama officials have sent samples of fish, shrimp and oysters from the Mississippi Sound to a Pascagoula laboratory to determine whether waters there can be reopened for fishing, said Maj. Chris Blankenship of Alabama Marine Resources.

If the samples pass sensory tests — which include smell tests — they will be sent to a federal Food and Drug Administration laboratory for either chemical or fluorescent testing.

Results are expected within a week.

State officials are awaiting permission from the FDA to take similar samples from Gulf waters within three miles of the coast and from Mobile Bay waters just north of the Fort Morgan peninsula.

It has been 102 days since the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf, killing 11 and causing the nation’s worst-ever oil spill.

On the Baldwin County coastline, crews continue working with sifters during daylight hours to separate oil from the sand, said Marcus Little of Semmes, who has served in the cleanup for the past three weeks.

At night, machines sweep miles of beaches. Essentially, said Gulf Shores City Administrator Steve Garman, the entire beach in his city gets cleaned every two nights.

As of Wednesday, however, the number of local people working on recovery efforts had declined significantly from its height a couple of weeks ago: 1,099 people were cleaning Alabama beaches and 181 boat operators were working in Alabama waters as part of the Vessels of Opportunity program.

Little said that he has been notified that today would be his last day.

Also, Little said, plenty of small specks of tarballs are being left behind, and there’s a layer of a cola-colored substance an inch or so below the surface. The latter, he said, makes the sand look like “vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirls.”

“If you bring a shovel, you’ll see that the top of the sand is littered with what looks like chocolate chips, but they’re actually tiny tarballs,” Little said. “I clean the beaches, supposedly, and I find it very disturbing.”

Garman said city leaders are coordinating with BP to make sure that the work is being done properly. He said that cleanup efforts have improved in recent weeks after getting off to a rough start.

He said he knows that some small specks are being left behind, but that’ll change this winter, when contractors will do a “deep cleaning” of the sand. Workers will dig up sand inches below the surface, “digging deeper and sifting finer,” he said.

“We’re not going to do that until a) there’s no indication of more oil coming in at all, and b) it’s cool enough so the tar is easier to pick up,” Garman said.

For now, “We can’t get 100 percent. We never anticipated that,” Garman said. “We’re getting all we can.”

Cleanup methods themselves have come a long way, Melick said, as new inventions have been introduced to aid in the effort.

“We started with guys with shovels and bags. Behind that came front-end loaders,” Melick said. “Over the course of the summer, we started using a better rake system, sifting through the sand. If people have been out there, they’ve seen the system improved.”

Melick said BP may introduce even better cleanup technology soon.

Elsewhere Thursday, the government’s point man for the Gulf spill said that preparations for an attempt to plug the gusher are going well enough that the timeline for a “static kill” may be moved up.

The static kill would involve pumping mud into the top of the well and possibly sealing it with cement, forcing the oil down into its natural reservoir. Next, a relief well would make the “bottom kill,” pumping in mud and cement for a permanent fix.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Thursday that crews would lay in the casing for the relief well later in the day. That could accelerate the work on the static kill, which he previously said would begin late Sunday or early Monday.

Allen also said there is now little chance that any of the spilled oil will reach the East Coast, and the odds will go to zero as the well is shut for good.

Locally, at least 120 people have gone to emergency rooms, clinics and urgent care centers since May 14 complaining of ailments thought to be related to the oil spill, Alabama Department of Public Health officials reported Thursday.

Fifty-four of the patients complaining of oil-caused symptoms were exposed via inhalation, 26 by contact and three through ingestion. Also, nine patients reported multiple exposures, and 28 were exposed indirectly, according to the health agency.

There were no reports Thursday of new oil contamination arriving on Alabama’s beaches. Light nonmetallic sheen was reported in the Gulf about two miles south of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.

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