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From the October 2010 Conservationist

An environemntal conservation officer examines a rocky shoreline after the Gulf oil spill

Operation Deepwater Horizon

A DEC ECO's firsthand account of working on the Gulf oil spill

By Mike St. Jeanos

Saturday, June 11th; Emergency Operations Center, Pascagoula, Mississippi

I arrived in New Orleans nine days ago, a few days after being recalled to active duty by the U.S. Coast Guard. In my full-time job I serve as a Police Captain with New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Law Enforcement, overseeing enforcement efforts in a nine-county area surrounding the Capital Region. In my spare time I serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. This is my second activation in five years.

Aerial view of a section of the Gulf Oil spill showing the red oil
The oil slick was bright orange and
covered several hundred square miles.
(Photo: US Coast Guard)

A couple of weeks ago I was relaxing by our swimming pool and looking forward to the summer when my wife Laurie came outside with the phone. It was a Coast Guard warrant officer telling me they were activating reservists for deployment to the Gulf of Mexico. The Guard needed reservists to help with their oil spill response, officially dubbed Operation Deepwater Horizon.

The officer asked if I had ever served on a buoy tender (a type of Coast Guard cutter), to which I explained that while I had served on a wide range of ships, I had never served on a buoy tender. He said that was close enough and I was going.

Getting off the plane in New Orleans a few days later, I filed onto a shuttle bus with dozens of young men and women with short haircuts and carrying sea bags, who I assumed were fellow "Coasties." We spent the next few days processing in-several hundred men and women, both active duty and activated reservists, engaged in a somewhat controlled chaos.

Today, I flew over the Gulf in a U.S. Army airplane to get a firsthand look at the spill. I've been assigned as a liaison officer for Jackson County, Mississippi. My job is to interface with the local elected and non-elected leadership, to help address their concerns. Because of the enormity of this environmental disaster, as well as the enormity of the response efforts underway (we will eventually have approximately 50,000 military and civilian responders involved, as well as several thousand vessels) it's important to get a good operational picture. Although I was out on the water surveying the local area by boat a couple of days prior, the overflight affords me a much broader view of the situation.

On the way out to the site of the rig explosion (about 40 to 50 miles out in the Gulf, south of Louisiana), everyone was looking out the windows to try and catch a glimpse of oil in the water. Spotting some kelp and menhaden, we incorrectly thought it was an oil slick. But when we eventually did fly over a slick, there was no mistaking it-it was bright orange and covered an area of several hundred square miles.

The former rig site was an ominous picture. There were numerous ships on scene, several burning off gas and being cooled by fire boats, and others trying to capture at least some of the oil. During our flight we also observed hundreds of miles of protective boom placed around sensitive coastline areas. The overflight reinforced the magnitude of the spill, as well as the scope of the response. While Mississippi's waters and coastline have not yet been directly affected by the oil like Louisiana and Alabama's have, from the size of the slicks it appears inevitable that they will eventually get hit.

June 12th-June 25th

It's been a feverish pace to get assets in place to protect the coastal communities in Jackson County, Mississippi against the approaching oil. There is a finite supply of skimming vessels and protective boom available though, and their deployment has to be prioritized. To further complicate matters, anyone handling oil needs specialized hazardous materials training, which also restricts our current response capabilities. We are operating under the Incident Command System, and decisions regarding where to place resources are made under a Unified Command. This system provides for a collaborative approach for the involved entities, agencies and municipalities. The Unified Command has placed the bulk of the available skimming resources in Louisiana and Alabama, which are both being hit hard with oil. This causes concern among the local municipalities in my area of responsibility, as they are worried that they do not have enough resources on hand, and that when the oil does hit it will be too late. Regardless, they work to deploy protective silt fencing and additional floating boom, to prepare for the worst.

Saturday, June 26th

A man in a yellow life vest looks out a helicopter window
The author surveys the spill from a
helicopter (Photo: US Coast Guard)

This morning I was back up in the air in an Army helo, attempting to verify unconfirmed reports regarding the fast approaching oil slicks. We've found the only good way to spot oil is from the air, and the Mississippi Army National Guard makes dozens of flights each day. The local leadership is concerned that oil will hit the beaches soon and that we're still not fully prepared; the overflight confirmed that a significant quantity of emulsified oil is right offshore. The reality is that despite all our efforts, some oil will probably enter the "back bay" area and hit land.

A resident asked me today how things were going with the spill response. My answer was that despite our ever-improving efforts, with the ruptured well continuing to discharge fifty to seventy thousand barrels of oil each day, we're simply not making great headway. The well needs to be capped. There are a number of protective measures we have employed including floating boom, oil skimming vessels, and fabric fencing, but all have limitations and we'll probably be faced with the need for shoreline cleanup.

I empathize with my local coastal communities. Although they haven't had oil wash onto their shores yet, their bayous, bays and beaches are integral to their way of life and livelihoods, and they're extremely worried. They have already suffered a significant economic blow, as commercial and recreational fishing have been completely shut down, and tourism has taken a terrible hit. Just five years ago Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc here, and despite the almost unbelievable progress they have made in rebuilding, this disaster has stretched their resolve. Many of the BP employees who I come into contact with are affected as well, for despite having no direct involvement in the spill, they still feel a sense of personal responsibility. I am very impressed by the people of Mississippi, as they are simply some of the friendliest, hardest-working, and resourceful people I've ever met. At a recent meeting, a local commercial fisherman, now out of work, was close to breaking down while describing the financial stress he and his family are suffering. It's heartbreaking to see good people having to deal with this.

Sunday, June 27th

Our work schedule is somewhat daunting. I haven't had any days off yet. The days run from early morning until evening, often 14-16 hours long, and almost everything I'm involved in is problematic. It's hard to complain though because all of our people are in a somewhat similar situation. There's simply an overwhelming amount to do. As a reservist you come to expect this, for we're usually called in during disasters. Even so, this schedule is hard to maintain.

I'm exhausted and was planning to work a few hours in the morning and then take the rest of the day off. I got up at 0600, participated in the daily morning conference call, sent in my morning written pre-brief for the day, reviewed and disseminated some of the enormous volume of e-mailed data concerning the spill (trajectories; shoreside, inshore, nearshore response efforts; booming ops; etc.) and then knocked off. About an hour later, the phone rings and I'm informed that oil has washed up on the shores of one of our local communities. It's the first time my area has been hit. A short while later my boss called, telling me that I need to meet with the mayor of the affected community. After reaching the affected site to observe the impact firsthand (the oil is a heavy, sticky, emulsified mess, orange in color and similar to tar in consistency), I traveled to a marina where the local mayor was waiting with her staff. They were not happy, which is an understatement, as they felt we did not have adequate resources deployed in their area. In addition, a newspaper reporter walked up and placed a microcassette recorder on the table...not a good sign. No day off today.

Thursday, July 1st

Today, my boss, another commander and I met with an aide to the under secretary for homeland security to discuss what we've observed to date, and talk about possible solutions. We already provide daily teleconference briefings to the deputy secretary of homeland security or one of her top assistants. While excellent experience, the briefings can be quite stressful, largely due to the number of ranking personnel involved. Simply put, you don't want to mess up and be embarrassed on a White House conference call. Today's face-to-face meeting allowed for an even greater degree of direct input, and we provided a frank assessment of what we need to improve our local response efforts.

With any large scale response, there are going to be missteps, and this one is no exception. I can honestly say though, that almost every day of the response sees improvement, and our own leadership has moved quickly to ensure that the issues being brought forth from the local communities are addressed to the greatest extent possible. Almost immediately after today's meeting, greater local operational control was put into place, more resources such as skimming vessels were secured, and a streamlined command and control system was set up, which will allow us to respond to issues in a more timely fashion. (We see drastic improvements over the next few weeks.)

Saturday, July 3rd

A worker on the beach manually removes oil and tarballs
Manually removing oil and tarballs can
be difficult, tedious and filthy work.
(Photo: US Coast Guard)

My boss dispatched me to our local waterside staging area where many of the skimming vessels are located, to get a handle on what's available for deployment and what we may still need. We've been given a green light to acquire more assets and needed to gather information quickly. My petty officer and I first stopped at a local warehouse to view a new prototype skimming vessel that separates water from skimmed oil. It has promise, so we took several photos to include in our report. We then toured the staging area, viewed several new "weir" type skimming vessels that use a collection system similar to a pool skimmer, and also looked at several drum-style skimmers not currently deployed, but which can be put into service within a day or two.

Our oil cleanup capabilities include a wide array of resources, from mechanized skimming type vessels to workers manually removing tar balls and patties with dip nets, which can be difficult and filthy work. There are also shoreside assets involving work crews of hundreds, manually removing tar balls and patties in hundred-degree heat and oppressive humidity, or rescuing and cleaning injured wildlife. (Although we have encountered spill-related wildlife mortality, it has fortunately been somewhat limited.) The use of mechanized beach cleaning gear has also been deployed.

We reported our findings back to our chain of command. We are in a liaison function, but are frequently called upon to assist in a wide range of operational issues. (Within the next few weeks, the Gulf response goes from approximately 100 to 750 skimming vessels, not including thousands of support vessels. We're starting to gain momentum.)

Sunday, July 4th

I finally got part of a day off and used it to talk to my family. Being in the Reserves can be tough on your family and employer, because you have to go when you're needed. I'm fortunate that both are very supportive. My wife Laurie and I were especially concerned for our two children, Christine and Michael, as we are a very close family. But regardless of the length of my work days, I've been able to call home and speak with them each day, and through the use of a recently purchased webcam, we are able to see each other. It's a big help and provides them comfort to know that I'm okay and vice versa. It makes me think of our servicemen and women. I mean, I'm only away for a couple of months; I can't imagine how hard it must be for military families who have someone gone in the Middle East for a year or more.

Thursday, July 7th

Today we met with Four Star Admiral Thad Allen, recently retired commandant of the Coast Guard, and national incident commander for the Gulf oil spill response. My boss and I accompanied the admiral on an offshore supply vessel into the Gulf. He wanted to observe firsthand the operations in our area and help us make improvements. We spent several hours with the admiral who provided us with keen insight. What a great experience. Although Admiral Allen gave us input, he also solicited our input, and it forced us to be on our game.

Thursday, July 15

The well has been temporarily capped! This is a huge morale boost, even if it's only a temporary solution. Over the past few weeks we have seen significant improvement in our response efforts. It's heartening to me that after a somewhat rocky start we're starting to make real progress. I've been able to glean some of the engineering issues that they have faced in "killing" this well. Although it can appear simple in the news, it's in fact an incredibly complex evolution. This is a big victory. Over the past several days they had to let the well discharge oil unabated, while the new cap was being fitted. We had an armada of skimming vessels on scene to capture the extra outflow. Again, things are improving.

Friday, July 23rd

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with 4 Coast Guard responders
First Lady Michelle Obama meets with a
number of Coast Guard responders,
including the author (far left) during a visit
to the area. (Photo: US Coast Guard)
Last Saturday I was planning to take a half day off when I got a call that a White House advance team would be contacting me. No time for a day off. Over the next several hours, I met with the team who was planning for the arrival of First Lady Michelle Obama to christen a new Coast Guard cutter in Pascagoula, Mississippi the following week. She also wanted to spend some time with local Coast Guard responders. Over the next week I worked closely with the advance team, all top-notch people and a pleasure to deal with.

Today, we met with the first lady, and Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. It was a great and unique opportunity to interact in a small and somewhat private setting. Both the first lady and Secretary Napolitano were fantastic to us; warm, caring and engaging, and it was a great way to conclude my tour of duty. I have to say that although the Coast Guard is incredibly demanding, it also provides unparalleled opportunities like this one.

Saturday, July 24th

I'm heading back home next week. My replacement has arrived and I'm working to get him up to speed. We're also watching a storm developing in the Caribbean which might hit the coast. It's easy to forget about the potential for natural disasters while dealing with a man-made one, but we have to be prepared. This deployment has been exhausting, but incredibly enriching for me. I am grateful I was able to play a small, but positive role in helping to respond to our nation's largest environmental disaster. I'm proud that my team was able to leave things better than when we arrived, and my hopes and prayers are with the residents of the Gulf Coast that they overcome this catastrophe; I'm confident they will.

Mike St. Jeanos is the law enforcement captain in DEC's Region 4 (Capital District area). He has served with DEC since 1996.

Note: The views expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of the U.S. Coast Guard.