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Containment Boom a Major Player in Oil Spill Response

While most photos of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico over the summer included pictures of floating boom corralling oil and protecting wetlands and shorelines, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the scope of the containment boom part of the project. As a start, this month we relate the experiences of several manufacturers, which will give an inside view of how the crisis was handled in these companies.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people and causing a massive oil spill that continued until the well was capped on July 15.

Elastec/American Marine was contacted on the morning of April 26th with a request for Hydro-Fire® Boom. CEO Donnie Wilson and VP Jeff Cantrell drove a truck loaded with equipment towards New Orleans, Louisiana, where they conducted tests for BP and the U.S. Coast Guard. (See IDR, May/June 2010, Elastec Booms Will Contain, Burn and Disperse Spilled Oil.)

After the process of controlled burning was approved, other Elastec employees joined the team, which was given a staging area in Venice, Louisiana to direct burning operations. The initial fleet included four shrimp boats, two supply boats and one dive ship to house the team.
Elastec’s Hydro-Fire® Boom systems were brought in from around the world to aid in these controlled burns.

As giant smoke plumes billowed into the sky, people were worried about how it would affect air quality for workers, citizens on shore and the environment in general. The Environmental Protection Agency, stationed with burn teams, conducted studies that showed the smoke was not toxic as it appeared. There was no more environmental impact from the burns than if the oil had been processed and used in its intended purpose.

By the time the well was capped, 411 burns had been conducted, some lasting up to 12 hours. On the 18th of June alone, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 barrels of oil were removed from the marine environment, according to official estimates.

In addition to supporting the controlled burning, Elastec/American Marine supplied approximately 180 skimmers and 100 miles of containment boom to the spill response.

Brockton Equipment/Spilldam provided 70,000 to 75,000 feet of containment boom for the spill response. They also provided an experimental filter fabric.

“However,” Tim Prevost said, “It was difficult to get anyone to stand up and take notice of anything,” during the crisis. The filter fabric, a carbon-infused non-woven fabric that had an affinity to oil and which was deeper than the floating booms, was provided, but Prevost doesn’t know if it was used.

Prevost is operations manager of Brockton Equipment/Spilldam in Brockton, Massachusetts.

In all, there was 1.7 million feet of boom supplied from the US and Canada, said Prevost.

Brockton worked double shifts and Saturdays for seven to eight weeks–15 to 16-hour days and eight hours on Saturday. They didn’t put on new workers because their crew of 12 agreed to do the extra shifts, which was better because all were well-trained, and everyone could work all the machines.

Part of the reason they didn’t do more was a shortage of materials, which included chain for ballast, vinyl, which is an imported item, and foam, which is a regional item. It is regional because it is so bulky and light– infused with air–that it is expensive to ship, as it takes too many truckloads. So the suppliers have all created regional centers close to the demand. One truckload can make 7000 to 8000 feet of containment boom, said Prevost.

“We were dealing with a couple of salespeople in the Gulf area who would place an order. When the order was complete, we loaded 5000 to 7000 feet (of boom) onto a truck, leaving room for other products required, such as absorbent boom, and ship it. A spill response company would be waiting to receive the boom, and they took as much as they could get,” said Prevost.

Oil containment boom is now standardized, so the end fittings of one manufacturer will attach to those of another manufacturer.

“This was a lesson of the Valdez oil spill,” said Prevost. During that crisis there was a problem because the booms had too many incompatible end connections. The AFTM came up with standardized end connections, which all fit together even though they might not look the same.

All who make barrier were making it; toward the end of July, after the final cap was put on the well, many purchase orders were canceled, leaving some suppliers with an excess of inventory.

“I didn’t think it would be resolved as quickly as it was; I expected it to go on for a year,” he said.

However, Brockton was conservative in its production, and when purchase orders for 35,000 to 40,000 feet of boom were canceled, they mainly had the raw materials on hand and not that much of the final product, and they will use those materials to make other products.

There was little or no warning that the market would dry up. Prior to that, oil spill response companies, of which there were hundreds working on the spill, were taking all the boom they could get, he said.

The diversion of so much oil containment product to the Gulf of Mexico has depleted the inventories of OPA-90-certified companies, who are required to keep on hand a certain quantity of oil boom, skimmers, absorbents and apparatus, which includes 10,000 to 20,000 feet of oil boom. Brockton and other manufacturers are now working to re-supply these vendors.

DISPOSAL OF USED BOOMS

There was a triage “hospital” in the Gulf for boom that was damaged by ships, collision with rocks or other accidents. If the boom was not reparable, it was put into a landfill; if it was repairable, it was repaired.

Rules for landfills are laxer in the Southeast than in the Northeast states, and unusable boom was permitted to be landfilled in a number of places in Louisiana.

It would be labor-intensive to recycle the materials instead of placing the boom in the landfills, said Prevost, but it would create jobs stripping out chain and cable, which could be melted down, and saving the foam, which could be re-used. The vinyl is usually bonded to a woven material such as polyester or nylon, which makes it un-usable as a recycled material. There wouldn’t be a lot of dollar value to recycling, but it would cut down on landfill use, he said.

And in all, boom has a long life and disposal is not normally a problem.

ANONYMOUS MANUFACTURER

Another U.S. boom manufacturer, who spoke anonymously, said his company provided upwards of 400,000 feet of containment boom to his regular customers, who in turn had spill response contracts with BP. The company has a contingent of 10 employees manufacturing product, which was increased to 30, doing two 10-hour shifts per day, six days a week.

Shipping this amount of boom was a problem, he said, and they used “whoever we could find with a truck”–brokers and individual drivers.

“This was one of the harder parts of the spill,” he said.
Initially, oil spill response companies shipped all of their inventory to the spill, which is where the first boom came from. The responders then purchased new boom during the spill, and this manufacturer is now re-stocking these companies, expecting these contracts to last through the end of the year.

“This was a joint effort , with everyone giving up what they had at the time to respond,” he said.

Asked about rumors of inferior boom and huge inventories that are now languishing in warehouses, the manufacturer said that speculators saw what they thought was an opportunity to make money, didn’t research the products, and purchased inferior boom from overseas that was not up to U.S. specifications. He said that one such speculator had approached him to purchase “a huge amount” of the inferior boom and bring it up to U.S. specifications. However, the cost of that would have been over double their production cost for new boom, he said.

He advised anyone trying to make money to stick to what they know how to do.

OTHER PRODUCTS PROVIDED

Michael Correnti, Industrial Manager, recalled that his company, Laborde Products Inc., dealt either with BP directly, or with Louisiana state agencies. Correnti said Laborde provided small (under 100 horsepower) air-cooled and liquid cooled diesel engines to equipment manufacturers, and diesel powered water pumps, air compressors, and generators to clean up contractors and rental facilities along the Gulf coast.

Laborde Products is in Covington, Louisiana.

Its production staff worked overtime hours to package and assemble product. Some customers picked up products from Laborde’s facility, while other had it shipped to various locations.

Laborde was able to handle the demand with existing staff, although “at times, we frantically tried to locate equipment, and to ‘hot-shot’ equipment after-hours and on week end,” said Correnti. “We shipped product all along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. For the most part, we were paid in a timely manner,” he said.

Northwind Marine Inc., of Seattle, contributed a 30-foot, Argus-class aluminum rescue and fireboat to the city of Gulfport, Mississippi, completely paid for by the fund that BP set up. It was delivered September 2010. That was its only contribution, according to its marketing manager.

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