Bill Hanson’s talk It’s Not the Steel It’s the Paper was “more a reference to the fact that there was always more than enough equipment (steel) in the U.S. to do what was needed (despite pronouncements to the contrary)” he explained.
“The question was how quickly the engineering permitting and contracting could be prepared. They were equally challenged but in the American tradition of teamwork and cooperation in a crisis we all excelled in our own areas of expertise” he said.
Hanson’s paper and comments were about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the project to protect the Louisiana coast by dredging protective berms after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and spewed oil into the Gulf until it was capped on July 15. He presented the paper at both the WEDA Pacific Chapter Meeting and the Gulf Chapter meeting both held in the last months of 2010.
“The most important thing we should keep in our memory is that 11 men lost their lives when that rig exploded” he said and went on to stress the safety aspects of every job and every operation.
When it came time for the dredging industry to respond by building the berms we were challenged to perform and we did he said. This is not just about the dredgers but about the regulators the state the Corps and Shaw and others who responded successfully with unprecedented urgency and sensitivity to the crisis.
He was not so complimentary about the news disseminators stating that “hysteria and hyperbole ruled” that reporters seemed to have already written their stories when they called and were not that interested in facts. His comments reflected experiences with the mainstream media many of whom were not equipped with the knowledge and understanding of processes and equipment to report the story accurately. He also took the blame for the industry reminding the audience that the maritime industry has always been media shy and needs to develop media skills on all levels to make sure real facts get in the discussion.
When the berm project was approved and put into motion the contractors faced unusual challenges. There was no time to plan and prepare and they were given minimal plans and no specifications. Communication was difficult the transport distances were long and exposed to weather; they had to set up small operations such as surveys and pipeline installation in remote locations deal with a large workforce and subcontractors and deal with the pressure to show progress and meet pre-set milestones.
After accomplishing the job and observing the teamwork that made it possible Hanson came up with a preliminary list of lessons learned:
We can do this; this is what we do. When given the tools to do so (the “paper”) US Coastal Engineers and dredgers can build coastal protection structures even in an emergency.
It was a good opportunity for engineers and scientists. There is good material in the Gulf and Mississippi River that can be used for coastal defenses in future coastal protection projects.
Equipment versatility is important; having a wide variety of equipment available to handle a variety of dredging needs is essential. This project employed cutter dredges hopper dredges clam dredges large hopper barges spider barges multiple boosters and many miles of pipeline (over 30 miles at one point).
Engineering flexibility is important. We need a team effort between the project owner regulators and dredgers. Changes were made on a daily basis to accommodate site conditions and design changes from regulators and engineers. Carrying forward such teamwork for future projects may help move some of them forward as well.
We need progressive-thinking regulators. There are ways to accommodate the many varied environmental concerns related to these types of projects. When we remove “no” as the first response we are able to understand better the needs and can work to accommodate them. The hands on proactive participation by the regulators really helped move the berms forward.
Reporters don’t care about facts unless we make real experts available to respond. We failed to get the real stories out to the media and let other “experts” dictate the discussion.
The Gulf shorelines need protection study and action; U.S. shorelines need protection study and action. There has been much talk about this in recent years but not much action. Between major hurricanes in recent years and now the berm construction coastal protection has been a hot topic but has not received real funding. It is past time to stop talking and start doing.
Engineers can be heroes too Hanson said. He considers the BP engineers who designed and installed the cap that stopped the oil leak to be the major heroes of the tragedy.
“It was an unbelievable engineering feat” he said. “They made this cap work in 5000 feet of water. And then when you consider the heroes of the berm construction you have to admire the work and dedication of many.”
He went on to mention specifics about key individuals particularly Charlie Hess PM for Shaw; Ancil Taylor in his role as dredging consultant to Shaw; Mike Flores as regulatory consultant to Shaw; Chris Accardo and Jim Walker of the Corps of Engineers; Chris Gillespie of Great Lakes D&D; Steve Chatry of Weeks Marine; and the regulatory agencies as exhibiting unique leadership in very unique circumstances.
“There were a lot of people who participated in many ways to make this happen from around the country and in Louisiana” he said. “Although the berms were born as a response to a tragedy there is a lot of pride in making something special happen along the Louisiana coast.”