Gulf oil spill: Why booms, in short supply, may not save the day

Prices jump for oil-containment booms, as communities scramble to protect their coastlines from the approaching slick from the Gulf oil spill. Moreover, booms are effective only in certain conditions, experts say.

By , Correspondent

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    Gulf oil spill: workers at a decontamination site in Venice, La., bundle oil-containment boom that was cleaned Tuesday.
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Oil-containment booms are in short supply on the Gulf Coast as communities scramble to protect their coastlines from the approaching slick, but experts warn that booms alone will not stop the wave-borne crude oil from washing ashore.

Regional supplies of boom are sold out, and the cost of renting booms from elsewhere has nearly doubled in the past week, says Todd Duke, a project manager with Resolve Marine who is working with local officials in St. Tammany Parish to protect Lake Pontchartrain, which abuts New Orleans.

“A manufacturer in Florida told me it would take four weeks to fill an order for boom, so I started calling other contactors in the Great Lakes and Caribbean about renting boom,” says Mr. Duke. “Before the spill, it cost $1.10 a foot, now it’s $2 a foot. There’s only so much out there, and the price is starting to go through the roof.”

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The cost of absorbent boom, made of polypropylene (which repels water and soaks up oil), has tripled over the past two weeks, says Mitchell Mark of Snee Chemical, a wholesaler of oil-containment products in Harrahan, La. The region's wholesale stocks of boom have been exhausted, he says. "Manufacturers here in Louisana are working as fast as possible to keep up, but it reaches a point where it's impossible to meet demand. Wholesalers like me are looking everywhere for boom now, including China."

Several types of boom are used to contain oil spills, Duke explains. Floating hard boom, most often seen in media reports, is used to corral or deflect floating oil slicks. Absorbant boom soaks up oil. Fire-proof boom is used in operations burning off oil slicks. "About 80 percent of our business is floating boom," says Duke.

On the west side of the Mississippi River in Terrebonne Parish, parish public safety officer Ralph Mitchell is attending a meeting Wednesday with representatives from the US Coast Guard and British Petroleum (BP) to hear their plan to protect Terrebonne’s coastline.

“We have questions about what sort of resources, like boom, will be available,” says Mr. Mitchell. “We understand that you can’t string boom across the whole parish, and that right now this equipment needs to be in areas where the current danger is, but we’re concerned about what will be here if the oil comes our way.”

Booms just one piece of the solution

But according to experts, in most cases oil-containment booms are effective only when skimmer boats and equipment are available to remove oil from the water.

“From most of what I’ve seen on the news, the booms they’re putting out along the Gulf seem to be public relations for the oil company,” says Jerome Milgram, a professor of ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who has patented his own boom designs.

“A boom is designed to concentrate oil so it can be removed, and it won’t work at all in high wind and rough water,” says Dr. Milgram, who was a consultant on the Ixtoc I oil well disaster off Mexico in 1979. “As a practical matter, in most situations, booms are not going to keep oil out, but that’s not to say that the local operators deploying it in Louisiana don’t believe in what they’re doing.”

Even in relatively calm weather, oil will begin washing under booms after a short time due to a chemo-physical reaction between oil, water, and waves called retrainment.

“Wave action creates microscopic droplets of oil that are less buoyant than typical oil on water,” Milgram explains in a phone interview. “Instead of remaining on the surface, the droplets are pulled under the boom by currents of even half a knot. We’ve studied this very carefully in water tanks in MIT laboratories.”

Booms as deflectors

The effectiveness of boom depends on many factors, including wind, currents, and the viscosity and weight of the oil, says Ed Page, a retired 30-year Coast Guard veteran who served as chief of marine safety and environmental protection for the West Coast. Booms can be very effective at deflecting oil away from high-value areas such as an inlet or oyster beds, or by funneling an oil slick toward a skimmer, he says.

“It’s one of the tools in the tool box that can be effective if conditions are right," says Mr. Page, who spent three years in Alaska overseeing cleanup efforts after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. “But you have to get the oil out of there. People sometimes think that deploying boom is the answer, but it’s not a panacea.”

Coastal communities in Louisiana are desperate to take whatever action they can to prepare for the worst, says Michael Massimi, a wetlands scientist with the nonprofit Terrebonne-Barataria National Estuary Program. BP is still struggling to stop the leaks at the well site 5,000 feet below the surface some 40 miles out to sea.

“In a lot of cases, local governments are taking the initiative to deploy boom themselves,” he says. “It’s not so much a PR thing as saying, ‘We have to go out and do something.’ Sitting on your hands right now doesn’t feel good.”

Identifying crucial areas for protection

In their meeting with the Coast Guard and BP representatives Wednesday, Terrebonne officials plan to point out critical areas of the parish’s coastline for protection, says Mitchell, the public safety officer.

“In a straight line it’s about 60 miles from one side of our coastline to the other, but it’s not a hard coastline,” says Mitchell. “If you counted all the inlets and outlets and marshes and bays, it would be hundreds if not thousands of miles. We’re going to have to make sure whatever protection we have is really going to count.”

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