Cleaning up the Gulf Coast beaches after BP’s oil spill is like cleaning out a giant kitty litter box in yellow, rubber “chicken boots.”
At least, that’s how National Park Service adviser Carla Cole of Astoria, Ore., describes it.
Cole normally works as a natural resource adviser for the Lewis & Clark National Historic Park in Warrenton, Ore.
But for a month this summer, she’s in the Gulf of Mexico helping with the oil spill clean-up at Gulf Islands National Seashore along with dozens of other national park employees from around the country.
Gulf Islands park has seven barrier islands and several beaches along the Mississippi and Florida coastlines that are now littered with tar balls from the spill. The islands are about 100 miles north of the spill site.
Cole and other park service reps have been called in to monitor the clean-up effort and make sure the natural resources are protected throughout the process.
The days are long, rigorous, hot and sticky. Cole meets with other park service employees at 4:30 every morning and is assigned to a site and a crew for the day. A 30-minute to hour-long boat ride, and then the painstaking work begins. And it doesn’t end until 6 p.m.
She’s not allowed to work more than 16 hours a day, but many days it’s a close call. As Hurricane Bonnie approached, the work days were shut down, however.
“It’s definitely slow-going,” she said. “We have to unload tons of equipment off the boat, boxes and boxes of water and Gatorade. It’s really hot - and the humidity makes it feel like 110 degrees. You’re definitely sweating all day long.”
Cole’s been to all four of the park’s islands off the Mississippi coast so far.
None of them have any shade along their beaches and dunes. So, there are three shade tents and a strict schedule of work and rest for the clean-up crew based on the heat index.
“It’s so hot that sometimes they do a half-hour of work, a half-hour of rest in the shade,” Cole said. “Sometimes it’s 40 minutes of rest for 10 minutes of work.”
Using modified kitchen implements and other improvised tools, the workers walk the beaches sifting sand and picking out tar balls.
“The work is really nothing like what I imagined it would be,” said Cole. “You’ve got a dozen people out there just walking very slowly on the beach. Just going along looking at the sand and cleaning it like a kitty litter box.”
The vast majority of the tar balls are somewhere between the size of a peanut and a marble.
“Sometimes they’ll get into areas where there’s bigger sort of cow patties,” she said. “Every once in awhile there’s areas with a bigger coating of it.”
Everyone wears gloves and “chicken boots,” but only the contracted work crew actually does the sifting.
“Day after day, they’re doing this real sow tedious work trying to get as much of it off as we can,” Cole said. “It seems like such tiny amounts, but every day thousands and thousands of pounds are being removed.”
One day they collected 20,000 pounds; most others it’s around 6,000.
“Those numbers are encouraging to me because it can seem like really infinitesimal work, but it is having a cumulative effect, I think,” Cole said.
With each small glob, they’re removing a critical pollutant from the ecosystem: PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are known to be carcinogenic (causing cancer), as well as mutagenic (changing organisms DNA) and teratogenic (causing reproductive abnormalities). They also take a long time to break down.
They’re also making sure it doesn’t reliquefy in the heat and create problems for turtles and shorebirds that nest in the area.
At first, there were booms set up around the islands to keep the oil at bay.
“But the first time strong weather washed ashore, they completely failed,” Cole said. “There is some oil that washed up into the marsh. That’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen. There’s nothing anyone can do to get that out of the ecosystem.”
When they see shrimp boats all over the water, she said, “that means the oil slick is coming our way.”
On the flip side, Cole said, “it’s incredibly beautiful here.”
She still sees dolphins playing off the coast, hermit crab on the beaches and plenty of nesting birds in the park. In two weeks on the job, she’s only seen two oiled birds.
“It feels like its still full of life,” she said. “In general, you don’t get the sense of a shattered ecosystem.”
Life is hectic with hundreds of spill response workers and organizers with multiple oversight agencies working with BP on the response.
A Unified Command group includes leaders from BP, the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. The epicenter of the response is the “incident command” center in Mobile, Ala.
“It’s giant,” said Cole. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people in different vests on their phones, phones ringing, computers everywhere. It’s insane. It’s easily 5 acres worth inside of desks, computers and people all filled up.”
The organizational structure is so massive, she said, “it’s amazing we get anything done.”
The National Park Service has a great website with pictures interviews with clean-up workers.