As OWCN responders, I am sure everyone is aware by now that today, 20 April, marks the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the start of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) that went uncontrolled for more than 80 days. There are a number of excellent pieces on the history and sheer scale of the operation (several of which I will link below), but I wanted to give a personal story to try and give a bit more color to at least my little corner of the incident.
I was one of the many who watched in horror at the early phase of the accident – the rig up in flames, the workers who lost their lives – and then watched as the released oil rose to the surface and made its way toward the Louisiana coastline. As one of the writers of the 2007 Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), I was quickly brought into the loop on marine mammal and sea turtle issues – in an environment where 30 different species of mammals and 4 of 5 species of turtles were at significant risk. I also reached out directly to BP and International Bird Rescue, as key partners for us in California, and offered the assistance of the OWCN if needed. Rhonda Murgatroyd, acting Wildlife Branch Director for the BP operations and Dr. Teri Rowles, program coordinator for NMFS’ stranding program, both asked me to fly to Louisiana on 27 April to lend assistance for the mammal and turtle effort (as Tri-State Bird Rescue had been mobilized to lead the bird effort). Thus started a 5-month, 9-round-trip, 1300-work-hour operational response for me, but little did I know it would also end up occupying much of the following 10 years in broader preparedness activities!
After arriving at the Houma, LA incident command post (or ICP), one of the first things I was asked to focus on was working with NMFS staff to identify existing personnel and facilities in the region, make recommendations to what might be needed if the spill required a large-scale rehabilitation effort (recall that the oil stayed off shore for more than two weeks), and to implement the existing protocols to address the effort. Each of those tasks ended up being enormous undertakings. First, no one could predict how large the spill could end up being, so the entire GoM was considered at risk (later that was expanded to Cuba and the Atlantic seaboard, but that’s another story…) and plans had to be developed from Texas to Florida. Next, while excellent facilities and personnel exist in key areas around the Gulf, facilities had not been developed specifically with oil containment in mind. Third, amazing responders and rehabilitators operated from these facilities, but none had the required 24-hour OSHA training necessary to enter a “hot zone” before the event, and volunteers had been expressly forbidden to work in the effort. Last, but certainly not least, the protocols that Dr. Shawn Johnson and I had worked hard on in the mid-2000’s had been based on the current state of knowledge for oiled wildlife care – namely impacts and protocols related to pinnipeds and sea otters, with little detailing cetaceans (and none involving sea turtles). So just a few challenges…
As the spill evolved, the Marine Mammal/Sea Turtle (MM/ST) Unit tried to stay one (or more) steps ahead of the “curveballs” that were thrown at us daily. Amazing collaborators and scientists from NOAA (such as Teri Rowles, Sarah Wilkin, Trevor Spradlin, and many others on the mammal side; Barbara Schroeder, Sara McNulty, Alexis Gutierrez, and many more on the turtle side; and Lavonne Hull and a tremendous support team from UCD) took turns rotating into the ICP to work with me to support the management effort, while the key stranding coordinators and scientific staff solved the problems in real time in the field. When very few oiled turtles arrived on the beach in the first two weeks, plans were quickly made to travel more than 100 miles offshore to start combing the oiled sargassum for juvenile animals at risk (complete with aerial assistance to allow for efficient searches). When dead bottlenose dolphins began stranding in large numbers in remote locations, large-scale recovery efforts were mounted to be able to bring the carcasses back so that full post-mortem examinations could be undertaken. When it became clear the scope and breadth of the impacted region, key facilities from the Texas-Louisiana border through to the panhandle of Florida were revamped to accommodate oiled dolphins and turtles (and later expanded appreciably once animals arrived). Additionally, stand-by facilities for oiled cetaceans and turtles were identified in areas outside of that geographical limit, additional sites were found to accommodate oiled manatees should they be captured, and secondary facilities were found that could take de-oiled animals if needed to free up space at the primary sites. When large-scale controlled burns were initiated, an outcry from the general public regarding the potential of animals to be caught in the “burn box” ended up in a rapid, comprehensive, and collaborative approach to survey each and every potential burn site before igniting it. These, and the daily sourcing of caffeine (the subject of which became one of my favorite blog posts during this response) were just a few of the daily challenges that we met and conquered during the response.
One of the most memorable things for me personally, aside from trying hard to do what we could for all of the animals at risk, was the public thirst for information on the spill. Because of the sheer scale of the event (with more than 47,000 people working on it at its largest effort), getting key information into the public sphere on the wildlife effort was difficult. With operations spread between four different Sectors (each of which had an ICP that reported to a Unified Area Command), enumerating the impacts to animals accurately was critical – especially in the face of images of heavily-oiled pelicans in the daily press. There were even reports of “black van” and “black boat” operations that prowled at night to collect oiled marine mammals and dispose of them to hide evidence! While we were delivering information to the Unified Command daily related to mammals and turtles, early in the response those data were held close – which ended up translating into little information being released on the overall wildlife effort. To try and do a small part to alleviate this dearth of info, I turned to the OWCN Blog (yes, this blog site) to try and get at least a bit of information out there on the MM/ST planning and response efforts; no numbers, mind you, but some information pertaining to what was being done to benefit those animals at risk. The LAST thing I wanted to do each night was to head back to the La Quinta Inn after a 14-hr shift and wax philosophic, but I felt it my responsibility to try and get SOME info into the public arena to answer the questions of what was being done, and by whom. Aside from some particular literary embellishments (such as comparing the spill at one point to the Sword of Damocles), the blog landed well – and in fact led to additional media interest that then led to the ability to get good messaging out on the wildlife effort. Which leads me to the key point of this section: sharing correct information on excellent work is a critical part of emergency response. While I abhor being in the spotlight, either you control your message, or someone else will control it for you.
Ultimately, the well was killed after 87 days of uncontrolled release (and several unsuccessful attempts of stemming the flow). However, the work was far from over at that point. Some absolutely amazing work was started or continued: Lori Schwacke’s work investigating the chronic effects of oil exposure on coastal bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, LA and Brian Stacy’s continued efforts to fully document the effects in sea turtles and dolphins collected dead during the response to name just two. The response also resulted in an increased effort at an international level by the oil industry to better prepare for, and mitigate the effects of, oil spills, leading to the formation of the IPIECA – International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) Joint Industry Project. The IPIECA-IOGP JIP have focused on 24 key areas of recognized preparedness need for industry – one of which is oiled wildlife preparedness (and has led to the funding and support for the Global Oiled Wildlife Response Service, or GOWRS, Project, of which the OWCN is a proud member). Closer to home, the conclusion of the Deepwater Horizon incident has led to an increased effort by NOAA to better prepare for oil spill responses that may impact either marine mammals or sea turtles. The OWCN (primarily myself and Dr. Greg Frankfurter, with oversight Dr. Rowles and Sarah Wilkin) have helped formulate revised National Guidelines for marine mammal response, inclusive of “lessons-learned” from cetaceans and response actions during this incident. We have also focused on more regional-specific details through Regional Plans and Operational Annexes in each of the NMFS stranding response regions to identify key risk areas/species and available resources. Last, we have been conducting trainings (both operational and OSHA-mandated activities) in most of the regions to ensure the lack of trained and knowledgeable personnel will not hamper responses moving forward. So some tangible “silver linings” have definitely emerged from this disaster.
In looking back at this event, it makes me realize that all long-time oil spill responders tell stories of “the big one” – whether that is Exxon Valdez 30 years ago, Treasure 20 years ago, or even Deepwater Horizon 10 years ago. Each and every incident have pearls of knowledge buried within, and it is the responsibility of dedicated responders to unearth them to make things better for the animals (and people) who are involved in the future. While I have been personally disappointed in the lack of legislative motion following this event (as compared to that following the Exxon Valdez incident 30 years ago), I am pleased that we as a community dedicated to the welfare of wildlife have done so much in these 10 years to improve our processes to truly embrace the “best achievable capture and care” mandate that is the OWCN mission.
And, as our previous Volunteer Coordinator Kaiti used to say, you are at 1688 words, so enough already! And if you read to this point, you CLEARLY are either really bored or appreciate my particular bent as to writing, so please feel free to relive 2010 with me in the archives of my blogs linked below.
Take care, and please stay safe in these uncertain times.
Additional links to Deepwater Horizon response stories: