By George Tibbits Associated Press
SEATTLE — Cleanup companies, state and federal agencies and the military are beginning to send people and equipment from the Northwest to battle the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
From as far away as south-central Alaska, experts and easily transported materials started heading south within days after an explosion and fire destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf.
NWFF Environmental, a small, Philomath, Ore., company that provides training, support and cleanup services, sent 10 radio and telecommunications specialists to the Gulf just four days after the April 20 explosion. Now it’s rushing to find and train up to 200 shoreline cleanup workers, program manager Steve Finch said.
By reaching out so far it shows officials “immediately realized the gravity” of the disaster and how long it might take to control, Finch said. “We’re really small, plus we’re like 2,000 miles away,” he said.
Just how many people and how much gear has been sent is constantly changing. So far, it’s mostly been a few key people, along with miles of containment boom and thousands of gallons of oil dispersant, Curt Hart, Washington Department of Ecology spokesman said.
Under a national compact, other states provide aid when one asks for help, Hart said. Louisiana made the request last week, and state and federal agencies in the Northwest and nationally have been drawing up lists of available assets.
Washington’s Ecology Department has determined it could offer 11 specialists in oil spills and natural resources and 27 shoreline cleanup technicians.
Brian Gorman, spokesman in Seattle for NOAA Fisheries, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday about that agency’s plans. A message on his answering machine said he’d left for the Gulf on Sunday.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill, of course, gave Alaskans firsthand knowledge of fighting such disasters. Washington has five refineries and scores of tankers and cargo ships plying its waters — and a populace and government leery of risking any catastrophe to fragile Puget Sound.
A problem, Hart and others said, is the states need to maintain their own spill protections as they help the Gulf states.
“Our primary obligation is to remain ready in Southeast Alaska in case one of our members needs us,” said Dave Owings, general manager of the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Resource Organization, a nonprofit spill response group based in Ketchikan. As long as it can do that, he said, “If there’s anything we can do to help them we will be glad to.”
Alyeska, the oil company consortium that operates the trans-Alaska pipeline, has sent a spill response expert and more than 70,000 gallons of dispersant, said spokesman Matt Carle. “If they need more I’m sure they’ll call,” he said.
Among Alyeska’s owners is petroleum giant BP, the operator of the Gulf rig.
Although the bulk of BP’s response personnel have been from its Houston offices, 10 people, including public relations and logistics specialists, have been sent from BP’s Cherry Point refinery just south of the Canadian border in Washington. More are expected to follow, said plant spokesman Bill Kidd.
“It’s an all hands on deck kind of experience for us,” he said.
Marine Spill Response Corp., a national organization formed by the oil industry, is leading the effort in the Gulf. As MSRC moves people and supplies south from its Puget Sound bases, other companies have agreed to fill the gaps.
The Navy and U.S. Coast Guard also are determining what and who they can spare. So far, the Coast Guard here has sent 10,000 feet of boom and four oil skimming machines.
Finch said many details — including how soon his company gets paid — are being worked out on the fly. But he already is scheduling rotations to keep his employees from burning out — and he said the stints probably will be a month at a time.
Finch said he worked on the Exxon Valdez spill before retiring from the Coast Guard. “I know what transpires here,” he said. “This is going to be an ongoing problem for the rest of the year.”