TOPICS > Science

What Happens to Debris From Gulf Oil Cleanup?

August 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Piles of plastic bags containing tar balls from Gulf Coast shorelines are packed up each day and millions of gallons oily water have been skimmed. But where is the debris from the Gulf oil disaster being taken? Tom Bearden reports.

GWEN IFILL: Now to the continuing cleanup along the Gulf of Mexico.

The government’s point man on the oil spill, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, announced today that he plans to step down by the end of September, once he’s satisfied with recovery plans. No oil has leaked since mid-July, but there are questions about what to do with the thousands of tons of waste the disaster generated.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden filed this report from the coast.

TOM BEARDEN: When the Macondo oil well blew out on April 20, BP hired tens of thousands of people to work on containing and cleaning up the largest oil spill in history. Hundreds of ships skimmed off the surface oil. Workers in protective gear scooped oil off of beaches and put it in plastic bags. Hundreds of miles of floating and absorbent booms were laid down to protect the coastline.

With the well capped, all of that stuff, 46,000 tons of solid waste and about 13 million gallons of liquid waste, have to be disposed of — booms, for example. A lot of them end up here, at the port in Theodore, Alabama, not far from Mobile. This is the largest single decontamination site along the Gulf. Booms of all sizes are pressure-washed and treated with bleach to remove oil and bacteria, repaired, and stacked for future use.

Walt Dorn works for Patriot Environmental, BP’s contractor to do the work. He says the whole facility is designed to keep the waste contained.

WALT DORN, director of Emergency Services, Patriot Environmental Services: We have a 30-inch containment barrier all the way around, and it’s an non-permeable liner underneath, so it cannot leak any liquids.

All the liquids that are generated during the cleanup process due to pressure-washing and rinsing of the equipment is captured inside this pool. And, again, you can see behind me the large trucks. These are vacuum trucks that actually recover all of that liquid material as it comes off.

TOM BEARDEN: And then there’s the oil itself, mixed with seawater, that is being off-loaded from large skimming ships. After the two liquids are separated, the oil will be processed into fuel, and the water is sent off site to be treated.

Solid waste, like contaminated protective clothing and booms that can’t be recycled, are sent to industrial landfills. Those facilities accept all kinds of household and industrial waste. They have heavy liners and systems to collect and monitor seepage.

There is a detailed plan for all of this, scrutinized and approved by federal and state agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t classify oil waste as hazardous, but it is testing the material and making BP test the waste weekly to make sure that more dangerous material hasn’t been mixed in.

Mike McAnulty is waste management coordinator for BP in the Mobile area.

MIKE MCANULTY, Waste Management Coordinator, BP: There is a continuous testing process. The EPA tests waste from our staging areas on a weekly basis.

TOM BEARDEN: And, so far, nothing has emerged from that testing process that is of any concern?

MIKE MCANULTY: There’s nothing to indicate this waste is anything other than non-hazardous.

TOM BEARDEN: Louisiana State University Professor John Pardue agrees that the oil that reaches the shore is not particularly dangerous.

JOHN PARDUE, professor, Louisiana State University: Oil itself has some toxic components, but the oil that’s reaching the shoreline has largely been weathered. It’s gone through evaporation processes, biodegradation processes, dissolution processes.

And so what’s coming onshore really is the — we call it emulsion, which is a mix of oil and water. It is probably the consistency of peanut butter, wet peanut butter when it’s floating around in water. And it obtains this consistency as it mixes with water, but also it as loses its more volatile fraction.

TOM BEARDEN: But not everybody believes all the reassurances. People here in Harrison County, Mississippi, complained so loudly that BP decided not to store oily waste in their landfill.

But before BP gave in, it buried about 1,400 tons of waste here, even though the county government was on record as opposing the shipments.

Marlin Ladner is a county supervisor.

MARLIN LADNER, Harrison County, Mississippi, supervisor: I think it was a slap in the face to folks in Harrison county. BP dumped their waste on our beaches, picked that waste up, and haul it less than four miles north and place it in our ground and our landfill.

I often use the analogy that its like somebody were to dump something in your front yard that you had a problem with. You call them. They come and pick it up and apologize, but, rather than taking it off, take it around to the back of your house, and dumping it in your backyard.

TOM BEARDEN: Now dozens of previously shipped containers are awaiting transfer elsewhere. Ladner says there are just too many unknowns to risk something leaking through the liner and contaminating the aquifer that sits below the landfill. That aquifer is the only source of freshwater for thousands of people who live all around the landfill.

MARLIN LADNER: We don’t know what the long-term effects of that oil is in that landfill. And I think, when you don’t know for certain about something, you need to err on the side of caution. And when you’re talking about people’s water, I think you need to be very concerned about what you put into those landfills.

TOM BEARDEN: Rene Faucheux works for Waste Management, the company that runs the landfill. He says groundwater is tested twice a year and that the law requires continued testing for 30 years after the landfill closes.

RENE FAUCHEUX, Waste Management: The waste is — is a non-hazardous waste. It’s permitted for this facility and can be handled very well and with an environmentally sound operation.

TOM BEARDEN: So, why didn’t the local folks who live around here believe that?

RENE FAUCHEUX: I do think that there is some information that probably can be shared more effectively regarding the non-hazardous waste parameters of this waste. But it is waste that is handled the same way between Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama, and Louisiana.

TOM BEARDEN: Casey DeMoss Roberts works for an environmental group in New Orleans called the Gulf Restoration Network. She doesn’t trust anybody involved.

CASEY DEMOSS ROBERTS, Gulf Restoration Network: Look what they have done. Why would we trust them? I mean, there have been failures up and down the line at every level. I mean, certainly, the industry hasn’t been keeping themselves accountable. And the government, the MMS, certainly wasn’t doing their job in — in regulatory or even collecting their revenue correctly.

TOM BEARDEN: So far, Harrison County is the only community to successfully resist BP’s disposal plans. The decontamination site in Theodore, Alabama, is now operating at peak capacity and expects it will have enough waste coming in to be busy at least until the new year.