In the Gulf, Questions Over Where to Put Oil Waste

BY Tom Bearden  August 11, 2010 at 5:38 PM EST

The Macondo oil well in the Gulf may be capped, but the containment and cleanup effort generated a huge amount of waste.

First, there’s 13 million gallons of liquid waste — oil mixed with water — that was skimmed up by surface ships and has to be separated and treated. On top of that, 46,000 tons of solid wastes have to be rendered harmless. That includes hundreds of miles of plastic hard booms and oil-absorbent booms that were deployed to protect the shoreline.

We visited the largest single decontamination site for booms and liquid waste on Tuesday. It takes up a large chunk of the port facilities in Theodore, Ala., just southwest of Mobile. Workers stretch out sections of booms atop a line of wooden pallets and use pressure washers to remove the oil. Then the booms are treated with bleach, because some are contaminated with E. coli and fecal matter. Finally the clean booms are sent to a repair facility. About 70 percent of the recovered booms can be returned to service.

All of this takes place in a rubber-lined pond that has 30-inch-high walls to keep waste and water contained. Workers use squeegees to push the waste water toward pumps, which transfer it to waiting trucks. The waste water is taken off site for processing and treatment.

There is a highly detailed plan for disposing of all of this material. Under existing law, it’s not classified as hazardous waste, and thus can be taken to industrial landfills. These facilities have multiple liners to prevent any liquid from escaping, and are supervised by state and federal regulators.

But not everyone accepts all of the reassurances that oil waste can’t escape the landfills and contaminate underground aquifers, like the one that sits under the landfill in Harrison County, Miss.

Marlin Ladner is one such skeptic. He’s a county supervisor in Harrison County. The board of supervisors objected when they first learned that BP planned to place solid waste in the local landfill, and their objections got louder when about 1,400 tons were quickly buried there.

Ladner said that was “a slap in the face. BP dumped their waste on our beaches, picked that waste up and hauled it less than four miles north and placed it in our landfill.” He said it was like “somebody were to dump something in your front yard, 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 dump it in your back yard.”

BP re-thought the plan, and no more waste will be disposed of in Harrison County.

Other municipalities have objected, but Harrison County is the only one to successfully stop disposal — for now.

Watch the NewsHour tonight for more from Tom Bearden on what’s happening to waste and debris from the oil spill.