GULF SHORES, Ala. — As part of a fast-paced tour of coastal oil spill response work sites from Florida to Mississippi, Mike Utsler — the man who recently became BP PLC’s top official assigned to the Unified Area Command — met Thursday with supervisors at a staging area at Little Lagoon Pass.
Utsler told the 20 or so workers and media representatives present that the emphasis of BP’s response has moved from offshore protection to onshore cleanup, and that Alabama crews in the coming months will focus on the “deep cleaning” of sandy beaches.
“At the very peak of this response, we had more than 48,000 people deployed. Today, we still have 30,000 people. It’s still a significant response,” Utsler said, speaking of the entire response spanning Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle. “What will change is the type of workforce we use and where we use them.”
A state-by-state breakdown of those numbers and types of ongoing operations was not available.
In the coming months, the workforce likely will “grow and shrink based upon the detailed cleaning that’s required,” he said. “As that deep cleaning is completed, and we all agree that that sand is returned to its original condition, you’ll see that workforce come down again.”
He said he wanted to be clear, however, that BP “will be here for the long term, continuing to clean up the episodic tarballs that may wash up” and address other problems that may arise.
The number of local boats participating in the Vessels of Opportunity program will shrink in the coming months, though some boats will be re-tasked to conduct surveillance, water testing or do other work, he said.
Asked whether VOO centers would be shut down in the Mobile Bay area, Utsler replied only that “collectively, across the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll continue to downsize our Vessels of Opportunity program.”
He said “a joint group of scientists” — including state, federal and BP officials — is in the process of developing standards for how far down the sand should be cleaned and what, objectively speaking, constitutes “clean.”
Utsler said Pleasure Island’s beaches, where oil first hit in early June, already appear stainless and beautiful on the surface — largely due to the vigilant efforts of contractor crews. He said the upcoming cleanup will ensure that, “as you dig down and build your sand castles, they’ll continue to be clean.”
Utsler last month became chief operating officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, a long-term operation designed to oversee the environmental and economic recovery.
Asked for his reaction to the fire that engulfed the vessel Vermilion Oil Rig 380 about 100 miles off the central coast of Louisiana and forced its 13 crew members into the water Thursday, Utsler said that if oil spills during the incident his company will offer help.
“Any support that we can provide, having built in the capabilities for response that we have locally available, would be used to aid the Coast Guard in any ongoing activities,” Utsler said.
The Little Lagoon staging site is run by BP contractor Crowder-Gulf. Rick Stabler, the site’s project manager, said he believes his operation will continue to operate, though the number of workers may rise and fall.
“We had 450 workers here a day at the peak. Now it’s around 240 a day,” Stabler said.
Gabe Robinson of O’Brien’s Response Management, another BP contractor, said he was impressed that Utsler “addressed the one thing we’ve been wondering about, which is deep cleaning.”
Robinson said the oil can be imbedded anywhere from 6 to 36 inches below the surface, with the majority between 18 to 24 inches.
“He couldn’t get into specifics yet, but I think he definitely knows what he’s talking about,” Robinson said.