Cleanup plan allows oil from Gulf spill to be left behind


Anyone hoping for total removal of all the oil deposited on beaches and marshes during the Gulf spill is likely out of luck.

While public “amenity” beaches — such as the tourist beaches in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach or Gulfport — are to be cleaned until they are oil-free, other areas will not get scrubbed as thoroughly, according to the final draft of a plan written by federal officials.

The “SCAT Shoreline Treatment Implementation Framework” was signed in early October by BP PLC, the U.S. Coast Guard and officials from the state environmental agencies in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

“It was signed off on by all stakeholders. That’s the Incident Command and all other state and federal agencies involved in the process. They signed off on it, we’re assuming everyone is happy with the plan,” said Todd Beyer, a BP spokesman.

A review of the document shows that the so-called “amenity” beaches will be cleaned to a “no visible oil” standard under the plan. But for other areas, such as the miles of uninhabited shoreline on Dauphin Island, a lesser standard is suggested.

Those “nonresidential” beaches will be cleaned until less than 1 percent of the beach surface is oiled and no tarballs larger than 2 inches across are present, according to the document. State and federal parks — including the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida — cannot have tarballs larger than 1 inch across, according to the plan.

Oil buried in the sand on beaches classed as nonresidential will be allowed to remain in place, provided it is in bands less than 1.2 inches thick and “patchy.” Oil is buried up to 20 inches deep on some beaches, according to the document. This oil will periodically be uncovered by wind and waves, which will allow “natural attenuation” of the oil.

The plan suggests that cleanup activities could at times do more harm than good, in areas such as marshes, or could disturb birds and other wildlife on barrier islands.

Disturbing beach sand as little as possible is a high priority in some areas, the plan says, particularly on barrier islands that suffer chronic erosion.

In certain circumstances, the document suggests, removing all of the oil from an area may not result in “significant benefit.”

In response to Press-Register questions about cleanup goals, federal officials provided a redacted, 21-page section of the plan Thursday. The newspaper subsequently obtained the full 99-page report, which was labeled “Business Confidential” on the cover page.

The agreement establishes “No Further Treatment” thresholds for beaches, marshes and manmade shorelines. Once those benchmarks are reached in an area, major cleanup would cease and the focus would shift to “maintenance and monitoring,” according to federal officials.

BP has hired a new contractor to expedite the spill cleanup, according to the “Deepwater Horizon Incident Update” section of the Oil Spill, website. The company hired the contractor in an effort to reach No Further Treatment status by Dec. 1, 2010, according to the site.

The plan states that the cleanup targets are not “strictly prescriptive or limiting, and modifications or amendments may be appropriate for special cases.”

Beyer stressed that once the No Further Treatment level was reached, the company would continue to monitor the coast and deal with any problems that arise.

“It’s not a declaration of absolute 100 percent clean, no further attention needed at all,” Beyer said. “We don’t want anyone to have the impression that we are just walking away.”

In a statement e-mailed to the newspaper, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management wrote that the no visible oil standard would be applied to beaches in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, parts of the Fort Morgan peninsula and the public beaches on Dauphin Island.

The ADEM statement said no decision had yet been made on Dauphin Island’s private beaches, other parts of Fort Morgan, or the western hunk of Dauphin Island broken off by Hurricane Katrina. The statement said those areas could end up with a cleanup allowing up to 5 percent visible oil, depending on what property owners want and the need to protect sensitive areas. That standard would allow more oil to remain than the standards described in the federal plan.

Riley Boykin Smith — former head of the Alabama Department of Conservation and manager of West Dauphin, LLC, which owns the uninhabited portion of the island — said last week that it was unacceptable for officials to leave any oil on the island.

“We need to study these reports, but our beaches deserve to be as clean as anybody else’s beaches, whether they are inhabited or not,” Smith said. “We expect to be made whole just like everyone else on the Alabama Gulf Coast.”

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said the beaches should be restored to pre-spill condition and expressed concern that oil left behind in one area could easily migrate to other beaches during storms.

“We want all the oil off the beaches. I think that should go without saying. That’s what everyone wants,” Collier said. “BP is responsible. Whether the oil ends up on private property or public property, it is their mess. I don’t see how it could be left anywhere. I don’t like the idea of trying to distinguish between various kinds of properties when it comes to cleaning up the beaches.

Asked about cleanup goals for Mississippi, state officials referred to the No Further Treatment standards, but said no formal decisions had been made.

Federal manuals on shoreline cleanup after oil spills make clear that “natural restoration” — meaning leaving oil in place — is often the preferred solution for sensitive areas. During a telephone conference in early October, Ruth Yender, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official who wrote the cleanup plan, said that cleanup goals would vary depending on shoreline type and use.

“Any oil that does remain that we determine can’t effectively be removed without causing too much damage will still be taken into account with the Natural Resources Damage Assessment” lawsuit to be filed against BP, said Yender.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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