Leaving a Mess on the Gulf Coast: BP’s Cleanup Plan for Horn Island Is a Disaster


It’s a rule we’re all taught in kindergarten: Clean up your own mess. The concept is so simple even five-year-olds get it. If you don’t clean up the mess you make, somebody else will have to – and even kindergartners (bless their stubborn little hearts) understand why that’s wrong.

Sadly for those of us on the Gulf Coast, that very basic lesson didn’t gel with the folks at BP. Or perhaps – stretching the bounds of coincidence – they all missed that very same day of school. Either way, we’re now paying the price for their inability to adhere to our most fundamental tenets of personal responsibility and sense of right and wrong.

BP’s pre-K tendencies are all over the company’s final cleanup plans for our beaches. The plan (and I use the term loosely) for Horn Island, which is part of the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore located just off the Mississippi coast, is a troubling case in point. And let’s remember that cleanup on Horn Island is particularly important due to the wildlife that resides there, like sea turtles, shorebirds, raptors, piping plovers and other protected or managed species. And although, part of the island is federal land, other parts are owned by real people. Those folks, as you might expect, are concerned about the health of their land and worried that the bottom may fall out of their property value. I represent the Curtis family who owns a portion of Horn Island, and we are anxious to say the least.

The shortcomings of the cleanup plan, which we’ll run through, are extensive and some are fairly complex – but the central hangup is that BP is doing its damnedest to walk away from the huge mess it made. And it appears that despite the fact that this is federally protected land, the Obama Administration is going to let BP turn its back on the promise it repeatedly made to make things right on the Gulf.

In June 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward on a Gulf beach, with shorebirds chirping in the background, said: “For those affected and your families, I’m deeply sorry. We will make this right.” And this from Coast Guard Commander Dan Lauer at an April 2011 news conference in Grand Isle, Louisiana: “Regardless of where the oil came from, we are mandated to take care of it. We’ll be here as long as it takes.”

We are awash in oil – and so many broken promises.

The Horn Island plan, known in official lingo as a Shoreline Treatment Recommendation (STR) and dated late last month, is riddled with deficiencies and omissions. Be that as it may, inexplicably, the feds have approved it. Here are the most egregious cleanup copouts as I – and members of my research team – see them:

First off, BP categorizes Horn Island as a “Non-Amenity Special Management Beach.” What that means, by definition, is BP doesn’t consider the beaches on Horn Island “a useful or desirable feature.” In BP’s mind these beaches aren’t important, and therefore, don’t deserve a thorough cleanup. Ask the people who own land on Horn Island if they agree with the “non-amenity” designation. Or ask the endangered species who make the island their home.

BP is fully prepared to destroy people’s property values and irreparably damage the habitat of endangered species. Totally unacceptable behavior, even by kindergarten standards.

BP will not cleanup any of its oil on Horn Island beaches that lies below a depth of
6 inches. And layers of oil less than 3 cm thick, will not be cleaned up, wherever they are below the surface. That amounts to a whole lot of oil being left behind – a mess uncleaned, if you will. According to section 2b of the Horn Island STR: During the collection of residual surface oiling product (SRB/SRP) continues below the surface it can be collected to a depth not greater than 6 inches. (Review the entire cleanup plan for Horn Island below.)

Members of my research team were on Horn Island back in Feb. 2011 and they found multiple layers of oil well below the depth of 6 inches (see links to photos below). It’s inevitable that those layers will eventually rise to the surface as waves and rough surf erode the beach. Layer after oily layer will be exposed over time. Think of it as contamination on the installment plan.

One reason there’s so much oil below the surface is that BP buried it. Cleanup crews have been using a process called “land farming” – a common oil industry practice – from early on in the response (see link to my previous post below). The dirty little secret behind land farming is that rather than remove the pollutant, in this case oil, BP instead tried to “assimilate,” or mix, the toxic material into the existing environment, in this case, our beloved beaches. It’s the old discredited “dilution is the solution to pollution” approach. But when you boil it down to kindergarten simplicity, “land farming” is just a grown-up way of saying “hide it.”

Once land farming has been conducted, it becomes very difficult and expensive to go back and do things the right way – that is, removal and proper disposal of the oil and oil-saturated sand (see link to land farming video below).

We’ve seen the “hurry up and hide it” strategy (again I’m reminded of school children) from the early days of the spill response when BP began injecting dispersant directly at the Macondo wellhead to sink the oil to the seafloor (where it remains in highly toxic form). Out of sight, out of mind – until it kills all the shrimp, crabs and oysters and rolls up black and gooey on beaches with each passing storm. I should note that there are still watermelon-size tar balls rolling onto Horn Island beaches.

Speaking of tar balls, the BP plan gives short shrift to those pervasive spheres of weathered oil – providing the company with a giant loophole. Cleanup crews will be allowed to will leave as much as 1 percent of the beach covered in tar balls. That means for every 100 square feet of beach, BP will leave behind 1 square foot of tar balls. That gives BP an “out” anytime tar balls are found on the beach. Officials will be able to say, well, those tar balls are part of the 1 percent we’re permitted to leave behind. That “1 percent” amounts to a blanket get-out-of-jail-free card for the oil giant.

Perhaps the most egregious copout of all is that the Horn Island cleanup plan provides no mechanism for monitoring the area for re-oiling and re-contamination. So when somebody reports oil on the beach after the plan has been executed, there will be no recourse whatsoever to get BP to come back out and clean up the mess – other than maybe begging on bended knee.

One of my lead researchers, civil engineer Marco Kaltofen, calls the Horn Island plan “junk.” He not only considers the plan completely inadequate for the reasons listed above (among others), but also suggests the plan may in fact be illegal based on past experiences in the field. Consider this from Mr. Kaltofen:

“From the early days of the spill, BP limited access to areas hit hardest by the spill. When we could get access to conduct sampling, response officials kept a very close eye on what we were doing. They would confiscate our equipment and gear that had even the slightest smear of oil on it. They treated it like hazardous waste. But now we see BP using barrier islands, like Horn, as oil debris storage facilities – leaving oil-soaked boom and other contaminated materials all over the place. And now with this joke of a cleanup plan, we see that BP is perfectly comfortable leaving significant amounts of oil and contamination behind…when it suits their purpose.”

It’s clear that BP is preparing to leave a huge mess behind on the Gulf Coast, Horn Island being just one of the many unfortunate locations. And our federal government is letting the company walk away scot-free. Unbelievable.

I’m not sure how these folks sleep at night knowing that every kindergartner on the Gulf Coast and beyond (perhaps even children of their own) knows they are violating one of the most fundamental rules of societal responsibility: Clean up your own mess.

See the layers of oil on Horn Island beaches: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuartsmithlaw/6257705774/

More oil layers here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuartsmithlaw/6257703716/

Review the official BP cleanup plan for Horn Island: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1G1v2VYDMDn6N6cwDerfIRvukmjuvB7J2hv76tDNKKVo/edit?hl=en_US

Read my previous land farming post here: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/bp-cleanup-worker-theyre-just-covering-it-up

See evidence of land farming here: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/video-from-the-vault-bp%E2%80%99s-hiding-more-oil

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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