Oil slick brings boom to the boom business

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

PASS CHRISTIAN, MISS. -- On the anxious Gulf Coast, there is a boom in the boom business.

With an oil slick about one-third the size of Maryland growing offshore, the coast's most sought-after commodity has become the fluorescent-colored "containment boom." A month ago, this was boatyard detritus: floating vinyl curtains, designed to trap oil on the surface.

But now, despite assurances from federal leaders that they will do everything they can to stop the oil, the boom has become the object of a mad scramble by local officials from Venice, La., to Pensacola, Fla. In a region still pocked with the ruins of Hurricane Katrina, waiting for a new disaster to make landfall, the boom answers a jumpy impulse to do something.

Already, these officials have exhausted local boom stockpiles and gone looking for more, ringing phones from Texas to Canada. Manufacturers have raised prices and lengthened work shifts. In Louisiana, one sheriff has posted deputies to guard the stuff, just in case.

All this has happened despite the ugly secret of the boom: It doesn't always work.

Without the boom, it's "like if you were a tightrope walker, and you didn't have the net," said R?nee Brooks, an alderwoman in Pass Christian. The boom, Brooks said, "is hope."

As of Tuesday -- the 14th day since the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, eventually unleashing a torrent of crude oil from the ocean floor -- the first sheen of oil had reached the sound of Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands, barrier isles that are home to a large population of nesting pelicans.

Authorities are using chemicals to disperse it, and robotic submersibles to try to stop the leak at its source.

And as a last line of defense, the federally led cleanup is also deploying these containment booms on a historic scale. As of Monday afternoon, officials said 92 miles of boom had been laid around wetlands, barrier islands and other sensitive areas.

For many local officials along the coast, that wasn't enough.

In St. Bernard Parish, La., a swampy expanse southeast of New Orleans, smack in the oil's expected path, officials went straight to a manufacturer.

"We told 'em to deliver 25,000 feet of boom every two days to us, until we tell 'em to stop," said Wayne Landry, who chairs the parish council. He said BP, the oil giant that was leasing the rig, was expected to pay the bill, which, at the going rate of 10 bucks a foot, is a hefty quarter-million dollars every other day.

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