Oil slick brings boom to the boom business

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A04

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.

Now, Landry said, you can fly over St. Bernard's marshes and see the results: Fluorescent lines zigging through the marsh, looking incongruously like the lane markers in a swimming pool.

The booms in use here are made of a tough vinyl fabric: A round, inflatable section sits at the top for buoyancy, and a short curtain hangs down to stop oil floating below the surface.

It is a low-tech, decades-old idea: "just like a fence in the water," said Jeff Bohleber, of Elastec/American Marine in Carmi, Ill. And it doesn't work well in high waves or strong currents.

But still, this coast wants far more of them than manufacturers can make.

"I turned down about 200,000 [feet] worth of orders today," said Sean Geary, sales manager at American Boom & Barrier in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday. "Can't get it out fast enough."

Where boom was denied, there was talk of dark conspiracies. At a news conference Sunday night in Biloxi, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) faced a question about whether boom distribution was designed inequitably, favoring wetlands and steering the oil toward the beach towns.

"If BP could put the oil where they wanted it . . . they'd put it on Cuba," Barbour said.

Pass Christian city officials decided to acquire the stuff themselves. They called vendors as far away as Canada, trying to strike a deal.

They appealed to the federal government; they tried to buy boom from Texas or Florida; they tried to get it from nearby boatyards. None of it worked.

Finally, on Monday morning, state Rep. Diane Peranich appealed directly to the state's first lady, Marsha Barbour.

"It's the same thing we saw in Katrina: This mass is filling the gulf up, and we're just sitting and waiting," Peranich recalled saying. A boom would "be a tremendous emotional relief."

By Monday evening, workers in boats were stringing bright-orange boom across the Pass Christian harbor entrance. Brooks, the alderwoman who was so worried, celebrated with a meal of Mississippi oysters.

"I can actually enjoy the oysters," she said, looking out over the harbor from the restaurant deck. "Now we have a net with the tightrope."

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