In war against gulf oil spill, cleanup effort is being waged on many fronts

Workers at response headquarters in Schriever, La., monitor charts mapping the weather and movement of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Workers at response headquarters in Schriever, La., monitor charts mapping the weather and movement of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Ylan Q. Mui/the Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SCHRIEVER, LA. -- A map of the Gulf Coast depicting the massive expanse of oil creeping toward the shore flashes onto a projection screen in the headquarters for the response teams here. Federal workers sit alongside BP employees at a long conference table to assess the progress of the cleanup mission. It is 11 p.m. Sunday.

"You all see the challenge we face," says Scott Linsky, a Coast Guard reservist from Waldorf who is deputy incident commander of the response effort. "It's game time, so let's roll on."

Game time seems to be all the time in the 65,000-square-foot command center that is less than an hour away from some of the bayou towns that have been hit hardest since the explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon drill rig in April. About 1,100 employees from BP, the Coast Guard and an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies work shifts of 12 hours or more. There are four catered meals: at breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight.

The command center oversees cleanup and response efforts along the Louisiana coastline, which encompasses roughly 13,000 workers handling controlled burns, skimming oil off the water and placing booms to prevent it from reaching land. Similar command centers have been established in Houston and Mobile, Ala. The headquarters coordinating each center is in New Orleans.

"We've gone from an organization of zero to 13,000," said Kim Colburn, public information officer for the center. "It's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation."

Workers here treat the cleanup as a theater of war, with the battle fronts on the shore, in the water and deep into the gulf. There are offensive maneuvers, such as burning the oil and skimming it, and defensive strategies, such as using booms and raking tar balls off the sand. Posters of the most recent aerial photographs of the oil are plastered on the walls.

Every few feet, a sign reminds workers what day it is.

"I think we all do view it as a battle," said Danny Wallace, another deputy incident commander, who was called out of retirement from BP to work on the response. "Every night, the enemy is resupplied."

The operation has experienced growing pains. After the oil rig exploded and crude began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, response teams were criticized for not deploying enough people and resources more quickly.

But officials said that infrastructure in the affected rural towns could not support the flood of workers who arrived. The response lagged as they struggled to find lodging, build kitchens, secure supplies and ramp up security for the thousands now stationed here.

In addition, the long hours require workers to rotate off the job every few weeks, making it difficult to maintain continuity. So they wear colored vests denoting their departments -- red for operations and green for finance, for example.

"If I sit down, I'll pass out," one groggy worker says to another before the meeting.

"Nah, you'll be all right," she says, pulling out a chair for him.

They run through the day's accomplishments: 10,799 barrels of oily liquids captured, 10,880 gallons of dispersant deployed, 10 oily birds captured. They discuss plans for the rest of the week as Tropical Storm Alex churns toward the coast.

After half an hour, the meeting breaks up. The cafeteria is cooking barbecue for the midnight meal, but Linsky has no time to eat. He has a conference call at midnight with the command center in Mobile, as day 70 of Operation Deepwater Horizon Response begins.

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