The ongoing tragedy of the BP oil rig disaster and attempts to mollify it with dispersing agents remind me of two experiences I have had with these things.
The first time I dealt with this was while I working as a crew boat captain in the Kerr-McGee oil production field in Breton Sound, Louisiana which is where the BP slick is centered. We actually lived on Breton Island and serviced the hundreds of oil and natural gas wells covering several hundred square miles to the north and south of the island. Scattered throughout the field there were six “facilities.” These facilities were about 50’X50’ and stood , maybe, 40’ out of the water. Each one was the center for several hundred wells. At the top of each facility was equipment to separate water, sand and gas from the crude oil which was then sent to large “collection barges” where the crude was stored until tug boats would come out once a week to swap the filled barges for empty ones.
One day one of the large hoses that transferred the oil from the facilities to the barges broke and an unknown amount of crude oil was released into the water. The four crew boats servicing the field were immediately called into action. We were loaded with what looked like those pump up insect sprayer things you buy at Home Depot but much larger. They were filled with a dispersing agent not unlike liquid detergent.
We spent the next few hours running around through the slick that covered several square miles spraying the dispersing agent and using the boat’s wakes to mix it all together. Eventually the sheen wasn’t noticeable anymore and the spill never happened as far as the Coast Guard knew.
My second go-round was much more personal and is told only with the safety of time and the certainty that the statute of limitations has run out.
After bringing Jolie Aire, the 85’ ketch I’d been running on the French Riviera to the States we were docked at a well-respected boat yard, which will remain anonymous, on the Dania Cut Off Canal outside of Fort Lauderdale.
It was a Saturday evening just after dark and I was filling the water tanks with a hose from the dock. The only other person on board was the young Irish lad, Martin, who had helped make our crossing of the pond such a delight. I had planned on making chili with some excellent steaks left over from the cruise and Martin came on deck and offered to finish topping off the tanks so I could start dinner. I’d been in the galley for about 20 minutes when the strong odor of diesel fuel pervaded the boat followed by diesel fuel itself spilling out of the galley vents.
I burst out on to the deck to find the fuel tank overflow vents spewing diesel fuel into the winch island recess. The photo shows the recess full of snow from over on the Riviera but you get an idea of how big it is.
It was almost filled to the brim with over 30 gallons of instant disaster and more being added every second. What had happened was after filling the first water tank Martin, without using the flashlight I’d left with him, opened another deck fill and stuck the water hose in a fuel fill!
Luckily we were the only boat in the yard with anyone on board, so except for the guard at the gate there was no one around to smell the diesel in the air. I looked over the side and there was a slick that filled the yard’s turning basin and it was being sucked out towards the Intracoastal Waterway by the falling tide.
We got into the car and raced to the nearest Publix supermarket where I was able to buy a small pump sprayer and eight gallons of Tide laundry detergent. Back at the boat we rode around the area spraying Tide on the slick then putting the bow of the dinghy against the floating docks and revving the outboard as high as it would go to bring the water to a rolling boil to mix it with the detergent. We kept this up for several hours until all the Tide had been used up.
The next morning I got up early and there was still a light sheen over the entire area. We drove to another supermarket and bought an additional five or six gallons of laundry detergent and repeated the process until the detergent and ourselves were exhausted. Since it was Sunday there was no one around the yard to witness our nefarious activities. On Monday morning there was no evidence that anything had been amiss.
It was our good fortune, if there was any in this story, that the night of our spill was also the night of the annual Christmas boat parade in Fort Lauderdale so every Coast Guard, police and Sherriff’s boat was on duty at the event and none around to catch us.
Am I proud of what I did? Of course not, but I also could not have borne the burden of the multi-thousand dollar fine that would have resulted had I reported what had happened to the authorities.
Granted neither of those events come close to the catastrophe that is occurring daily in the Gulf of Mexico, but I do have first-hand knowledge of the use of dispersing agents on oil slicks.