BP Disaster And The Use Of Dispersing Agents On Oil Slicks

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.


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2 responses to “BP Disaster And The Use Of Dispersing Agents On Oil Slicks

  1. Hi Richard:

    Great story. Now back to the Gulf of Mexico problems. I’m saddened by the fact the regulatory agencies once again failed to do their job and big corporations kept on raking in the greenbacks. Does Wall Street rings a bell?



    The whole thing saddens me, Omar, on so many levels…the ineptitude of government, the greed of corporations and the destruction of the environment. After Katrina this is pretty much the equivalent of the final nail in the coffin of an area of my country I love so much. I know I will never go back there. It would absolutely break my heart.

  2. Terrifically interesting post. Now, of course, there are signs posted in every marina saying something like “for gosh sakes, don’t get out the bottle of Dawn if you spill something”. For a good while folks did that on a regular basis, for everything from bilge cleaning to making diesel overfills disappear.

    When I started varnishing, 20 years ago, it was a common practice for varnishers to “flick” the final drops of solvent out of their brushes into the water. No one does that now. Absorb the solvent with a paper towel, let the towel dry and then throw it away.

    I don’t worry when a drop of varnish falls from my brush into the water, but on the couple of occasions I’ve accidentally dumped a cup or so into the water, I’ve had absorbent pads at hand to throw on top of the spill. Voila! Gone.

    As for the situation in the Gulf… You should know by now I’m a fairly even tempered sort, but this has me enraged. If it were a matter of simple inattention or flat human error, despite the horror of the consequences it wouldn’t feel so – despicable. There was an article in yesterday’s NYTimes that has a nice, readable summary of the whole sorry mess.

    In 2005 the BP refinery down the road from me in Texas City exploded, with many deaths and injuries. In 2006, BPs Alaska pipeline ruptured from lack of maintenance. In 2009 (?) they were assessed OSHA’s largest penalty in history for NOT meeting new safety requirements after the Texas City explosion. Around 2007 one of my marinas got into it with them for silting in the marina as the result of their pipeline work.

    There was a bumper sticker in the area for a while that showed the old BP shield logo and the words: “Big or Small, We’ll Screw You All”. And apparently they will.

    Times sure have changed. I was living in Chalmette on my houseboat in 1983 when the Tenneco Refinery blew up about four miles away. The blast shook my boat and the explosion was incredible. It lasted for three days until it was extinguished by spraying foam on it from the air.