FEATURE-Oil spill team eyes long fight against "the blob"

* Response team planning for tough battle

* Relatively little damage to wildlife, so far – professor

* BP says focus on saving shore, not money

* Team fears demands for action that may hurt environment

By Tom Bergin

HOUMA, La., June 7 (BestGrowthStock) – Staffers at a BP oil spill
response center in Louisiana are preparing for a long battle as
they try to contain the “blob” of oil from a ruptured Gulf of
Mexico well that is fouling coastal waters and beaches.

The well is leaking crude at a rate of 12,000 to 19,000
barrels a day despite a number of attempts by BP (BP.L: ) to cap
it, polluting wildlife refuges in Louisiana, barrier islands in
Mississippi and Alabama and some of Florida’s famous beaches.

While officials in a command center in BP’s U.S
headquarters in Houston work on halting the subsea flow of oil,
an even bigger team near Houma, Louisiana, is dealing with the
spill on the water’s surface and overseeing shoreline cleanup
operations for Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the spill.

Other BP command centers in Mississippi, Alabama and
Florida manage the shoreline response in those states.

Up to 1,000 people, including military personnel, BP
officials and scientists, work at the center in Houma in a
building that is normally a BP training center for offshore
engineers. Operations are conducted during daylight hours.

Every hotel room in Houma and the surrounding area has been
booked for an indefinite period to accommodate the workers.

A free dry-cleaning service has been added, while the
building’s kitchen – which was designed to cook breakfast and
lunch for 50 to 75 people — has been beefed up to turn out
free meals 24 hours a day.

“We’ve got the best food (of all the command centers),”
Mike Utsler, the incident commander and effective head of the
center in Houma, told Reuters during a recent visit.

LONG HAUL

The emphasis on food is a deliberate strategy to keep
morale high. Some staff came onboard expecting a shorter haul
but they no longer know how long they will be away from home.

“We’ll rotate out for a few days (every two weeks) until
it’s over,” said Barbara Callahan of the International Bird
Rescue Research Center.

Some personnel work 14 days on, 14 days off, but others
have much shorter breaks. Utsler has not had a day off since he
flew down from Alaska 38 days ago.

The command centers are a collaborative effort among BP,
the state government, the Coast Guard and government agencies
and under the control of Washington’s point man on the crisis,
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

BP occupies most of the senior roles.

In addition to Utsler, most of the division heads are BP
executives. Their deputies come from the Coast Guard, safety
regulator OSHA, the U.S. Minerals Management Service or other
government bodies.

Last week, BP placed a containment cap on the well in an
attempt to capture the flowing oil at source and bring it to
ships on the surface. But the company still faces public anger
and mounting political pressure over its efforts.

Some politicians are unhappy with BP’s leadership role in
containing the spill and hint the company’s obligations to its
shareholders may color its judgments, a suggestion rejected by
Utsler.

“Our focus is on the mission,” he said.

The heart of the operation is the main control room, which
has long rows of desks cluttered with laptop computers. Large
flat-screen televisions, blown-up photographs, maps and
projection screens cover the walls.

Teams of experts in oil burning, the spraying of
dispersants, and oil skimming, sit in clusters alongside teams
of legal and financial specialists.

BAD INDUSTRY PRACTICES MEANS MUCH CLEANUP PRACTICE

The Houma Command Center’s first priority is to keep the
oil slick, which it refers to as “the blob,” off the shore by
skimming, burning or capturing it with absorbent booms.

When it hits land, or affects wildlife, the relevant units
kick into gear. The relative frequency of spills around U.S.
coastlines means the response effort has been able to draw from
a rich seam of experience.

“I’ve worked on 50 to 60 oil spills since 1996, mostly in
California,” said Michael Ziccardi, associate professor of
clinical wildlife health at the University of California
Davis.

Houston-based Rhonda Murgatroyd, a specialist in treating
oiled birds, said, “I spend a lot of my time in Louisiana and
Texas … but on a much smaller scale.”

So far, relatively few animals have been oiled, said
Ziccardi, who has responsibility for sea mammals and turtles.
But he is not complacent.

“We’re prepared for oiled manatees,” he said.

When it comes to cleaning up the shore itself, decades of
oil spills have taught some counter-intuitive lessons, namely
that doing nothing is sometimes the best thing — especially in
the case of marshlands — as cleanup efforts can do more damage
than the oil itself.

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(Editing by Paul Simao)

FEATURE-Oil spill team eyes long fight against “the blob”