BP Shrinks Gulf Cleanup Crews, Tries New Tools

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BP says the Sand Shark can clean more sand in 5 minutes than 100 people could in 3 hours. i

The Sand Shark lifts sand onto a conveyor belt, then dumps it through a sifting device. BP says the machine can clean more sand in 5 minutes than 100 people could in three hours. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
BP says the Sand Shark can clean more sand in 5 minutes than 100 people could in 3 hours.

The Sand Shark lifts sand onto a conveyor belt, then dumps it through a sifting device. BP says the machine can clean more sand in 5 minutes than 100 people could in three hours.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

BP is likely to resume drilling a relief well this week after a round of tests ordered by the government. The blown-out well has been plugged from the top, but officials plan to proceed with a bottom kill before finally declaring the well dead.

Even though oil is no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, it is still washing ashore in some places and posing a cleanup challenge.

At the Gulf State Park Pier on the Alabama coast, ranger William Key notices that the waves crashing ashore are brownish, not their usual emerald green hue.

Key says the storm that came through the Gulf of Mexico last week churned up the water, and what was lurking below the surface was "a lot of silt, mud and oil. There's no two ways about it."

Key says people have wondered what would happen if a hurricane strikes while there's still oil in the Gulf.

"Well, we saw what happens just a couple of days ago, and that wasn't even a hurricane," he says. "We got high winds, high surf and it stirred up the oil that was on the bottom."

On the beach, Anthony Williams uses a tiny minnow net and bucket to scoop up tar balls, sift the sand out and collect the oil.

"Even the tiniest of the tiny — we get them all," Williams says.

It's a seemingly futile effort given the sheer number of tar balls dotting the beach. Williams and his foreman are using the nets, while two others rake up larger patches nearby. But Williams is undaunted.

"We've lost a lot of people, but I come out here and give 100 percent," he says. "Just got to get what you can get."

BP has been downsizing its crews in the Gulf since it capped the well in mid-July. On July 12, more than 46,000 people were working the cleanup. By August 12, it was down to about 14,000.

The company hopes a new piece of equipment can do a more efficient job. In Perdido Key, Fla., the Sand Shark squeaks and shakes as it moves down the beach, scooping up an 8-foot swath of sand polluted with tiny tar balls.

Project leader Kevin Seilhan says the tractor-like device goes deeper than existing technology can — up to a foot-and-a-half into the sand.

It lifts the sand onto a conveyor belt, then dumps it through a sifting device. "It will sift it from 3/8-inch down to 2 millimeters," he says.

In a 5-minute run, Seilhan says, the Sand Shark has cleaned more sand than 100 people could in three hours. BP has ordered four more to use in the cleanup.

When it comes to the beaches, it's a question of how clean is clean, according to Orange Beach, Ala., environmental manager Philip West. He drives his Jeep between the tide line and the dunes, pointing out the stark contrast in the color of the sand where oil has washed up over the summer.

"The beach ought to be just pure white, just brilliant white," he says. Now, part of the beach has "a very faint orangeish-pink hue to it."

West welcomes technology like the Sand Shark, which he says will clean tar balls more efficiently. But he says it won't take care of the stained beach.

West is urging BP to come up with a way to wash the tainted sand. Nature will eventually bleach it out. But West says this resort community needs its signature white sand beaches back in a matter of months, not years.

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