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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Does boom really work? People along the Gulf Coast are raising that question about one of the main attempts to stop the approaching oil slick.

Boom refers to the floating barriers designed to soak up and prevent oil from reaching beaches and delicate marshlands. BP says millions of feet of containment boom have been deployed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AIRBOAT)

CARRIE KAHN: An airboat jets around the marshes of Bay Cocodrie at the southwestern edge of Louisiana. Oil has saturated the fringes of the delicate marsh grasses.

Coast Guard Petty Officer John Miller points to four boats in the water with crews of three men each. All are in white protective Tyvek suits, laying down endless stretches of special boom.

P: This is absorbent boom, the white stuff, looks like a long stuffed tube sock. And what it is, is it absorbs the oil and traps the oil by letting kind of the water kind of flow in and out.

KAHN: Miller says farther from shore, crews have placed miles of containment boom, usually orange or yellow. They have a hard floating plastic top attached to an 18-inch skirt. They're designed to trap the heavy oil even before it gets close to land.

Cleanup experts say both types are the best tools available to keep the oil at sea and off beaches and sensitive habitats. And on a calm day the boom stays in place and does its job.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY RAIN)

KAHN: But when the thunderstorms move in, and now that hurricane season has begun, waves easily crash over the booms, tear them apart and wash them onshore.

BLOCK: The booms do not work. They're either overtopped, they're undermined. They're floated. In this kind of weather today they're all washed up on the beach. So they're not working.

KAHN: Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser says BP and the Coast Guard are relying too heavily on boom for the oil cleanup. And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says BP hasn't hired enough people, nor do they have enough supplies to keep all the oil off so many miles of beach and marshland.

G: There's not a person in the state of Louisiana that believes that either they have enough boom or they will deploy enough of it to keep this oil out of our wetlands. We have over 140 miles of our wetlands that are oiled already.

KAHN: BP and the Coast Guard say they do have the supplies and manpower, and check daily on deployed booms.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

BLOCK: Oh, this boom is way out of place.

KAHN: But Terry Adelsbach, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, says resources are stretched thin. He's out on a boat looking at tattered, tangled and broken boom washed up on a small bird nesting island near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

BLOCK: There is a bunch that has broken free. And we need to get this boom out of here and get some new, clean absorbent boom placed.

KAHN: His guess is the mess had been here for at least a few days.

Boom is not going to be the ultimate fix to clean up an oil spill this big, says retired Coast Guard engineer Thomas Coe. After the Exxon Valdez spill, he was charged with staffing and supplying oil cleanup strike teams around the country.

But Coe says boom is the best defense available.

BLOCK: It is effective within its capabilities and it should be used. It just has limitations and it's not going to stop all the oil.

KAHN: BP says it's already used more than two million feet of boom to date. And with tar balls and oil washing up on beaches in Alabama and Florida, the demand has manufacturers working around the clock, says JoAnne Ferris of the Industrial Fabrics Association International. It's a trade group that represents boom makers and suppliers.

But Ferris says buyers at BP and the Coast Guard aren't moving fast enough or efficiently to take full advantage of American suppliers.

BLOCK: We need to get organized. It's almost a war effort...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: ...against the oil. So we need to get a system going so that we can solve this thing.

KAHN: BP officials insist there is no shortage of boom and that they have nearly half a million feet in stock. But contractor Steve Smith, one of BP's cleanup experts, admits he might not always have the right kind of boom available.

BLOCK: The best boom in the world is the boom that you have. You can always want better, but what we have we're utilizing.

KAHN: And with a definitive fix to stop the gushing of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well still months away, BP will undoubtedly be utilizing more boom well into the summer.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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