Locals facing a grim task in the Gulf

Mark Miller, president and CEO of Miller Environmental Group, with a truck Tuesday evening loaded with fuel pumps, oil skimmers, flotation devices and hot water pressure washers, which are used to clean the sides of ships, as crews ready to head out to Mobile, Ala., from the company’s Calverton headquarters.

Emergency responders from the Calverton-based Miller Environmental Group are now stationed in the Gulf of Mexico, where thousands of gallons of crude oil continue to leak into the sea since the April 20 explosion of a BP oil rig. The spill is spreading over an area that produces about 25 percent of the nation’s seafood supply.

Armed with 20,000 feet of oil containment boom and other oil-skimming equipment, a group of local experts in oil-spill cleanups left the East End last week to head south to two of seven Gulf Coast locations where federal, state and local officials are working to contain the worst oil slick since 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

We caught up Monday with Mark Miller, president of Miller Environmental Group, which has been in the business of environmental disaster response since 1971 and has since taken on installations of alternative energy systems. Since the interview, Mr. Miller said he plans to dispatch at least another 100 people to the area. And he’s looking to hire more.

Q: How many people have you sent to the region so far?

A: We have a relatively small number of people down there right now — 22. One group is in Pensacola, Fla. Another smaller crew is in Mobile, Ala. Overall, we have equipment ready to go as oil advances to that area. Other crews are offshore, very near the site of the actual explosion. We have oil-skimming vessels operating 24 hours a day, weather permitting.

We’re sending 20,000 feet of oil containment boom — the orange and yellow vinyl things you see in news photos. It’s used to protect beaches and marinas and sensitive areas. There are portions of the fence that float above and below the surface, which helps corral the oil.

Q: Who is paying your crews?

A: BP is the responsible party. They are on the hook for all the expenses. It’s doctrine in the U.S. that the polluter pays.

Q: How is the oil spill affecting your work locally?

A: We are able to operate day-to-day business. We’re set up for that balance. None of the local work we do is hampered by something like this. We continue to provide services to all of our clientele. And we’re training people as we speak if we get the orders to send another wave to the Gulf.

Q: Before you even sent crews down, you said last week that this is the worst oil slick you’ve ever had to deal with …

A: Absolutely. It’s extraordinary. Usually, when there’s a spill, it’s a moment in time. It’s a vessel that hits a rock and spills its contaminants. This time the source continues to spill on a daily basis. If you consider the Exxon Valdez, that was a finite amount of oil that happened at a specific moment, and all the cleanup strategy that was developed was contained to that. You add a hundred gallons of oil a day to a single spill, it becomes exponentially challenging to clean up.

Normally, we see an oil slick moving one direction or another on the water, but there’s no end to this slick. Right now, a lot of decisions have to be made as to what to do, given the fact that the source has not stopped. There is no doubt that the oil will impact the shore, but do you begin cleaning up the shore only for it to be re-oiled the next day and the next day? Or do you wait and take the impact and try to put together an effective strategy? Of course there will be public outcry for immediate response — so this might sound blasphemous to say — but it’s like pumping out your basement when the flooding hasn’t stopped yet.

Q: Do you have any input on the approach to cleaning up?

A: No, I am but one small cog in the whole wheel. Decisions are made by the Unified Command, which is the Coast Guard, NOAA, the EPA and other agencies.

Q: How long to you expect the cleanup to take?

A: A very long time. Certainly not months. The gross removal of oil will probably take a year. And the impacts after that will go on for multiple years. It depends how well the wetlands and fisheries recover. Marine biologists will be studying this stuff for decades. They’re still seeing remnants from the Exxon Valdez today, 20 years later.

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