Two weeks ago, as federal officials prepared to declare that some three-quarters of the estimated 5 million barrels of oil released into the Gulf over three months had disappeared, Mark Williams, a fishing boat captain hired by BP to help with the spill cleanup, encountered tar balls as large as three inches wide floating off the Florida coast.
Reporting his findings to his supervisor, a private consulting company hired by BP, the reply, according to his logbook came back: "Told—no reporting of oil or tar balls anymore. Don't put on report. We're here for boom removal only," referring to the miles of yellow and orange containment barriers placed throughout the Gulf.
Williams' logbook account, which I inspected, and a similar account told to me by a boat captain in Mississippi, raises serious concerns about whether the toll from the spill is being accurately measured. Many institutions have an interest in minimizing accounts of the damage inflicted. The federal and local governments, under withering criticism all summer, certainly want to move on to other subjects. BP, of course, has a financial incentive.
The miraculous disappearance of the oil and the pending transfer of $20 billion to Ken Feinberg, who is independently overseeing the claims fund, have resulted in the oil giant cutting back its response operations. With a recent halving of the Vessels of Opportunity program, which hired fallow charter and commercial fishing boats, captains and deckhands are now less reticent to describe their experiences.
This includes Mark Williams, who worked in the program until he was deactivated last week. Williams' saga is typical. In May, he arrived in Alabama from Atlantic Beach, Florida, to captain a charter boat. He got one day of red snapper season before Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Southeast regional administrator, shut down the Alabama waters for fishing.
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• Full coverage of the oil spill"That morning [June 1], we took a charter out to the 'Nipple' and saw what looked like a lot of grass," said Williams, referring to the part of the Gulf where the continental shelf gets very deep, a favored habitat for large fish. "When we got closer, we saw it was mattes of oil in solid slicks. By that afternoon, oil was getting in our reels. Crabtree shut down fishing the next day."
For the rest of June and much of July, Williams worked off and on as a deckhand on boats enlisted in the Vessels of Opportunity program, including a boat called Downtime that in early June first sighted tar balls and oil sheen in the Pensacola Pass.
Williams was also part of the skimming operations at Orange Beach when miles-long mattes of oil washed on to its shores the following weekend. Untrained, Williams remembers putting more than 100 pounds of oil-soaked absorbent boom in debris disposal bags that he was later told should have held no more than 20.
Subsequently, Williams saw seven large shrimp boats, with two Coast Guard vessels accompanying them, five miles off shore. "Plumes were everywhere," says Williams, referring to thin layers of crude oil floating on the water's surface. "Every time another boat would approach the shrimp boats, the Coast Guard would get on the radio and tell the boat to veer back to shore." Williams says he believes the boats were putting dispersant on the oil, even though the Coast Guard has denied using dispersant off the Florida and Alabama shores. "The plumes were gone the next day," Williams says.
Back in Florida on July 27, his boat, Mudbug, was activated into Vessels of Opportunity. While the media, BP, and the Coast Guard were reporting no more oil, Williams and other boat captains were assigned to find it.
Three days later, Williams found remnants of dispersant in a canal in Santa Rosa Sound north of Pensacola Beach. He reported it to his supervisor, who worked for a company that BP hired to help with cleanup, O'Brien's Response Management.
Williams wrote in his logbook, "Returned p.m. for check-out. [Supervisor] said, 'Oh, they sent someone out there and it was algae'—No fucking way—Idiots."
O'Brien's was founded in 1982 by Jim O'Brien, a retired Coast Guard officer, who originally called his firm O'Brien Oil Pollution Service, ironically known in the industry as "OOPS." Over the years the company has been acquired and merged with other response companies; it was hired by BP and Transocean prior to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig as an emergency-response consultant.
On Saturday, July 31, Williams found a "tea-type" stain on the water and followed it toward Fort Pickens, which is the western tip of Pensacola Beach. He wrote in his logbook, "We found massive tar balls—both in quantity and size, in small gulley. They ranged from ping-pong ball to coconut in size not 3' from beach line."
After that, Williams was taken off spill and tar ball watch and put on boom removal. In an inlet north of Pensacola Beach, his crew sighted more tar balls. He wrote in his logbook: "Middle of Sound to off-load boom. 1" to 3" tar balls—floating—must be old—told [supervisor] at end of the day." That's when he was told not to make the report, but rather to simply gather up the boom.
“We found massive tar balls–both in quantity and size, in small gulley.”
Williams was deactivated from Vessels of Opportunity last week. Last Tuesday, the day before he was dropped, the boat captain wrote, "Coming back p.m. from Ono Island. Counted 12 oil plumes small in comparison to offshore between range marker and decon barge." This was a week after Carol Browner, a top energy adviser to President Barack Obama, announced 75 percent of the oil had been contained, evaporated, or dispersed.
Williams never believed the reports that the oil had disappeared. "It's out there and we will see it continue to wash up on our beaches," he says.
The Daily Beast received a similar account from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where commercial fisherman Mike Stewart of Ocean Springs has tried to get state officials to recognize that oil and dispersants remain in the waters off their shores.
Since the first of August, Mississippi fishermen have found oil in the marshes of their barrier islands, seen massive fish kills and scooped up submerged oil in Pass Christian. Nonetheless, Bill Walker, director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, declared on August 9, "there should be no new threats," and issued an order for all local coastal governments to halt oil disaster work being funded by BP money that was granted to the state.
Walker challenged anyone to prove there was still oil in Mississippi waters by calling his office. As of Friday, August 13, Walker told media that he had not received any phone calls.
"That's a bunch of bull," says Mark Stewart in telephone interview with The Daily Beast. "There is oil all through the water column. We've proved it, and they do nothing about it."
Stewart even has a video on YouTube showing his crew dipping an absorbent cloth into the Gulf water three-quarters of a mile off the Mississippi beaches. When it's pulled out of the water after less than two minutes, the cloth is covered with oil. There is so much oil on the surface that it reflects sunlight like a mirror. There, too, the commercial fishermen are concerned about the dispersants.
"They say the oil is gone," Stewart said on the video. "We disagree."
Stewart, a third-generation fisherman, was in Vessels of Opportunity for 70 days before being laid off August 2. He tells The Daily Beast part of his time in the program was play-acting for visiting dignitaries. "Whenever a government official would be flying over our boat, we were told to put out all our boom and start skimming for show, even when there wasn't any oil."
The Daily Beast asked BP officials about the shrinking number of vessels involved in Gulf cleanup. BP spokesman John Curry says: "We have no certain number of vessels for the program. It will be adjusted based on the need. Less oil means less resources are needed."
When asked about Williams' claims that he had been instructed by O'Brien's supervisor not to report oil, Curry said, "I am not aware of it. We will work as long as the work needs to be done. You will need to check with the contractor about this specific claim."
The Daily Beast did contact Tim O'Leary, O'Brien's vice president of communication services, and relayed Williams' account. O'Leary says that he is unaware of any issues near Pensacola, but agreed to check further. The Daily Beast gave him until the end of the day for a deadline—O'Leary subsequently left a message that he needed more time to respond. O'Leary's response was: "We have checked with our on-scene supervisor regarding this allegation. He denies that any such order was given to Vessels of Opportunity participants."
Correction: This article initially reported 5 billion gallons of oil were released in the Gulf; it has been updated to 5 million barrels.
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.