Where does the oily refuse go?
Hundreds of skimmer boats have been collecting oily water from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico for weeks. That mixture, as well as the runoff from rinsing down oily equipment or washing oily birds, is supposed to be collected and transported to facilities such as the River Birch Landfill near Avondale, La., south of New Orleans.
Each of the four states affected by the spill so far—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—have different requirements for disposal of oil-contaminated liquids and solid waste.
In Louisiana, the liquids are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources. Solid waste—oily sand and driftwood, oil-soaked booms and rags, protective suits worn by cleanup workers—are regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). That department stipulates that oil must be removed from all solids “to the extent practical“ before they are documented, put in appropriate containers, and finally dumped in a landfill. Given the magnitude of the spill, that makes disposing of solid waste a major undertaking.
In and near Louisiana there is currently plenty of landfill capacity, according to the DEQ.
From the gulf into the ground
The Gulf of Mexico mess from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history had already generated more than 1,300 tons of solid waste by early July. Companies hired by British Petroleum (BP) to dispose of the material say debris is being handled professionally and carefully.
But snapshots from the affected areas offered evidence to the contrary. Along the northern gulf coast, where miles of beaches were coated with oil, a spot check showed the handling and disposal of oily materials was haphazard at best, according to The Associated Press (AP).
One example was a waste-collection area dotted with numerous bins full of oil-spill debris in what seems like an odd spot—right in the middle of the tourist section in Gulf Shores, Ala., directly across the street from a seafood restaurant hungry for customers because of a lack of tourists.
Cleaning up a spill is an undeniably messy job, particularly when crude oil or tar balls are washing ashore in varying amounts in four states. The debris isn’t classified as hazardous waste, so it can be placed in municipal landfills.
Liquid waste, such as oily water left from the cleaning of oil-blocking booms or the mix of oil and water picked up by skimmer boats, is handled separately. The oily residue is processed for sale where possible and the water is reused or injected underground.
BP said by early July about 800 tons of crude-contaminated waste had been buried at landfills in Alabama and Florida. Some 13,100 cubic yards of oily waste were buried in Louisiana, where the amount is being tallied by volume instead of weight.
Boom shortage hinders containment
A shortage of containment boom has plagued the spill containment effort since the Deepwater Horizon leak began months ago. By early July, about 475 miles of boom-both the “hard” vinyl boom and the “soft” absorbent boom—has been deployed across the coastline of four states, including more than 225 miles in Louisiana alone, according to figures provided by BP and the Coast Guard.
But the five biggest domestic manufacturers have orders backlogged by six weeks or more, said one industry expert in late June. So Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama are competing for whatever boom supply is available.