Or “Why I don’t trust BP to clean up anything”

I haven’t dedicated much space here to the ongoing saga going down in Louisiana as BP and the US government fumble to maintain the appearance of control of the situation. I’ll leave the blow-by-blow account of these mishandling to people with more time and patience than myself, I actually find it rather disheartening, so I rarely get past the headlines anyway. I’m a Civil Engineer, I’ve never been on an oil rig, I’ve never even been to Louisiana, but I have studied Coastal Engineering and have a simple understand the physics of pollutant transportation. Basically, oil and water don’t mix, and some oil will get under a boom, and some oil will go over a boom, you can’t expect the boom to magically hold the oil in place while the swell, waves and wind are driving it toward shore.

BP is a drilling company, and like most of their counterparts, it seems that their focus is on the money-making end of the operation, sure safety is important, because no one else is going to help out if something that risks human life goes wrong, but environmentally, it seems that the priority is pretty low. Clean up is an inconvenience, kind of like the collateral damage we saw in the Gulf War, a necessary evil, but not something to focus on. As such, it seems that who ever is in charge of the operation to stop the oil from reaching the shoreline realized that there simply wasn’t enough boom available in the whole world to adequately protect the entire coastline at risk, (oops), or that there weren’t enough people to skillfully manage all of the necessary technical requirements of a proper booming operation. Take a look at the diagram below which has been floating around the internet over the past week in different forms (via: How stuff works).

If you’ve seen the images of useless boom washed up on the shoreline, or whole wetlands inundated with oil, you start to realize that either the technology sucks or the application of the technology sucks. From what I’ve read, it seems that the latter is the case – we seem to be witnessing an inept clean-up operation that will unnecessarily cause millions, if not billions of dollars in hardship for these communities that are affected.

These orange booms, (conveniently coloured for photo ops as well as general visibility I guess) may just be distracting the politicians from making real decisions about the situation – after all the appearance of control is often far from the reality of control.

Emergency Management Scenarios and Planning

Throughout my career I’ve been involved in serious emergency management scenarios, dam breaks, chemical spills, and national emergencies to name a few and in almost all cases, the question that lead to the development of the scenario was, “what if the worst happened”.

In the army we lived by a maxim, (one of many):

Prior Planning Prevents (Piss-)Poor Performance – otherwise known as the five P’s.

Is there any documentation to show that a scenario like this in an emergency management setting had lead to the stockpiling of booming equipment, dispersants, etc, and that an estimate of the manpower required to adequately manage a spill of this magnitude.Had anyone considered the logistics of this? Or were they too busy working out how to dial another percentage point of profit out of the production to worry about planning for an emergency?

Ohh, that’s right, I guess there was nothing to learn from Exxon Valdez.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

One reply on “The five P’s”

  1. I am kind of avoiding the BP thing on my blog…it actually makes me physically ill to even start thinking about it. But I was really surprised – and kind of irritated – yesterday, when CBC Newsworld had a segment on a hot line one can call to give BP your ideas on how to plug/contain the leak. According to the CBC, BP had received about 30,000 “suggestions.” (The anchor sarcastically suggested a giant tampon.) I found this to be quite shocking. They really are completely clueless it seems…It’s extremely frightening.

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