Chasing Oil in the Gulf

Within a month of the spill, as the severity became clear, Collins’ friends started getting called back to active duty and he knew he would be next. “I don’t think anyone realized how significant an event it was going to be initially,” he said. But “I was sort of expecting a call at that point.”

The call soon came, but a major catch was that the Long Island Sound research had just begun. “The project was going to fail if he went right away,” said Raymond. So Collins asked for and was granted a postponement by the Coast Guard—temporarily. That allowed him to get his master’s research in order.

By July 10 he was off to Mobile—the largest command center in the government’s interagency response. “The scale of it was overwhelming. There were probably 300 tables set up, with computer screens everywhere, huge maps and charts updated by armies of people,” said Collins. “You had representatives from every possible agency in there, including some I had never heard of before.”

For the first month, the Coast Guard assigned Collins to 12-hour shifts as a night situation unit leader with relatively mundane duties. He reported personnel accidents and major oil sightings to BP and various government agencies and collated data such as how many miles of beach had been cleaned the previous 24 hours and how many oiled birds had been documented. “They kept me out of the light,” he said. “I was pretty miserable.”

But midway through his tour of duty, everything changed with the discovery by academic scientists that there were plumes of diffuse oil submerged in the deep sea. Though the discovery was well offshore, this and other findings sparked concerns that there might be submerged oil near shore that could pose threats. There is some precedence for finding oil beneath the surface. After the Ixtoc spill in Mexico in 1979—the largest accidental oil release in history prior to the BP spill—there were reports of submerged oil making its way unexpectedly to the surface near Texas beaches.

For the Coast Guard and many other responders, the issue was less about where submerged oil might be found and more about figuring out if submerged oil was concentrated in ways that it could be recovered. Because of Collins’ background in environmental science, the Coast Guard decided to shift him to daylight duty to coordinate some of the submerged-oil activities within the region overseen by the Mobile command—initially from the Louisiana-Mississippi border all the way around to Miami, though some areas were later split off into separate units. Properly probing for submerged oil throughout such a large area was a daunting task that included 18-hour days at the command center with no time off for weeks on end.

Despite public concern about the deep-sea oil plumes, there is currently no known technology for cleaning or removing such concentrations. In contrast, significant pockets closer to shore might be removable if they could be found. So Collins helped design and coordinate a systematic program for oil hunting in near-shore waters. “It was an interesting experience to say the least,” he said.

Key equipment used to look for oil included an instrument known as a fluorometer that responders could tow behind boats to detect signs of oil, based on the signature fluorescent light oil gives off when first illuminated by light of a specific color. Less scientific, but nonetheless effective, were anchors with absorbent material tied to them. Collins’ team members dropped these simple rigs at over 6,000 spots, and if they smelled or looked like they might contain oil after retrieval, the material was shipped in for analysis.

Then there were the secret weapons: the VIPERS. The name made them sound like a high-tech solution in the quest to find and recover submerged oil, so they attracted the attention of senior officials.

VIPERS stands for Vessels with Intrinsic Petroleum Ensnaring and Recovery Systems. Translation: they were regular shrimp trawlers with an absorbent boom added to their nets and dragged near shore. They were an effective complement to the anchor systems, said Collins, but not exactly what people had in mind when they heard the name.

Though submerged oil would later be found and recovered in Pensacola Bay during Collins’ tenure, which ended August 31, workers didn’t find oil concentrated in a form that would allow recovery.

Collins rarely got out to see the work he was directing, but he did on occasion talk to the media about submerged-oil efforts, a duty he found challenging. “Once oil gets down to a certain small droplet size suspended in the water, there’s not much we can do. The technologies just don’t exist,” he said. “It’s challenging articulating that to the public.”

Collins has returned to F&ES to pick up where he left off with his studies. “The program at F&ES is designed to prepare you for these sorts of environmental challenges, but I didn’t think I’d ever find myself, after just nine months, in such an incredibly fascinating, rewarding and, at times, frustrating position,” said Collins. “Was it disruptive? Sure. But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to help and also absorb the countless lessons that were there to be learned.”

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