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Gulf Coast Cleanup Employs Multiple Tools and Techniques

Gulf Coast Cleanup Employs Multiple Tools and Techniques
By: Angelle Bergeron
Date: 08/11/2010

The next time there is an oil-spill disaster, emergency response and remediation contractors will have a new generation of tools, thanks in part to techniques and equipment deployed after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon drill-ship explosion.

The disaster released an estimated 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the ensuing 86 days. Full cleanup may take years.

In a briefing on Aug. 9, Adm. Thad Allen, national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, said that with a cap on the well apparently holding, the response now is shifting from source control to dealing with oil in marshes and on beaches. On Aug. 4, with the runaway well finally capped, the Coast Guard and the joint incident command pulled off the job all vacuum equipment that had been sucking slicks and foam from the water.

Despite repeated inquiries, the official oil-spill response information centers in New Orleans, Houston and Houma, La., would not comment on cleanup equipment criteria. Less reticent contractors say cleanup techniques range from sucking oil and foam from open water with portable, high-tech, high-volume pumps to extracting the stuff from marshes with modified wet vacs and 55-gal drums, or sifting beach sand for tar balls with shovels and gloved hands.

On a day-to-day basis, contractors say cleanup resources are deployed centrally by the oil-spill-response unified command in reaction to oil-tracking data. Contractor input guides equipment deployment and oil removal specifications, but overall cleanup directions come from the unified command, reports Bob Isakson, managing director of the DRC Group, a cleanup contractor based in Mobile, Ala.

"You have a huge number of different plans to pick up oil, and every plan requires different types of equipment," Isakson says. "Recovery efforts change as oil volumes change, according to flow, weather and depth of water."

By the beginning of August, DRC had 478 vessels and more than 1,000 oil response technicians working under contracts in five Louisiana parishes and eight Florida counties.

DRC has placed about 500,000 linear ft of boom and has been engaged in everything from beach cleaning to operating vacuum barges, on which it has made heavy use of portable vacuum units normally used for shoreside tank cleaning.

Most of DRC's vacuum equipment is manufactured by Triton Industries LLC, Baton Rouge. The largest units employ deep-vacuum, liquid-ring pumps made in Germany, for which Triton has exclusive North American distribution rights for non-truck installations, says Mike O'Rourke, Triton's general manager.

Liquid-ring pumps have an off-center impeller that keeps the tips close to the wall of the pump chamber on one side and farther away on the other.

The rotating impeller slings a reservoir of liquid from the pump body to the wall of the chamber, creating a liquid seal between the ends of the blades and the wall. The eccentric axle placement, however, makes the cells between the blades of the impeller shrink or expand during rotation, depending on proximity to the outside wall and the depth of their imersion into the liquid seal. This alignment creates suction on one side as cells expand and compression on the other as they shrink. The low-friction pumps can achieve 27 in. of vacuum with their 1,500 rpm rotation, says O'Rourke. They can be used to draw up extremely dense materials, including heavy sludge and gravel.

Adapting the portable, high-volume pumps from their traditional, oil-refinery role, says Isakson, DRC retrieved 18,762 gal of oil from Louisiana waters in a single day, which is more than 200 skimmers collected on their best day, in July, according to the Louisiana governor's office.

Pump It Up
In May, 50 Triton pumps were working the spill, with 300 more on order. Triton's Lottie, La., manufacturing plant ramped up production to increase annual output from 20 machines to more than 100.

Another contractor, Strad Energy Services, Denver, subbing under DRC, worked 14 barges and 24 Triton vacuum units on Louisiana waters. "One time, when the governor was here, we picked up over 4,000 gal of heavy, heavy crude in 45 minutes," says Ken Marbach, the company's southern regional manager of business development. "That's where Triton has the advantage. ... The crude is really, really thick. Most of the other vacuums, they end up burning up the pumps."

Triton's relatively small size and portability makes the unit a good choice for barges or other shallow-draft vessels needed for getting to oil in inlets and marshes, Marbach says.

The vacuum units were developed in 1997 by Mike James, Triton's president, to address a need at refineries and petrochemical plants to find smaller, less expensive equipment for heavy cleanup, like removing crude sludge from the bottom of tanks. "The industry uses vacuum trucks that are very large to do fairly small jobs sometimes," James explains.

The Triton's footprint is about one-tenth the size of the 80,000-lb, 18-wheelers the industry usually uses for tank cleaning. Triton's pumps also develop a greater vacuum, compared to the 15 in. typically produced by vacuum trucks. "A perfect vacuum in science is 29.94 in.," O'Rourke says.

The largest Triton unit weighs 10,000 lb and is 8-ft square with a 6-in. hose. The smallest weighs about 4,000 lb and has a 3-in. hose. "It can pick up anything that can fit in that hose," James says.

Decisions about equipment and methods should be refined before the next oil-spill disaster, advises Bob Buckley, retired offsite tank coordinator and spill response coordinator for the ExxonMobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, La. In the midst of a crisis, "right technologies are not necessarily applied in the right scenarios," he says. "A lot of equipment being used now is the same that was used in 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez spill."

Back Seat for R&D
While oil interests spend money on spill prevention, Buckley adds, they tend to ignore research and development for cleaning technology. "The result is a lot of inefficiency, a lot of waste, politics and people being paid to shut up. For the money spent, it isn't picking up a lot of oil," Buckley says.

Response planning also lags behind needs. As a result of the Valdez spill, Exxon has "a ton of spill equipment located at each site," and its own disaster alert plan, Buckley says, but without government indemnifications for sister companies stepping in to assist, a company not directly involved in a disaster is not likely to provide support during a crisis.

Still, the tough economy and the deepwater drilling moratorium may create opportunities for innovation as companies seek to lower the cost of operations or develop new products, James says. For example, another invention may soon find a niche in oil-spill cleanups: Triton Seafoam is a polymeric solidifier that consolidates oil into a blanket-like mass, making it easier to retrieve from coastlines and marshes. "It is in the final stages of EPA approval," James says.

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