We arrived at the docks in Venice, Louisiana, after a 90-minute drive from the closest hotel we could find. When we arrived, we were met by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has federal oversight over the oil burning effort. The work itself is being coordinated and paid for by BP, using local contractors.
The entire operation is run by a company called O’Brien out of Houston, Texas. This “in situ” or on location burning of surface oil has only been used in U.S. waters during the Exxon Valdez disaster. That’s largely because of environmental concerns; although those concerns are now outweighed by fears that crude oil itself will do more damage than the particle contaminants released by burning them.
At about 12:30 p.m., five of us from CNN go into briefings with the Coast Guard. At about 1 p.m. our Coast Guard escorts load our gear onto the crew vessel Gulf Storm, which is normally used to transport oil workers to and from rigs and platforms in the gulf, and to supply those oil vessels.
After about 45 minutes, we enter the Gulf of Mexico and head to the site of the burning. The trip from the port to the burn site takes about three hours. During that time we discuss the process at length with Coast Guard Senior Chief Andrew (Drew) Jaeger, a paramedic/firefighter from Wisconsin and a member of the Coast Guard Reserve who is our chief escort.
The burn site scene was remarkable. An earlier thunderstorm had cleared and skies were bright and partly cloudy. But in the distance, seven separate funnels of dark cloud churning upward into the sky created a great, billowing angry cloud up ahead.Through the cloud of burnt oil particles, a single King aircraft flew – a spotter plane which would guide the burn teams to the locations where, using fishing terminology, they would get their “best catch.”
We disembarked onto a larger, similar supply boat, the Premier Explorer. It’s “mission control” for these burns. From there, it was onto a jetty used as an ignition vessel to light the fires.
All was fine except I failed in my one responsibility: to pull the tie line into the boat properly. Within minutes it was stuck in seaweed and I had to cut it; in the process covering my hands and arms (and much of my clothing) in degraded crude oil.
Luckily, Drew had insisted on bringing gloves and having us wear fire-proof suits. It was hot and smelly, but no one got hurt.
Fires burned all around us.
It was devastating to see the pollution in the water, and the pollution being seared into the atmosphere. But the mood among the “Coasties” and the contractors was one of military-style mission and precision. It was a joint effort between active duty Coast Guard, reservists, oil contractors, out of work oil-pipe divers and shrimp fishermen – all working together to solve the one part of this massive puzzle they have some control over.
There's no talk here of blame or responsibility or compensation or livelihood or success or failure. These men (and at least two women) had a job to do, and they were going to do it for as long as it takes.
After about three hours on site, we packed up to return to port as the sun started to set. The shrimpers had invited us to stay on one of their vessels for the night, and we were told there’s no better eating than on a shrimper’s vessel. Alas, no dice, although they did feed us well on the supply vessel – good Cajun cooking.
No more fires were set after 6:00 p.m. but, in the distance, as we pulled north, we saw a few still roaring, as they would continue to do until they extinguished themselves from lack of fuel. And it all started again the next morning.