Coast Guard insists only water, not dispersant, was used in drill

Dispersant is sprayed in this file photo (U.S. Coast Guard)
Dispersant is sprayed in this file photo (U.S. Coast Guard)

Following an outcry from local officials, the U.S. Coast Guard and an oil industry oil spill response group have suspended training exercises for spraying dispersant.

In an e-mail to Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, Coast Guard Captain Peter Gautier wrote that the Marine Spill Response Corporation "has suspended water spraying exercises pending an internal review of procedures."

Gautier's letter also vowed a review of the methods used to alert the public about future exercises.

On June 13, Gautier said the MSRC conducted an aerial drill involving a non-military C-130, spraying water on a simulated oil spill.

However, fishermen called Plaquemines Parish officials almost immediately, complaining that the spray turned to foam on the water and made their skin itch or burn.

P.J. Hahn, the Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management Director, said the Coast Guard initially told him there was no activity in the area.

In Friday's e-mail to Nungesser, Gautier said the initial plan was to conduct the exercise 50 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, Gautier said a "last minute change" altered the site to the Chandeleur Sound in Plaquemines Parish.

Gautier wrote, "We take a claims like this very seriously and want to provide you any facts that help you better inform your constituents."

He said Coast Guard staff inspected the aircraft, pumps and tanks on the ground in Kiln, MS before the aircraft took off and that "the tanks appeared to be filled with water, which was confirmed by on scene MSRC personnel."

Gautier said in a follow-up site inspection of the aircraft, MSRC representatives "provided documentation to show only water was used."

MSRC reports that nothing used in the training, the hoses, the totes that hold water and the tanks on the plane has ever come in contact with dispersants, according to the e-mail.

Plaquemines fishermen showed parish officials photos with long white steaks covering the water.

Gautier said the Coast Guard had contacted dispersant application experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who told them "the photos don't remotely resemble how a dispersant spray would appear on water."

The experts said dispersants don't "foam up" like the substance seen in the photographs.

"We don't dispute the observations and symptoms the fishermen experienced and have consulted experts to see what they think," Gautier wrote.

He quoted a University of Louisiana at Lafayette biologist as suggesting the photos seem to show algal blooms.  The Coast Guard said similar blooms were recorded in Chandeleur Sound in May 2010.

Although the Coast Guard had issued a public notice prior to the drill, no one apparently got the word.

Gautier vowed to "make sure that parishes and stakeholders are better informed" in the future.  He also said exercises will not be held in Chandeleur Sound in the future because "dispersants aren't preauthorized there anyway because of its shallow water and proximity to shore."

The notification changes seemed to satisfy Nungesser's office.

"We're not satisfied with how it started out," Hahn said.  "It finally brings them to the table and not just Plaquemines... It's important that all the parishes are notified."

Despite lasting skepticism about the spraying of dispersant, the Coast Guard insists no dispersant application has been authorized since the Macondo Well was capped in 2010.