We have discussed at some length on The Hayride the fact that Environmental Protection Agency rules on maritime water discharge forbid the release of anything containing more than 15 parts per million of oil.
On Monday, in fact, as we discussed the top seven examples of federal idiocy in the oil spill response, the application of this EPA regulation – designed to prevent oil from being added to water, rather than efforts to remove it – to the Gulf spill response was the worst of those examples.
As it happens, the best way to handle an oil spill is a process called “decanting,” which describes what oil skimmers do. Decanting involves sucking in oily water, separating the water from the oil as best as possible, and then discharging the water. Decanting, as one might imagine, is not a perfect process; if an oil skimmer takes in an oily water mix containing 15 percent oil and discharges one-half or one percent oil, though, that is certainly progress. But decanting, under EPA rules, is illegal.
This is not, as it turns out, an issue which has escaped the notice of the federal government. In a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform entitled “How the White House Public Relations Campaign on the Oil Spill is Harming the Actual Clean-up” released today, an interesting bit of information was uncovered.
Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard released its One Gulf Plan, which deals, among other things, with oil spills. Section 3340.2 of the One Gulf Plan is entitled “Decanting Policy,” and it reads as follows:
Decanting is a vital part of the recovery process. The inability to decant water from recovered oil/water mixtures and return the excess water into the recovery area significantly reduces the volume of available temporary storage capacity; thus, reducing the effectiveness of the on-water skimming and recovery operations. The inability to return the excess water containing some amount of oil will delay recovery operations and possibly lead to a complete cessation of recovery operations until additional temporary storage can be arranged.
It is essential that the return of oil and oily water associated with the mechanical recovery process be clearly authorized so that responders are not placed at legal risk when carrying out recovery operations.
Although no pre-approval for decanting exists within the One Gulf Plan area, decanting will be considered on a case-by-case basis by Unified Command.
In considering whether to permit decanting, criteria to be addressed will, at a minimum, include:
1. Availability of additional storage;
2. Resources at risk;
3. Toxicity of proposed discharge; and
4. Other incident specific considerations.
It appears that no permits for decanting were given until very recently, if at all. The Jones Act has been blamed for the inability of foreign skimmers to assist in the spill response, but it is the EPA restriction which is the real culprit. It’s the reason why the skimmers currently working the spill area are working on – as the Coast Guard’s One Gulf Plan warned one year ago – significantly reduced volume of available temporary storage capacity. It is why the current fleet of oil skimmers are operating at a 10-15 percent efficiency level at maximum, and why the entire skimming operation to date has removed just 600,000 barrels of oil, as opposed to skimmers like the “A-Whale” which is capable of decanting over 500,000 barrels per day.
Why has the oil come ashore from Vermilion Bay to Destin? Look no further than the refusal to permit decanting by oil skimmers under EPA regulations. This is why an admittedly major oil spill has become a major ecological and economic disaster with generational implications.