The Business Behind Oil Spills


cleanupAs bright red Coast Guard helos sliced through the sky and depressingly photogenic water fowl were plucked out of the water, a dented Cosco Busan container ship sat in anchorage in the greater San Francisco Bay, where federal investigators have begun a criminal investigation. More than 60 ships, nearly 1,500 workers, and over 35,000 feet of boom have so far recovered 12,270 gallons of oil after the container ship struck a tower of the Bay Bridge last week. It’s a massive logistical effort led by various contractors using an array of cleanup technology.

At a press conference held by the Cosco Busan Unified Command at their Incident Command Center on Treasure Island on Monday, Earth2Tech had the chance to speak with Barry McFarland, incident commander for The O’Brien’s Group, the contractor coordinating the response and recovery effort. McFarland explained that all ships in U.S. waters are required to have a response and recovery system in place, a service which the O’Brien’s Group provides. In the event of a spill, the vessel owner calls the company, which then calls dedicated response corporations that can deploy response vessels “within minutes.” (They don’t own or operate fleets, equipment or personnel themselves.)

The first line of response to a spill in open water is a combination of oil booms and skimmer vessels. Oil booms, both absorbent and non-absorbent, are used to corral a spill and prevent the dispersion of a “skimmable” slick. Through this active mechanical recovery the skimmers are able to recover oil, which is then put into settling tanks where the liquids are recycled and the solids disposed of at hazardous waste sites, McFarland explained.

In the case of the Cosco Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay, the equipment and personnel doing the cleanup are subcontractors from Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC), a private non-profit company, and the National Response Center (NRC), a federal and military entity that coordinates and informs an appropriate response from the government.

MSRC is the largest standby oil response company in the U.S. Founded in 1990 after Congress’s passage of the Oil Pollution Act (OPA-90), which was prompted by the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill, MSRC is funded annually by the Marine Preservation Association (MPA), a group itself funded by Big Oil. Initially funded with $450 million in capital expenditures from the oil companies, MSRC is a non-profit corporation. It’s currently undergoing a $25 million recapitalization campaign that is being used to update equipment and drill personnel.

Additionally, in responding to a spill, The O’Brien’s Group and subcontractors like MSRC are compensated by the responsible parties. “We’re ready like the fire department. We don’t rely on any day rates to be able to respond,” MSRC spokeswoman Judith Norell told Earth2Tech. MSRC has 400 dedicated employees equipped with pagers on call 24/7 at 34 manned sites all over the country.

The O’Brien’s Group is part of SEACOR Environmental Services, a subsidiary of SEACOR Holding Inc. (CKH). McFarland said that O’Brien’s responds to hundreds of oil spills each year all over the world; their sites have included the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Middle East during both Gulf Wars. No representative from either O’Brien’s or the U.S. Coast Guard would comment on the cost of the San Francisco Bay cleanup.



This oil spill makes me so sad that we are subsidizing the oil industry instead of solar or wind. You can get a great 3000kw complete solar system on for 16 grand and not have to worry about birds dying in your energy any longer.

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