Four years after the crisis, folks along the coast of Mobile Bay are still dealing with the effects of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, although in this instance it may be for an unexpected reason.
The U.S Coast Guard, BP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are currently looking into a complaint related to anchors that were left in the bay after boom, an absorbent material deployed to protect the coastline from drifting oil, was picked up and removed, U.S. Coast Guard Eastern States Field Office Supervisor Natalie Murphy said.
“We are working together to connect the dots and answer complaints,” she said Monday afternoon. “We want to get to the bottom of it.”
A recreational shrimper named Doug Revere filed the complaint with the Corps after a friend’s shrimp net snagged one of the anchors near his home off of County Road 1, south of Fairhope.
The complaint alleges that when the boom was retrieved from the waters of Mobile Bay, the anchors were left behind in shallow water.
Billy Griffis, a recreational shrimper, said his 16-foot shrimp net caught an anchor about 150 yards off the end of the pier at his home at 11537 County Road 1. While it didn’t tear his net, he said he knows of others who’ve suffered torn nets because of the anchors.
“You never know what you’re snagging, there could be debris out there,” Griffis said. “Shrimp boats pull slowly and something that solid will stop the boat.”
Griffis said he’s concerned with other anchors that might be in the bay and their proximity to children playing in the water.
“The water is shallow and there are kids playing out there,” he said. “When they fall off their floats and hit the bottom it could be dangerous.”
In the summer of 2010 cities within Baldwin County and the county itself entered into agreements with various contractors for the deployment and eventual retrieval of boom, using emergency money from BP. Fairhope entered into a contract with Pittman Tractor, while the county entered into a contract with Gulf Equipment Company, or CrowderGulf.
Pittman Tractor, owned by State Sen. Trip Pittman, was under contract to deploy boom from just south of the property line of the Marriott Grand Hotel in Point Clear to just north of the Fairhope Yacht Club, Pittman said. The company placed an anchor about every 300 feet, Pittman said, placing no more than 60 anchors in total.
“The most you would’ve had is 60 anchors,” Pittman said.
Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant and Purchasing Agent Dan Ames said the city has a stockpile of 16 anchors. At most, Ames claimed, there might still be 10 anchors left in the bay from work the city contracted out. Ames said some of the anchor lines were purposely cut in acts of vandalism, which made retrieval impossible.
Kant said BP was responsible for laying boom from the American Legion in Fairhope to the yacht club, which equaled about 3,000 feet.
Pittman said his company was not responsible for picking up the boom or the anchors after they had been deployed and sat in the water for two months.
Kant said the $625,575 contract between the city and Pittman specified the purchase, deployment, anchoring and retrieval of boom along some 21,500 feet of coastline. Kant added that the city doesn’t know who picked up the boom after it was deployed.
While Pittman’s involvement in the process has been questioned, the state senator maintains he was never in charge of any oil spill recovery money and instead only facilitated meetings to find out where the needs were.
“I had no formal authority over the money,” he emphasized.
CrowderGulf deployed boom south of the Grand Hotel and across the mouth of Weeks Bay for the county, CrowderGulf Vice President and COO Ashley Ramsay-Naile wrote in an email. The contract the county entered into with CrowderGulf was broken into three phases. The first two, which included the purchase and deployment of boom were executed, but the county never activated the third phase of the contract, which included retrieval, Ramsay-Naile wrote.
“We believe CrowderGulf performed all work under our contract to the satisfaction of our client,” she wrote. “These are our home waters as well, and everyone who works at CrowderGulf has an interest in seeing that they are kept safe.”
Baldwin County Commission Chairman Skip Gruber and Baldwin EMA Training and Shelter Coordinator Scott Wallace both confirmed that BP contracted with a company called Witt-O’Brian to manage and retrieve the boom for the county.
Wallace, who was the county liaison for the oil spill unified command said with the number of contractors out there deploying boom and retrieving it, “to know who’s responsible for it would be hard to figure out.”
Gruber said BP told county officials they would help maintain it and contracted with Witt-O’Brien, which hadn’t performed a merger at that time.
“I think they even finished putting some of it out,” Gruber said.
Gruber referenced a letter commissioners sent to Mike Tucker, branch manager of the unified command, asking for boom retrieval assistance.
Witt-O’Brien did not return a call Monday seeking comment.
BP spokesman Jason Ryan said the company has contracted with Witt-O’Brien in the past, but it would be difficult to confirm the assistance of a contract from 2010 because of the contractor’s merger.
Ryan did release a statement acknowledging the existence of anchors left in Louisiana waters.
“Although the vast majority of anchors were recovered, there were some – mainly in Louisiana waters – that were so deeply imbedded into the sediment that recovery was not possible,” he said. “The anchors are designed to fold flat and bury themselves below the mud line and, based on extensive analysis, the Coast Guard determined that the anchors posed little risk to marine vessel navigation, or the environment. The Coast Guard also determined that retrieving the anchors would require digging up the Gulf floor and disrupting sediment as well as marine life. The Coast Guard directed BP to take no further action.”