Zenone stood outside the command post, watching the river and contemplating the next move. He nodded at the clean up crew’s progress, somewhat satisfied with the speed at which the raking and shoveling at the shoreline was making a difference. He could actually see the beach in some spots whereas hours ago, there was nothing to see but brown crude. As clean up crews went, this was a savvy bunch. They got to work immediately after receiving the basic safety instructions and didn’t appear inclined to loaf. Perhaps there was hope for recovery of this shoreline. Zenone had been with the Coast Guard for twenty-two years, fourteen of which he’d been specializing in oil spill removal. In his experience, it would take years for a spill of this magnitude to lose its effect on the ecosystem and likely decades before all the oil was gone from the shorelines, if ever. But right here it wasn’t so bad. On a sensitivity scale of one to ten, the mixed sand and gravel beaches were about a five. This beach, and likely most of the beaches along the Delaware from Marcus Hook to just north of Slaughter Beach, Delaware – roughly eighty-five miles of shoreline – would recover with time using the cleanup strategies he was employing. What may not recover, however, was Tinicum Marsh.
Zenone pushed the thought back into his grey matter and coughed. He sucked in the persistent post-nasal drip that the foul smell of too much oil in the ambient air caused him and spit on the ground. He cleared his throat and swallowed. His saliva felt viscous and unnatural. He coughed and spat again.
His cell phone rang and he grabbed it off the belt at his hip, still coughing.
“Zenone.” He looked in the direction of the vacuum boat idling on the water, a small barge about twenty-five feet long that could carry four to five people. It was powered by a single-diesel engine, had a storage tank below deck and an oil skimmer above and was capable of removing thirty tons of heavy oil per hour if it could catch it. Zenone could see the Captain of the tug standing at the stern, cell phone to his ear, waiting for the signal. “Go ahead,” Zenone said into the phone, snapped it shut and replaced it on his hip.
The Captain flashed a thumbs up and the vacuum boat circumvented a thick mass of the slick, trailing a boom. The plan was to circle out and encapsulate as much of the oil as possible in the boom, like outstretched arms slowly pulling together, then swing back in, leaving the boom on the water in a V-formation. The booms were made of tough, non-corrosive plastic, rectangularly-shaped with a bulbous center mounted to a rubber skirt that rose above and below the boom and which entrained the oil, working as a dam to stop it from rushing over or under the barrier. This worked effectively enough in calm waters, but when the winds got rough and the waves picked up, increasing the water’s velocity, there was not a boom made that could stop the oil. When the boom was in place, the vacuum boat turned around and set the skimmers on the oil, munching, crunching and sucking it up using two hydraulic-driven pumps. The pressurized system funneled the oil through a tube and then to a gravity separator. Once decanted, the remaining water was pumped off and dumped back into the river. The oil was disposed of in a two thousand gallon holding tank to be dealt with later either by pumping it off back on shore, or to a small portable hundred foot barge that would intercept it and take it to shore so the vacuum boat could keep skimming.
Zenone checked his watch and then the sky, hoping the weather would hold. He had another ten vacuum boats working the entire stretch of the river, some provided by the Coast Guard, some by EPA, and some by Akanabi Oil. If he could get another ten …
His attention was drawn by the grunting and puffing of two muckers trying to stuff an oil-laden absorbent boom into a disposal bag. The third man grabbed a fresh boom off one of the trucks and headed toward the water. Zenone decided to take back what he said about them being savvy – absorbent booms weren’t to be used until the final stages of the cleanup since other methods, like vacuum extractions, worked better on large quantities of oil – until he looked at the flatbed. The hard, non-corrosive plastic booms were suspiciously absent, and in their place were the sorbent ones. Damn Akanabi Oil. More like Psycho Oil . He barked at the nearest mucker.
“Where the hell are the large plastic booms?” Zenone barked.
“I don’t know. This is all they sent us,” the man replied, then scampered off to join his comrades, leaving Zenone staring after him.
“Hey, Jim. Bring more diapers,” called a young, college-age woman, to her colleague walking toward the supply truck. The man nodded and grabbed another bale. She got down on her hands and knees and pressed absorbent pads – cloth diapers on steroids – into the sand. The pads soaked up small bits of oil, a time consuming process. She reminded Zenone of his own daughter and smiled at her fastidiousness: her little section of the beach was virtually spotless.
Zenone cast an appraising glance upward. The clouds looked more threatening than they had at daybreak, and so thick as to appear seamless. He knew a storm was coming, barely hours away. He felt it in the right wrist, the one he’d broken as a kid. It was the best weather detector he’d encountered to date. He flipped his cell phone open and dialed the number for NOAA anyway. After two rings, someone answered the phone.
“Yeah, who’s this?” Zenone asked. “Hey. It’s Zenone. I need a weather report for the whole tri-state area. Call me back the minute you got it, alright?” He flipped the phone shut.
A horn beeped and Zenone turned to see Lapsley pull up to the command post with a passenger. Zenone met them halfway.
“Hey, Chief. This is David Hartos,” Lapsley said. “Akanabi’s head engineer. He’s your contact.”
“Good to meet you,” Hart said. “Whatever Akanabi can do, please let me know.”
Hart reached out a hand and Zenone gave him a death grip that made him flinch. Zenone smiled, but covered it with a hand to his mouth and a little fake cough. He liked to put them in their place right off, so there wouldn’t be any difficulties with chain-of-command later.
“How about you check on those booms. They sent absorbent instead of plastic. And maybe find some more vacuum boats. If we could get ‘em out before the storm comes we might get somewhere. But if you really want to help, you can tell them to retire all their Goddamn single-hulled ships. They’re a menace.” Zenone grimaced and turned to Lapsley. “Where’s my helicopter?”
“Really, you’ll learn to love this guy,” Lapsley said, turning to Hart. “He’s got a tough exterior, but a heart like gold.” Lapsley turned back to Zenone, eyes glistening with humor. Zenone smiled mechanically, but his eyes reflected a hidden mirth.
“NOAA’s sending one,” Lapsley said. Everything the Coast Guard’s got was already deployed. Apparently there’s a big storm brewing down off the coast of North Carolina, heading this way, and bringing some high winds with it. Came up really fast. A few fishing boats needed to be rescued.” Zenone sighed and nodded his head absently.
“Did you notify all the local water intakes…”
“…cause you know, if they don’t shut ‘em down, they’re gonna be local oil intakes…”
“ Yes ,” Lapsley said again. “It was the first thing I did this morning. Now would you chill. You’re giving me the shakes.” Lapsley smiled and Hart snickered. Storm clouds hovered like doom on the horizon.
“Alright, let’s go in.” Zenone turned to Hart. “I want to show you something that perhaps you can explain to me.”
Hart nodded and followed Zenone into the command post.
Zenone poured a cup of coffee, a thick, viscous substance that looked itself like petroleum, handed it to Lapsley, then turned to Hart to see if he wanted a cup. Hart shook his head no. He’d had more than enough cups of bad coffee today.
“What? D’you pull this from the river?” Lapsley said, and took a sip anyway.
Zenone walked to the drafting table and handed Hart Akanabi’s SPCC Plan.
Hart scanned the cover and raised his eyebrows. “Is it deficient?”
“You bet it is.”
Hart opened it. Blank pages. He flipped through a couple pages at a time, but the blankness remained.
“Did you prepare that plan?” Zenone asked.
“No. And I’m not sure who did, or rather, who was supposed to,” Hart said. “Did you get this from the ship’s Captain?”
Zenone nodded. Hart rubbed his forehead.
“You know there’s a fine. Up to $32,500 for failure to have a spill plan. And another one for failure to implement it. Not to mention the fines for all the oil in the water. They accrue daily.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Just so we’re straight.”
“We’re straight.” Hart stood and offered Zenone his hand.
Zenone took it, but this time Hart was ready for him. He squeezed back with equal force, forcing a smile out of Zenone.
“It’s been a pleasure, but I’ve got a dive to get ready for.”
Lapsley rose. “I’ll drive you back.”
“Inspection?” Zenone asked.
“The Ryujin, ” Hart replied. I’ll let you know what I find. And for what it matters, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the single hulls.” This time Zenone smiled for real.
to be continued. . .
to read the back story, jump here