Friday, November 26, 2010

Homestead Assists with Oil Spill Cleanup to Conserve Resources

The third week in September began like most other weeks at Homestead National Monument of America. Monday was spent cleaning the Palmer-Epard Cabin and the Freeman School and Tuesday I worked on various projects while providing visitor services at the front desk of the Heritage Center. Wednesday was different though. I received an email from the National Park Service Emergency Incident Coordination Center asking if I was available to go to Gulf Islands National Seashore the following Monday as a responder to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. After speaking to the Chief Ranger and Superintendent it was agreed that I should definitely do what I could to help.

by Jason Jurgena
Museum Curator
Homestead National Monument of America

The Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is made up of twelve units, is partially located in both Mississippi and Florida. These units have a diversity of plants, animals, and marine life, as well as sites of historical and cultural value within their boundaries. The mission of the National Park Service (NPS) includes preserving these resources for future generations. During the three weeks that I worked on the project I was at the Perdito Key, Fort Pickens, and Santa Rosa units in Florida.

Tar balls from Bayside
When I arrived it had been exactly five months since the the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 crewmembers and leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico from an uncapped well. I wasn’t there during the early cleanup efforts and therefore can’t really say what conditions were like. When I arrived the beaches looked superficially clean, but upon closer inspection I could see many marble sized tar balls on the surface. I also saw, during my time there, that some larger tar balls were still just under the surface and some crews were working in waist deep water because they were finding them there as well. Fortunately, by the time I arrived, wildlife with oil on it was no longer being found but we continued to keep watch for oiled, distressed, or dead wildlife.

Before I arrived, more than 600 NPS employees from more than 135 different parks and units had participated in coordinating and assisting with the cleanup efforts. While I was there I worked closely with many U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) employees also there in response to the spill. Many other agencies have staff involved in these efforts such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement but in my time at the incident I worked mainly with FWS and other NPS employees.

Sandshark cleaning the sand of tar balls at night.

My role in the project was that of Resource Advisor. What that meant was that it was my job to work with the cleaning crews while they were at the park to make them aware of what plant and animal life was in the area, how to recognize it, and how to best protect it. When I was working on the day shift my job would start before the sun would come up when I would speak to the work crews before they disembarked the busses and continued until all personnel and every last piece of equipment was off the beach at the end of the day. Due to the time of year, work could not begin in the morning until the beaches had been checked to be sure no sea turtle hatchlings were still making their way to the water. During the time I was on the night shift to monitor the mechanical cleaning of the beaches I would see both the sunset and sunrise. Other natural resources that need to be protected are the plant life that facilitates the formation of sand dunes, which in turn provide habitat for many of the animals living in this ecosystem. Also there are endangered shore birds such as the Piping Plover that nest on these beaches and in these dunes. Areas of sensitivity would be marked so special care could be taken while working in or near these areas.

Due to my background in archeology I was also there to protect archeological sites and areas of historical significance. I would generally work in areas where there were known archaeological sites so that these resources could also be protected for future generations. I was also there to monitor all work being done near these areas in the event that a new archeological discovery was made.

Turtle nest
 So far I have made it sound like the Resource Advisors are there to protect the park’s natural and cultural resources from the workers who are there to clean it up and I want to make it clear that this is not the case. I found it to be a partnership and once the workers were aware of the park’s resources they did everything they could to help protect these resources. Most of the workers on these crews live in the area and consider these beaches to be their own. I witnessed many occasions where the foreman had to tell workers to take a break or to have lunch because the workers would have continued cleaning all day if they could. I haven’t heard how long the cleanup efforts will continue but if I am requested to go back again in the coming months I would be happy to do whatever I can to help.

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