John Lapoint of Packgen in Auburn, Maine, says he’s got plenty of floating oil containment boom and can make lots more on short notice. There’s just one problem: no one will buy it from him.
He’s already had a representative from BP visit his factory and inspect his product. The governor of Maine, John Baldacci, visited the facility and made a video plea to no one in particular to close the deal. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins wrote a letter on May 21 to the secretary of the Interior, the administrator of NOAA, and the commandant of the Coast Guard to alert them to the existence of Packgen, their supply of boom, and their demonstrated capacity to make more. I have no idea if those are the correct persons and agencies to notify about the manufacturing capacity and the availability of boom. One wonders if the senators know.
While it is not easy to clean up an ocean oil spill, it is not a complicated procedure. In the open ocean, chemicals can be sprayed on slicks to try to disperse them. For the most part, oil floats, so it can sometimes be ignited and burned to lessen the amount that might reach a more sensitive area than the middle of an ocean. Out in open water, you can use booms (temporary floating barriers), but the wind and wave action makes it pretty difficult to place them and keep them there. When you get in closer to shore, where the oil is likely to do the most damage but the water is generally calmer, the best way to deal with it is to place flexible booms in the water, against which the oil will collect, and then run skimmers, a sort of pump that vacuums up and separates the oil from the water. Then you mop up what makes it to the shore as best you can.
The boom itself is not a hi-tech apparatus. It has to float, so the oil doesn’t go over it, and a portion of it is submerged under the floating part to keep the oil from going underneath it. It has to be fairly sturdy so it can be towed in the water. Containment booms need to be non-absorbent, because if they absorb water or oil they will sink.
A lot of people have been suggesting many ways to deal with the oil, and the ideas generally range from the comical to plain counterproductive. A fetish for sending hair from barbershops to the Gulf Coast has swept various pockets of the country. Booms are mainly non-absorbent, because the last thing you want to do is congeal the stuff and contaminate it. Oil collected against a boom is fairly easy to process and recycle. Sorbent booms, designed to collect oil at the water’s edge, are made from materials that absorb oil but not water — unlike hair. Oil full of hair or straw lapping against a shoreline is a HazMat nightmare. And sorbent boom is not in short supply anyway.
Packgen’s main business is not making oil boom. They make specialty packaging materials for shipping and storing environmentally sensitive materials. But when Packgen’s president, John Lapoint, saw the BP oil spill in the news, he understood right away that to have any hope of containing the oil drifting towards the shoreline, lots of floating boom would be necessary.
On May 24, ABC News reported:
On May 2, Gov. Jindal requested that federal authorities and BP provide three million feet of absorbent boom, five million feet of hard boom and 30 “jack up” barges. Of that, less than 800,000 feet of hard boom has arrived — less than a fifth of the request. About 140,000 feet of that hard boom is sitting waiting for BP to tell contractors where to take it.
“It is clear we don’t have the resources we need to protect our coast, we need more boom, more skimmers, more vacuums, more jack-up barges that are still in short supply,” Jindal said today. “Let’s be clear, every day that this oil sits is one more day that more of our marsh dies.”
The ASTM specifications for containment boom aren’t rocket science, and Lapoint’s business was used to dealing with that sort of thing. So Lapoint took a chance and started manufacturing oil boom, figuring that Packgen would be able to sell it to help in the containment and cleanup effort. He added shifts and employees, and started cranking out the oil boom right away. It was a big financial risk — and he knew that — but he also figured that in an emergency of that magnitude, you had to act quickly, and figured that BP and the federal government would have to act quickly as well, and every single foot of boom he could make would be useful and in immediate demand.
He figured wrong.
Maine, like the rest of the country, is suffering from very high unemployment. But its residents aren’t out of work because they aren’t useful; they’re useful, but out of work because there’s nothing much useful to do. Lapoint was able to immediately add two shifts of competent and motivated workers, and by the fourth day of production was making forty thousand feet of boom a day.
It’s likely they could make even more. But no one was ready to purchase it.
New England Cable News reported on June 3 from Packgen’s facility, interviewing John Lapoint about the frustration of trying to get anyone from either BP or the federal government to commit to purchase his boom:
Two weeks ago BP sent a quality control person to Maine, looked at the factory, and was impressed by what he saw. Packgen was feeling confident. That confidence has now turned to frustration. Packgen says BP controls who the boom suppliers are going to be — and they have yet to approve Packgen’s design.
John: “We’re going to allow BP, who caused the problem, to monitor and determine who gets the money and how that money is spent and how the land is going to be protected?”
John Lapoint says the government stepped in to take over the car industry, and the banks, and he believes it should be taking over this situation, too.
The first pictures of shorebirds covered in oil have made their way through the media now. These pictures tug at the heartstrings, no doubt, but it’s jarring to think I’ve never seen a picture of any of the eleven human beings who lost their lives in the accident that caused the spill. Some things that interest the media and the public more than others — eliciting remarks on the costs and dangers of drilling for oil a mile below the surface of the ocean, or on the intransigence and incompetence of BP, or the government, or both.
Two Packgen engineers went to the gulf recently to see for themselves what was happening — they say they saw booms that were sinking and contractors begging for boom — but they won’t buy anything that isn’t BP approved. Meanwhile, Lapoint has slowed production, started storing boom in a warehouse, and now waits for BP to say yay or nay.
Will John Lapoint be able sell his boom to BP or the U.S. government? Will he make more? Will he go broke waiting, and lay everyone off again? Will someone finally decide to purchase it, and by the time it arrives on scene, find out it was needed weeks ago and now it’s just a waste?
Hard to predict. But John Lapoint’s sweating a hard lesson right now, a microcosm of the malaise that currently infects the whole country. This isn’t a Field of Dreams economy anymore, where “if you build it, they will come.” You can build it if you like. Doesn’t mean anyone will come. And waiting for the government to make people come is a very hard job indeed.