Firm handling oil spill cleanup is mostly unregulated, little known

The Obrien’s group is a major presence in the NW as well.  Clean up operators have yet to pass a no notice drill off the Olympic Coast underscoring the need for Congress to pass Senator Cantwell’s legislation for the Neah Bay emergency response tug.  The oil industry has called on their ally Senator Inhofe to try to block the bill.





Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Workers at Pier 96 in San Francisco decontaminate O'Brien... Skimmers used in the oil recovery are decontaminated.Chro...

The success or failure of the massive fuel oil cleanup in San Francisco hinges on a little-known Louisiana company that works for big oil shipping lines and is largely self-regulated.

The O’Brien’s Group, which specializes in managing messes, is handling the disaster for the container ship Cosco Busan, which sideswiped the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, spilling 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay.

The disaster created an uproar among politicians, community activists and volunteers who want to know who is responsible for the miscommunication and foot-dragging that allowed time for strong bay currents to disperse the sludge and foul beaches throughout the Bay Area.

The buck, as it were, may stop with the Cosco Busan, but the blame might well be laid on O’Brien’s gangway.

“A lot of questions need to be asked of the O’Brien’s Group,” said Sejal Choksi, program director of the environmental group Baykeeper, which has been highly critical of the way the cleanup operation was conducted.

The country’s largest oil-cleanup management company has scarcely been mentioned in the flurry of inquiries over delays and other problems that have plagued the operation.

The O’Brien’s Group, founded by a former U.S. Coast Guard officer who gained fame in the 1980s as the Red Adair of oil spill cleanup, is part of the cleanup command structure along with the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

In reality, though, O’Brien’s officers are in great measure responsible for the tactics, deployment of equipment and movements of 350 managers and 1,500 workers handling everything from dead bird pickup to skimming operations.

The Coast Guard took the blame for not communicating the full extent of the spill in a timely fashion. But under protocols developed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, it was the responsibility of the O’Brien’s Group to handle the initial communications and response.

The company was the first to be contacted by the ship after the accident and was supposed to notify the cleanup crews, the Coast Guard and the Department of Fish and Game.

Virtually everything that O’Brien’s was supposed to be in charge of has since been criticized by lawmakers, environmentalists or the public.

Among the myriad questions that have yet to be answered is why there was a nine-hour lag between initial reports of only 400 gallons of oil spilled and later reports that 58,000 gallons had poured into the bay. There are also questions about delays while large numbers of cleanup workers were brought in from out of state. Environmentalists have accused cleanup organizers of not placing booms around sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitats until it was too late.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has started an investigation, and lawmakers around the Bay Area have criticized the spill response.

“We’ve learned that serious mistakes were made in the response to the oil spill,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “There apparently was a plan in place, but that plan wasn’t followed.”

The lack of answers coming from the top of the command structure has created widespread outrage, even as some beaches are being reopened.

“We’ve been working in a vacuum because the disaster leaders have created a central command fortress, a closed community, and we can’t even ask the questions we want to about what they did, when they did it, and what they did wrong or right,” Baykeeper’s Choksi said.

Some fingers have been pointed at the Cosco Busan captain and the crew for not properly reporting the extent of the problem, but the ship had hired the O’Brien’s Group to represent it in all aspects of accidents exactly like this one.

“There are all kinds of things that impact the ability to respond,” said Jim O’Brien, the founder and president of the company, insisting that his people did the best job they could under the circumstances. “It’s the same in every spill. You can take any element, particularly at the outset, and say, ‘Woulda, shoulda, coulda.’ ”

Few people outside the oil and shipping industries know much about the O’Brien’s Group. It is, however, the most established cleanup management company in the United States, probably the world, and it has the longest track record.

Jim O’Brien, who started the company in 1983, has often been compared to Red Adair. In fact, O’Brien was once employed by the famed extinguisher of oil fires to clean his private boats.

O’Brien handled his first spill in 1969 when he was in the Coast Guard. By 1973, he was handling oil spills full time as a member of a Coast Guard strike team out of Hamilton Field in Novato. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1983 and founded O’Brien’s Oil Pollution Service, or OOPS Inc., in Slidell, La.

A big, gruff-looking man, O’Brien has a disarming sense of humor that is apparent in the name of his company. “I would have named it ‘Oh S-,’ except I don’t think the secretary of state would have liked that,” he said.

He was already considered one of the premier experts in the field when he was called in to help manage the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The next year the federal Oil Pollution Act was passed, requiring oil tankers and other ships to, among other things, hire cleanup managers in case of an accident. The law gave O’Brien’s company an enormous boost. His work managing cleanup operations in Kuwait after the first Gulf War sealed his reputation.

The law requires ship owners to outline oil spill prevention and response plans, have enough insurance to cover up to $1 billion in damage, and designate a management company and an “Oil Spill Response Organization” to clean up in the event of an accident.

In 1997, Seacor Holdings Inc. purchased OOPS, keeping O’Brien as its president. As the company expanded, it became known as the O’Brien’s Group.

The company is the largest of a half-dozen or so oil spill-management companies operating in the United States. It represents up to 400 ships and more than 200 oil and gas companies. The O’Brien’s Group has handled more than 400 spills over the past three years, including the Athos I, which spilled 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River in 2004.

“All of our dealings with them have been very good,” said Mike Ziccardi, a UC Davis professor and the director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which is handling wildlife care for the San Francisco spill. “They are always well versed in oil spill response, and they’ve always been extremely willing and open to include wildlife response and activities within the overall response.”

But O’Brien’s long-established reputation is almost all there is go to on. There is little oversight or outside evaluation of the company’s performance.

Companies that manage oil spills for ships that ply California waters have to register with the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game. Their booms, skimmers and other equipment must meet state standards, but ensuring the company is equipped to handle an emergency is the responsibility of the shipping line.

The state and federal governments conduct periodic unannounced drills to ensure oil cleanup managers and workers are properly trained, but a bad performance cannot result in the revocation of any permits or licenses because there are none.

What oversight there is has been undermined by gross understaffing in the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, according to state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who accused Gov. Schwarzenegger last week of refusing to hire enough workers.

As a result, there have been almost no unannounced practice drills of cleanup workers such as those who work for O’Brien’s and other cleanup contractors, according to a report that the state’s Oil Spill Technical Advisory Committee sent to the governor in May.

“Despite the potentially devastating impacts of oil spills and the need for a strong OSPR, the agency unfortunately has been the subject of bureaucratic cannibalism and hobbling from within the California state government,” the report stated.

“We have only about a dozen people who specifically deal with pollution response in Spill Prevention and Response from the Mexican border to the Oregon border,” said Lt. John Sutton, a Fish and Game department manager. “That does make things difficult.”

Sutton said if the O’Brien’s Group really botched the job, the only thing the department could do is take over management of the cleanup – a difficult task given the staffing shortages.

“Ultimately, the company that hired them would be held responsible,” he said. “It is their responsibility to know that their management contractor is equipped to handle the job.”

Meanwhile, incident commanders tried to defend their actions last week after lawmakers and the public accused the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the Marine Spill Response Corp., an oil-company-funded venture that is doing the actual cleanup work, of being slow and disorganized.

Marine Spill Response officials have said their vessels were on the way to the spill site by 9:46 a.m. on Nov. 7 – about an hour and 15 minutes after the accident. By 11 a.m., five skimming boats were said to be at the scene mopping up the oil.

“Our response was appropriate to the incident,” said Greg Hurner, deputy director of the Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

Stephen Ricks, vice president of regulatory affairs for Marine Spill Response Corp., said the response was based on what the company was told by the ship’s master about the size of the spill: that it was only a few hundred gallons, not the vast 58,000-gallon spill that was eventually announced.

“We take direction, we don’t make policy,” Ricks said. “We met all regulatory requirements for an oil tanker’s worst-case discharge.”

Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, said the O’Brien’s Group and Marine Spill Response Corp. should be willing to open their records for examination and discussion.

“The big question is: Why wasn’t enough containment boom deployed to contain the oil?” Chabot said. “Clearly, something went wrong, because the oil spread, but we need to know why.”

Jim O’Brien would say only that bad things happen in disasters and that moving forward is more important than selecting someone to blame.

“I think we all understand that there has been an impact to the environment,” O’Brien said. “The question is, what can we do to minimize that? I believe we’ve done a real good job of that.

“It’s not like baseball,” he said. “There is never a perfect response.”

Online resources

The O’Brien’s Group:

Find out more about the spill cleanup:

Chronicle staff writers Kevin Fagan and Carolyn Jones contributed to this report. E-mail Peter Fimrite at

~ by fredfelleman on November 19, 2007.

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