Just as the recreational boating season was hoisting its sails this spring, the Coast Guard -- responsible for marine safety in U.S. waters -- was faced with one of its biggest challenges in its 220-year history.
The BP oil spill that began April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico required the Coast Guard -- also charged with protecting the marine environment -- to deploy more than 2,000 personnel, about 20 cutters and nearly two dozen aircraft to take charge of the cleanup.
The response has been unprecedented, and has affected every U.S. port and some overseas locations where the Coast Guard is engaged in its missions as part of the Homeland Security Department.
"This has become a mission of unparalleled proportion," Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp said in an agencywide communication in June. "As time has passed, the breadth and scope of spill impacts have significantly expanded and require long-term, coordinated action" expected to last through the year.
At the same time, Papp issued a plea for volunteers from the 30,000-strong Coast Guard Auxiliary and said he would have to call up at least 1,500 of the 8,000 Coast Guard reservists to take on one-month or two-month tours of duty in the Gulf. The auxiliary volunteers and reservists supplement the Coast Guard's 42,000 active duty personnel, many of whom were transferred from other assignments to assist with the cleanup.
The Coast Guard Cutter Fir, a 225-foot ship based in Astoria, Ore., was among the vessels ordered to the Gulf in June. Normally the cutter's 50-person crew is tending buoys and other navigational aids along the Oregon and Washington coast, as well as maintaining weather stations, enforcing fishing laws, conducting rescues and managing security.
Today the Fir, refitted with oil booms and skimming equipment, is collecting oily sludge from the Gulf's surface with a bag-like container called a "drogue" and transferring it to a collection barge running alongside.
"I never really anticipated bringing my ship to the Gulf of Mexico, but it's a credit to the crew that we can," the Fir's commanding officer, Cmdr. Mark Vlaun, told The Daily Astorian.
The Fir's absence hasn't affected boating safety, largely due to a spirit of togetherness among Pacific Northwest boaters, said Randy Henry of the Oregon State Marine Board. "I'm not personally aware of any issues where we've needed help or assistance or service out there," Henry said. "We certainly have a lot of cooperation in the Portland area and on the waterways."
With another Coast Guard cutter deployed to the Gulf, the San Francisco-based Aspen, there are about 100 fewer personnel to work the busy California waters, but those still on duty in the region have stepped up, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Laura Williams.
"People aren't able to take vacations or go on leave," she said. "We're not short-handed; there's just fewer people doing a lot more work. ... The Auxiliary has always been really active in this area, and they have been helping us out as well."
The same is true in San Diego, said Levi Read, the Coast Guard spokesman there. "Most of the people sent [to the Gulf] have been reserves," he said. "There have been active duty members sent, but for the most part it's the reserves taking the brunt of the load, which has been leaving other sectors fully staffed. People have had to work extra hours, but our response times and other duties haven't been affected."
Coast Guard personnel from the Great Lakes are also pitching in on the Gulf cleanup. Four airboats, a rescue helicopter, a Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System and 148 crew members have been dispatched to the Gulf from small-boat stations in Belle Isle, Mich.; Saginaw River, Mich.; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; Alexandria Bay, N.Y.; and Marblehead, Ohio, according to the Coast Guard public affairs office.
Leaders of the Coast Guard, while extolling the efforts of the rank and file, acknowledge they are concerned about the effects of the massive response.
Rear Adm. Sandy Stosz, the Coast Guard's acting reserve director, told reservists she was worried about them in a letter posted on the Coast Guard Web site: "I am very concerned about how we can fully utilize the Reserve to support this operation without burning out our Reservists -- either in terms of demands and stresses on the individual Reservists, their families and employers or the statutory caps on our recall authority," she wrote.
Both Stosz and Papp say the spill has them already rewriting the Coast Guard's readiness plans, which had been based on plans for tanker spills and pipeline ruptures closer to shore, the two told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans last month.
"In all those cases, we were facing a finite level of oil, so we could plan for the equipment we'd need," Papp told the newspaper for a July 6 story. "But we've never had in the history of our country a spill go on for 80 days like this. Literally, we're dealing with an Exxon Valdez every five days."
This article appears in the August 7, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.