A sense of accomplishment
The Gulf of Mexico is over 1,000 miles from Bradford County. But during the tragic BP oil spill that occurred there in 2010, one Bradford County resident was playing a large part in the clean up process that has affected all of us.
Nathan Israel Pierce graduated valedictorian from New Covenant Academy in Mansfield, and on August 6, 2001 joined the United States Coast Guard (USCG) where he gained the rank of E-6/ Marine Science Technician 1st Class Petty Officer.
Originally from Columbia Crossroads, Pierce has been stationed in several locations throughout the United States, from Ohio to Massachusetts to Louisiana. He has been involved in some of the major cleanups due to flooding, including Hurricane Katrina. During the tragic BP Gulf oil spill in 2010 he was one of the Federal on scene coordinator representatives of the offshore DECON team, one of seven USCG personnel to personally inspect all vessels and oil rigs involved. He has also been involved in some not so well known spills and cleanups.
“Most spills I deal with are incidental discharges. Incidental discharges are typically as a result of an accident or equipment failure as opposed to an intentional discharge to avoid cleaning up or paying to remove oil product,” said Pierce. “But, you’d be shocked how many oil product sheen investigations turn up as a result of street runoff from public and commercial vehicles.”
When notified of a spill, Pierce’s first response is proactive. He checks the current flow to see which way the spill is headed, then checks the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s charts to get a “snapshot” of what is located in that area. Then he notifies organizations that have certified personnel trained to remove animals if necessary. All of that is done quickly, and then Pierce’s primary concern is to stop the spill and get the bulk majority of it out of the water with the least amount of impact.
According to Pierce, every spill is unique and cleanup costs and time are heavily dependent on the spill’s location. Small spills usually take several days. The materials used to clean up vary as well, depending on the location of the spill.
“Typically you use a cleanup material or equipment that loves oil and hates water (oleophilic). You safely remove as much oil product as possible and minimize the impact to the environment,” explained Pierce.
They use what are called “sorbent materials” for cleanups and there are two types. Absorbents act like sponges and have to be thrown away after they are used. Adsorbents look like plastic but are made of a synthetic material that loves oil. They actually pull the oil right out of the water and are extremely effective. They can be cleaned up and reused. A spill out in open water usually requires booms to contain the spill. At the shoreline adsorbent pom-poms are used. The wave action pushes the oily water through and the oil is removed as the water passes through it. If the water is deep enough skimmers can be used to remove the oil.
If an oil spill is just straight oil, it’s not as big an impact, as gasoline which contains the carcinogen benzene. Oil is a natural product made up of the fossilized remains of
plants and organic matter. When oil is spilled some organisms are impacted negatively, while others thrive. It merely upsets the balance for a period of time.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to be cautious cleaning up spills in sensitive areas like marshes. Nature does a great job cleaning up oil,” said Pierce. “There are organisms that eat oil and over time the affected area will return better than it was before. This is similar to what happens with forest fires.” Pierce continued to explain that most of the time in marshes the most effective thing they can do is not touch it. The sun will kill off the top and because they haven’t disturbed it, the roots of the marsh grasses and other plants are still ok. Things will grow back on their own. In most cases, the least amount of human impact the better. Pierce used the example of a wheel barrow full of dirt dumped on an area of grass. The grass is killed, but it will grow back.
“We don’t want to hurt the environment more than the spill has already done,” said Pierce.
Pierce explained that sometimes it is a very simple process to clean up an area. Simple materials such as chicken wire, hay, and fence posts can be used to make a good home made clean up device for cleaning up streams. Also, kitty litter is just natural clay and is very absorbent. Some of the largest, most sophisticated industrial materials don’t work as well as the basic clean up materials.
“You got it, you use it,” said Pierce. “To me it’s like cleaning up a mess in your house. You roll up your sleeves, and deal with it the best you can to return things to the way they were before the mess.”
When Pierce has done all that he can, he feels “a sense of accomplishment that I did everything I could to reduce the impact and keep the responders safe at the same time.”
Far from home, yet realizing we are one Earth, Nathan Pierce reflects on his job.
“I’m very proud of where I come from and the people I grew up around. I’ve lived through some extraordinary events and met people from around the world. I love telling people about where I come from. I also think it’s neat, that during the BP Gulf spill, there was someone from Columbia Cross Roads that was aboard the rigs making sure the oil spill cleanup was being taken care of responsibly and that BP was being held accountable for the results of that terrible accident.”