Ten years ago, the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico became one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters. The spill started after the explosion on April 20, but it was around this time in June that the oil began to show up on Escambia County beaches.
This week, WUWF is beginning a series of reports marking the 10th anniversary of the spill.
Helping to recall what happened is one of the leaders of the county’s response team, who called in the first local discovery of oil.
“I’m Robert Turpin, Manager of Escambia County’s Marine Resources Division,” said Turpin, identifying himself for the interview.
Turpin, a marine biologist, says he wasn’t too worried about the oil spill, initially.
“When I first heard that the Deepwater Horizon spill had occurred on April 20, on Earth Day, ironically, my experience working in the oil field led me to believe that it would quickly be brought under control,” he said.
Turpin thought the spill should be swiftly capped, because he knew from working in the oil fields off Louisiana and Texas that oil wells and responders have all the tools needed to stop the flow of oil after a spill.
But, just one week after the 2010 explosion and spill in the Gulf, he and other Escambia County staff were called to the Emergency Operations Center for a briefing that included representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“We were told at that time that the spill would not likely be brought under control anytime soon,” Turpin said. “At that point, we all realized the beaches, the waterways, the fish and the reefs and everything that we enjoy here, our tourism economy was now under very serious threat.”
The Escambia County Commission determined that they needed a response plan and to get started on it right away. The job to develop it fell to Turpin and his colleagues in Marine Resources.
“Because we were the environmental experts for the county, we were tasked, my department director was tasked to direct my actions to develop that local action plan,” he said.
The local response plan was developed in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, with oversight by the Coast Guard and other federal and state agencies. Implementation began immediately.
“First we looked at the plan that was being implemented, and the boom that was being deployed was farther away from Pensacola Pass and Perdido Pass and we knew that the oil that would impact us on the inside of the bays would come through those passes,” Turpin remembered.
“There was very little that we could do; we recognized that there was very little we could do to prevent oil on the Gulf beaches.”
Turpin says they came to that conclusion after seeing how boom sets were placed off the coast of neighboring Alabama.
“We flew helicopters over there and it was not able withstand some rough weather, so we knew that was not going to be a realistic defense, but what we could defend were our interior waterways with boom and skimmers to deflect the oil in a way that it could be removed,” he said.
Turpin noted that the writing of the response plan, a process that took just 48 hours, and the placement of the boom happened in the early weeks after the spill before the first signs of oil locally. The response was described as an intense team effort involving the county’s Neighborhood and Environmental Services and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
“At the same time we were watching the oil spill off Louisiana,” said Turpin. “We had good data on that. We were watching the weather to see when would the oil arrive here.”
From the date of the spill on April 20, he said it took six agonizing weeks for the oil to arrive on Escambia County’s Gulf shoreline.
“It was almost like the water torture, that you’re waiting for this to impact and the anticipation of what is going to happen; you know, the worry over how are our beaches, how are our waterways are going to be affected, and are we prepared,” Turpin explained. “Are we doing the best that we can? Did we do this right? Did we make the best decisions, you know, you second guess yourself and you wonder, you know, all the things that keep you awake at night.”
That brings us to that the day everyone had been dreading. It was the pre-dawn hours of June 4, 2010.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t go back to sleep because I was so wound up, worried,” Turpin recalled.
“There were a lot of emotions going on at that time, as well as just the professional concern that you’re performing your duty to the best of your ability. So, you have that, as well as knowing that this is our beach community that’s going to be impacted, very likely, going to be impacted.”
Since Turpin couldn’t go back to sleep, the local native thought he’d go ahead and drive out to Ft. Pickens, a place he knew well, for an early morning look at Pensacola Pass.
“I drove out to the jetty where the stairs go over the sea wall and there were boom sets out there, so I looked at the anchoring and the boom that were out there and walked around the point, towards the southwest and around,” said Turpin, describing the moment he’ll never forget.
“As soon as I got to the very tip of the point on the Ft. Pickens side, I saw this really strange shape in the sand.”
Turpin recalled seeing features the size of saucers and dinner plates that looked like peanut brittle or melted plastic.
“And, I remember reaching out with my finger and touching one and it was brown; it wasn’t what we expected for oil. You know, your anticipation of oil on the water was it’s going to be black, but this was a dark brown,” he explained.
Based on his experience with previous oil spills and the small, more weathered tar balls that were common on local beaches when he was a kid, it wasn’t immediately apparent to Turpin that this was oil until he touched it, “And, that was...the world changed.”
Turpin’s tar mat discovery on the beach at Fort Pickens was the first local report of oil to the National Response Center. A short time later, the oil spill frenzy intensified, when the tar balls and tar mats began washing up in the Casino Beach area of Pensacola Beach where hordes of national news media were staked out.