This story first appeared in the Vermilion Photojournal
The explosion of the Deep Horizon oilrig back on April 22 and discovery of the oil spill pouring into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of it has captured nationwide attention. What is being called the nation’s world environmental disaster has a crew from Vermilion helping to assess sections of the spill and be part of the solution.
Vermilion company SpillTek has eight men out in the gulf, three of them from the local office. SpillTek co-owner Greg Stark is stationed out of Pensacola currently. SpillTek employee Brett Majesky just returned after being called to duty for 40 days. On June 23, he will return to duty for another 40+ day stint. Accompanying them is Ed Simpson. Stark said five men out of SpillTek’s Sandusky office are also working at the scene.
SpillTek was a natural for the job. “We’ve been doing this for 11 years,” said Stark. “We have a reputation. We advertise in spill response magazines. That’s how they found us.” The SpillTek team went down south on May 3, and Stark said they had sent another crew to Nashville, TN on the same day to deal with situations that came out of the flooding problem down there.
Stark did not wish to say who contracted SpillTek for the job without getting their permission, but its job has been to set booms, or inflatable skirts that contain the oil, or replace booms that have been damaged. Stark currently is working on a SCAT, which is short for Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team. “I’ve been doing that for the past two weeks,” he said. His team covers from Pensacola to Destin, and also covers the area of Perdido Key, and the Florida/Alabama line. “We’re looking for oil, tar balls, and sheen. We assess it, tell them what it is, and they come out and collect it.”
Stark has not been home since called to duty, but other men from the company are sent home. “What we’re trying to do is relieve some of the families.” The SpillTek crew was also stationed out of Port St. Joe, where he said they have 48,000 feet of boom prepped just in case.
As for how long the crew will be working, Stark said he cannot say. “Right now, I’d say three to six months. But we may have our crew here for up to a year.”
Stark said the SpillTek crew has been fortunate in its response from the people. “They come up to us and say ‘thank you very much for coming.’ At Port St. Joe, they are very appreciative of us being here.”
“The big thing is that everyone needs to work together and get this thing done. It’s going to be a huge mess. We did a spill after Katrina in the gulf that dumped 6 million gallons. We were on that for 2-3 weeks. There’s a lot of pressure coming from that line. It’s not like you can stick your finger in it and stop it. You could set a bulldozer on it and it would blow off.”
Each day is “very routine.” Stark said the crew gets its orders and goes to work. “They have a lot of lightening storms down here. In the time we’ve been down here, they have shut us down three times. The weather has been unreal. The heat is unreal. The humidity is 90 percent.”
Unlike some of the images seen on television, Stark said his crew has not really smelled anything. “We’ve experienced the tar balls and the sheen. There have been some locals who say they can smell it at night with the right wind.”
Upon entering the war zone down south, Stark said he was expecting the worst. “When I came down here, I saw it on CNN for days. Only within the last 3-5 days have we seen the first sighting of tar balls. In Florida, the beaches are not shut down.”
“We have gotten comments from a lot of contractors saying that we’re making history. I don’t know if this is the part of history you want to be a part of, but I’m proud we’re part of the solution. It’s a very large operation. There are 800 people in Pensacola alone. I think the national response has over 22,000 personnel.”
In addition to being co-owner of SpillTek with Kenji Sanders, Stark is owner of G & S Landworks, is a 1994 VHS graduate, and is also a part-time Vermilion Police officer.
Accompanying Stark to the spill is five-year SpillTek employee Brett Majesky, who came back for a short rest before returning to spill duty next week. In addition to setting boom to protect the coastline, he has also been a part of setting boom to protect wildlife. “We have set boom near the main area where sea turtles lay their eggs.”
“We’ve seen dead fish pop up here and there. We’ve seen the tar balls, the tar patties and the oil sheen.”
When Majesky first arrived, his crew was told the oil was going to be by them in three days. “The wind blew it back out.” Like Stark, he said the crew is given orders each day. “They have us go to a certain longitude and latitude.” Majesky said people have been cutting boom and stealing it. “They try to sell it. Some boom was found listed on Craig’s List. There is such a high demand for it right now.” He said only four companies make boom. He said SpillTek brought its own boom.
Majesky said when he started the job, he was working 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “When I finished, we were working 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. We have a safety meeting every morning. If anyone has any issues, they bring them up at the meeting. The we go out.”
Roughly 80% of the crews are local working on the cleanup, while 20% are out of town crews. “The center of operations is a trailer. We’re a ‘hot shot’ team, which means we’re in a boat. One boat can pull 400 feet of boom. We usually have four boats working together. When we set the boom, we have to anchor it every 200 feet. They have skimmer trucks working to collect the oil.”
As for the environmental problems, Majesky said one thing he noticed was the area’s pristine beaches. “The sand they have – you can’t replace it. It’s a reaction with the salt over years. You can’t buy that and you can’t replace it.”
He said the area that the team covers is huge. “When you’re out there, you don’t realize it. For SpillTek, most of our spills are in small rivers and lakes. But there, the area around you is massive.”
“Every day it changes,” he said. “One day you can be in Key West, and the next day somewhere else.”
“When we first went down there, I thought it was going to be nice. Instead, we’re wearing steel-toed boots, long pants, lifejackets, and the heat index has been 140. Plus, you have to deal with copperhead snakes. There are also cockroaches.”
As for a solution to the problem, he said, “Everyone has their opinions. They’re taking whatever they can get right now. But there are a lot of smart people working down there. It’s not as easy as it sounds. They are dealing strictly with robotics. It’s 5,000 feet down. I think they should kink the pipe. But that’s just my opinion.”
Because of the enormity of the situation, Majesky said the workers cannot say too much. “They are very strict. Whatever happens here, stays here. They have the Coast Guard, Navy, troops, and even the National Guard. There’s thousands of people down there. It’s crazy.”
There are some advantages to the job. “You don’t have time to spend any money. You go to the hotel after work, and you have to get up early. We’ve had dolphins follow the trail from the back of our boat. We’re near the Air Force Base, and the Blue Angels practice all the time. It’s like seeing a free air show.”
Majesky said he is enjoying his two weeks off, but is ready for action next week. “It’s nice working with everyone you know.” Majesky is a 2000 VHS graduate, and is also a firefighter with the Vermilion Fire Department Station 1.