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Deepwater horizon response 2010.

0n the evening of April 20, 2010, an explosion aboard the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) Deepwater Horizon set off an unfortunate series of events that led to the sinking of the drilling unit and the worst oil spill in United States history.

Given the size and scope of the spill, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano designated the incident a spill of national significance (SONS) and designated then-Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen as the National Incident Commander (NIC). Both of the designations were firsts.


Because of the severity of the spill, the complexity of the response effort, and the large-scale potential for adverse impacts on public health and the environment, this response required extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and commercial resources to contain and mitigate the effects of the spill. Using the framework provided for in the National Contingency Plan, a monumental response was undertaken through the unified efforts of over 48,000 federal, state, and local responders, including over 7,000 active and reserve members of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Five incident command posts (ICPs) and fifteen staging areas were established across the Gulf Coast states to help flow critical resources to impacted locations. The Unified Area Command (UAC) employed more than 835 oil skimmers, 9,700 response boats, 120 aircraft, and over 10,000 vessels of opportunity, including fishermen and charter boats with specific local knowledge of the Gulf Coast, to find and remove oil. More than 34.7 million gallons of oily-water mix were recovered through skimming, and 11 million gallons of oil were removed through controlled insitu burns.



The Deepwater Horizon drilling unit was owned by Transocean Holdings LLC. British Petroleum (BP) Exploration and Production, Inc., leased and operated the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit. The Deepwater Horizon was crewed by 126 people while operating in the Mississippi Canyon, Grid 252, over 50 miles off the shore of Louisiana. It was a dynamically positioned, semi-submersible drilling unit.


The Coast Guard District Eight (D8) Command Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, was alerted to a search and rescue (SAR) call following the fire and explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon around 10 p.m. The Command Center initiated SAR procedures and coordinated offshore firefighting efforts. Initial indications suggested that 11 people were missing and ultimately perished as a result of this incident. A combination of commercial offshore supply vessels and Coast Guard resources rescued 115 crew members.


On April 23, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon sank. The condition of the blow-out preventer, the highly scrutinized safety device designed to secure the Macondo well in the event of a catastrophic failure, could not be verified. The D8 Command Center established ICPs in Houma, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, and initiated actions described in the Area Contingency Plans for a worst-case discharge.

Massive Organization Needed for Effort

The size and scope of this incident required significant coordination of public and private resources. The command and control structure maximized the Federal On-Scene Coordinator's (FOSC) ability to work with other federal, state, and local stakeholders to address the highest operational needs.

National Incident Commander

The NIC was established in Washington, D.C., to coordinate the whole-of-government response to the casualty. The NIC established a staff to focus on strategic communication and the resolution of interagency conflicts, working directly for the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security (S1). Cabinet-level conference calls, chaired by the Si, served to inform key administration officials and achieve consensus on the wide variety of national policy issues stemming from the incident.

Unified Area Command

The UAC was established to oversee operational activities across the entire Gulf Region. The FOSC, responsible party (BP), and state representatives teamed to source operational resource requests and address state-by-state concerns with the ongoing response. The FOSC met regularly with key stakeholders, including the governors of each state on the Gulf Coast, and established a critical line of communication to resolve conflicts.

Incident Command Posts

Five unified ICPs were established to coordinate operations and liaise with local and regional elected officials. Each command post focused on a specific operational area. Houston, established to coordinate source control activities at the well head, participated in engineering discussions to secure the source. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu led a science team of the nation's top engineers and scientists focused on validating BP's proposals to safely secure the Macondo well.

Area Command Staging Areas

Two Area Command Staging Areas were established to coordinate the efficient and effective distribution of critical resources across regional boundaries. Protective boom and skimmers were delivered to staging areas and redistributed to locales most affected by the oil, allowing on-scene responders the tools necessary to do their jobs. Local staging areas were also established to allow for timely reallocation of regional resources based on the oil's trajectory.

NIC Responsibilities

As described in the National Contingency Plan (Title 40, Code of Federal Regulations, section 300) and Coast Guard doctrine, the NIC's mission was to

* lead national-level communication and develop strategic objectives;

* coordinate interagency issues;

* coordinate federal, state, local, and international resources; and

* oversee UAC activities for an effective response.

Unity of effort became the theme for the NIC staff. Since this was the first time in U. S. history that a SONS and an NIC had been established, operational doctrine was untested. As such, doctrine evolved as conditions warranted a more robust NIC influence to resolve conflicts and address concerns. The NIC's role expanded beyond that of a traditional FOSC, to include resolving public health and seafood safety concerns and claims adjudication. In some cases, the MC engaged in operational decision making in working directly with the FOSC, state, and local elected officials, and the responsible party. As directed, the NIC remained focused on unifying the government's response.


Unified Area Command

Located in downtown New Orleans, the UAC had the overall responsibility for the strategic management of the incident. The UAC set response strategies, objectives, and priorities; allocated critical resources according to priorities; ensured that the incident was properly managed; and ensured that objectives were met and strategies were followed. The UAC included the USCG as the FOSC and representatives from federal agencies, affected states, and the responsible party.

The UAC served as the operational commander for this incident. It developed strategic and operational objectives aligned with NIC strategies and worked directly with other federal, state, and local officials to deploy critical resources to the affected areas most in need. Early in the response, the UAC established a critical resources unit focused solely on identifying sources of supply for containment boom to protect the sensitive coastline of the Gulf in accordance with Area Contingency Plans. The critical resources unit identified every domestic and most international sources of supply for boom and worked to procure and distribute this critical resource across the five Gulf States. Working through each incident commander, the UAC identified and prioritized resource requests to meet daily operational objectives.


Incident Commanders

Incident commanders (ICs) coordinated operations regionally, usually along state borders. Each IC also was empowered with FOSC representative authorities and could authorize removal activities. The ICs served as the first line of communication with state and local elected officials and often served as the local face of the response. Individuals in these positions faced daily political pressure to address local and regional challenges, while maintaining focus on national strategies to mitigate the effects of the spill. The ICs also participated in local town hall meetings, hearing first-hand accounts of the spill's impact to local economies. ICs in Mobile and Houma led efforts to employ vessels of opportunity where appropriate. Over 10,000 vessel crews were trained and contracted to provide a force multiplier on the water. Vessels of opportunity of all types and sizes were used to identify oil and, where capable, remove oil from the surface. Other vessels of opportunity provided on-water transportation for key science teams testing for the presence of sub-surface oil. The importance of the ICs in strategic communication cannot be overstated. These individuals became the local face of the government's response.

Concept of Operations

In any large-scale operation, effective command and control is a critical element in the operation's success. Areas of operation were divided by geographic boundaries or zones, largely based on the functional response operations required to combat the oil. There were five areas:

Well Site: A five-nautical mile circle around the well. Source control was coordinated out of ICP Houston.

Offshore Zone: The water surface three nautical miles from shore to five nautical miles from the well site. Coordinated by ICP Houma and focused on aerial application of dispersants, in-situ burns, and large-scale offshore skimming.

Nearshore Zone: Baseline to three nautical miles. Coordinated by ICs within state boundaries. Heavy emphasis on employing vessels of opportunity and near-shore skimming.

Inshore Zone: Inland waters. Coordinated by ICs within state boundaries. Heavy emphasis on employing vessels of opportunity and coordination with shoreline assessment teams, inshore skimming, beach clean-up, and volunteer coordination.

Air Operations: Aviation assets coordinated out of Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, for sorties across each area of operation. Extensive coordination involved federal, military, state, local, and commercial air assets across the Gulf region. The Aviation Coordination Center reported directly to the UAC and effectively served as an operations section across each ICP area of responsibility. The stand-up of the Aviation Coordination Center dramatically improved communications and coordination of surface assets and enhanced aviation safety in the region.

Source Control at the Well Site

The UAC's efforts to secure the Macondo well received significant publicity. Countless hours of video footage showed the armada of vessels above the well site, but few truly understood the significant effort that took place 5,000 feet below those vessels. This was also the first application of sub-sea dispersants (altogether, 1.8 million gallons were dispersed).

Every action, from simply making a quarter turn on a valve to removing the five-story, 450-ton blow-out preventer, was completed using robots. Extreme pressures, swirling undersea currents, and the constant threat of adverse weather extended operations and further complicated planning efforts to secure the well. On three separate occasions, vessels supporting subsurface well operations ceased work to evade tropical storms or hurricanes. Over 15 remotely operated vehicles worked around the clock to remove, install, and monitor equipment used to secure the well. While relief well drilling continued, multiple offshore supply vessels, production units, and drill rigs orchestrated a delicate "dance" in accordance with engineering procedures, activity that was heavily scrutinized by BP engineering teams, Secretary of Energy Chu's science team, and Coast Guard engineers.

Each proposed engineering solution required equipment to be custom-built, unique to the well. Ultimately, the final capping effort involved the design, manufacture, and testing of a three-ram capping stack, specially built to fit the existing damaged blow-out preventer. The process to complete this part took nearly 30 days before the first test was complete.

On July 15, the three-ram capping stack was installed and finally secured the source of the discharge. Between April 20 and July 15, 87 days passed with the continuous release of oil from the Macondo well. Another 76 days passed until the well could be deemed dead, following the successful intersection of the relief well on September 19. Extensive testing confirmed that the pressure on the well head following the bottom kill (cementing of the drill casing and surrounding structure) was successful, eliminating any additional threat of discharge.

Offshore Operations

The Deepwater Horizon UAC placed a high priority on preventing oil from reaching the ecological and economically sensitive Gulf Coast shores. In fact, this response involved more vessels than were used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. For the first time in history, we conducted large-scale offshore in-situ burns--burning over 11 million gallons of surface oil in 411 controlled burns.

Over 800 skimmers (835 in service at peak) were assembled to fight the oil as far offshore as possible. The Aviation Coordination Center at Tyndall AFB coordinated hundreds of logistics, operations, and surveillance flights focused on pinpointing the locations of thousands of smaller oil patches across the Gulf. Once identified, surface platforms worked to remove the oil, using the latest technologies in surface oil skimming. Even with these efforts, given the size and scope of the spill, some oil made its way toward shore.

Nearshore Operations; Bays, Beaches, and Marshes Operations

Where oil made its way closer to shore, thousands of vessels of opportunity attacked individual oil patches with vessel-borne skimmers and boom. Vessels and crews of all sizes were hired to provide the necessary on-water support for response efforts across the region. As expected, this posed a significant command and control challenge. Here again, use of aviation assets and communications plans enhanced efforts to mitigate the effects of oil on shorelines.

Within our inland waters, shoreline cleanup and assessment teams combed marshes, beaches, and tidal basins to identify impacted areas. A total of 15 staging areas deployed response equipment to affected sites or redirected gear to other sites to accelerate cleanup activities when oil reached the coast. Responders used a variety of methods to erect barriers across the Gulf Coast, including over 3.8 million feet of containment boom and 9.7 million feet of sorbent material to soak up what recoverable oil remained. All told, over 48,000 responders, largely made up of contract support, focused on removal activities. Thousands of volunteers supported the relocation of over 8,000 birds, 1,100 turtles, and 100 mammals.

Critical Resources

Locally available response resources were stressed by the sheer size of this incident. Working with oil spill response organizations and the Coast Guard's National Strike Force Coordination Center, the UAC identified manufacturers of boom throughout the country to meet initial resource demands identified in Gulf Area Contingency Plans. An executive order was also initiated to authorize the reallocation of spill response equipment from other regions of the U.S. to support ongoing response efforts. Additionally, over 60 countries offered assistance ranging from technical expertise to offshore skimming vessels. The Interagency Alternative Technologies Assessment Program was established to evaluate thousands of offers of innovative response technologies from both domestic and international entities.

Complexity and the Way Forward

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest and most complex our nation has ever confronted. It was complicated by the lack of human access to the Macondo wellhead, which was located 5,000 feet below the ocean surface and over 50 miles offshore. The response was fully dependent on the use of remotely operated vehicles to access the well site to control the release of oil. The continuous discharge of oil from the well from April 22 until July 15 did not result in a single monolithic spill, but rather thousands of smaller disconnected spills that repeatedly threatened and impacted the coastlines of all five Gulf Coast states.

Effective implementation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the National Contingency Plan served the country well during the response. The fundamental governance structure was effective and need not change should there be future considerations to amend the

National Contingency Plan as a result of lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Moving forward, key efforts should be undertaken with urgency to improve the nation's collective ability to respond before the next major oil or hazardous substance release. Continued engagement with federal, state, and local partners, including commercial interests, is critical to further refine response planning efforts. Natural resources damage assessments will attempt to restore the Gulf to its pre-incident condition; however, the damage may never fully be understood. Public health programs to assist those affected physically and mentally will move forward. The claims process, now managed by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, continues to process claims to aid Gulf Coast residents with restoring their livelihoods.

Personal Reflections

On Wednesday April 21, 2010, I learned about the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon that had occurred the night before when I reported for work in Portsmouth, Virginia, where I serve as the Executive Officer and Comptroller at Coast Guard Base Support Unit Portsmouth. At the time I, like the rest of the world, had no idea how significant the event would become. I grew up in Houston, Texas, just an hour from Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, where oil spills and refinery disasters were common occurrences. I had experience going to the local beaches, which for many meant a nasty sunburn and scraping tar balls from their feet with shells. I had patrolled those waters years before (in 1991) as a first-class cadet aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant, home ported in Galveston, Texas. As a Deck Watch Officer in Training aboard this 210-foot Medium Endurance Cutter that summer, I was trained to be ever vigilant to the risks created by standpipes from abandoned wells and the rig boats that zipped back and forth from shore to the rigs out in the Gulf.

In 1995, I served as the Executive Officer of the 110-foot patrol boat Coast Guard Cutter Nunivak. We sailed up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (now closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina) on our way to dry dock in Harvey, Louisiana, which is in the New Orleans area. After our period in dry dock, we transited through the Mississippi River back to our home port at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. So I at least knew a little about the area and what was going on out there as the Coast Guard began to respond.

As the gravity of the situation became more apparent, we began to spread the word on the base that this was likely to become an all-hands-on-deck event. We increased our efforts to ensure force readiness for active duty and Reserve members at our command. In cooperation with the clinic, we ramped up medical and dental readiness, ensuring that our people would be ready to serve in any capacity down range. Within a few weeks I began receiving calls and e-mails from the Surge Staffing Branch of our Personnel Service Center looking for volunteers. Over time, these changed from requests to select and direct orders, and we eventually deployed every one of our Reservists to the area. Our commanding officer advised us to pick our own dates to deploy instead of having someone else choose them for us. I took this sage advice to heart when informing my financial management program manager at Coast Guard Headquarters that I preferred to serve at the UAC after I took a certification exam at the end of July. He was glad to have a volunteer and penciled me in for the August to September rotation.

Semper Paratus--Always Ready

When Katrina struck in August 2005, I was serving at the Coast Guard's Pacific Area Headquarters in Alameda, California. Up to that point, the Coast Guard had not made Incident Command System (ICS) training a requirement for all hands, but that all changed once we found ourselves in short supply of ICS trained personnel. Within that year, I completed ICS 100 and 200 training online and, by November 2006, J completed ICS 300, 700, and 800. Do the math and you will deduce that my ICS training was about three and a half years old when I began preparing for my trip south. So, with fairly dated ICS training, no real-world ICS experience, and minimal experience with oil spill response, I readied myself as best I could by reviewing the daily financial statements coming from the UAC, speaking with the incumbent, and talking with my unit personnel who were already in theater.

I arrived in New Orleans on August 14 and proceeded directly to the UAC facility on Poydras Street, next door to the home of the NFL Super Bowl Champion Saints. I had a couple of days of relief time, then assumed the watch full of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and serve. I took some comfort in seeing many familiar faces throughout the building, one of the benefits of being part of our nation's smallest Armed Force. Among those was the FOSC, Rear Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, who had been my boss's boss in Alameda for a year.

As the Finance Section Chief (FSC), I led a team consisting of a Deputy FSC who was a Finance and Supply Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) in charge of a lieutenant junior grade, another Finance and Supply CWO, a Chief Petty Officer, and several Petty Officers. (Note: Within USCG operations, rank is not a primary consideration in an ICS structure; experience is, and that is why the CWO was senior to the 0-2 in the organization.) Another key element of the team was the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) staff, consisting of three case managers with extensive ICS and oil spill response and recovery experience. They manage the nation's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a unique fund consisting partly of no-year money funded in part by a special "tax" on oil-producing companies. Case managers were the true ICS and oil spill financial management experts who do so for a living.

I learned that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund has two major components. The first is the Emergency Fund, which is available for FOSCs to respond to discharges and for federal trustees to initiate Natural Resource Damage Assessments. The second is the remaining Principal Fund balance, which is used to pay claims and to fund appropriations by Congress to federal agencies to administer the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and support research and development.

To ensure rapid, effective response to oil spills, the President has the authority to make available--without congressional appropriation--up to $50 million each year to fund removal activities and initiate natural resource damage assessments. Funds not used in a fiscal year are available until expended. To the extent that $50 million is inadequate, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 granted authority to advance funds in $100 million increments from the Principal Fund to finance removal activities.

A core mission of the NPFC is to administer the disbursement and ensure proper use of the Emergency Fund, so that the FOSC can immediately respond to a discharge or monitor prompt and effective cleanup activities by the responsible party. The Emergency Fund can be used by FOSCs to cover expenses associated with mitigating the threat of an oil spill, as well as the costs of oil spill containment, countermeasures, cleanup, and disposal activities. While the use of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is most closely associated with discharges from ships, it has increasingly been used for discharges at industrial or onshore oil storage and production facilities.

My main contributions to the UAC in the financial arena were to

* project future funds availability and requests for additional funding to the USCG's Chief Financial Officer based on daily burn rates and known future costs;

* answer questions from the FOSC on Pollution Removal Funding Authorizations (non-DoD agencies) and Military Interdepartmental Purchase Requests (DoD agencies);

* cross-walk several financial reports for consistency with different presentations of the same data;

* edit Excel files and identify errors in formulas;

* ensure that BP understood how to read our statements;

* partner with NPFC managers to validate requests for funding, which were almost always at the multi-million-dollar level;

* account for property, particularly government-owned property, throughout the area of responsibility; and

* archive all documentation in the web-based Homeland Security Information Network for historical and auditing purposes.

At the end of my watch, the Coast Guard had recorded $736 million in oil removal costs, successfully capped the well, and subsequently cleaned up Gulf of Mexico waters, beaches, and wetlands. Our team managed $642 million of the Coast Guard's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, providing timely funding forecasts to the FOSC and the USCG's Chief Financial Officer, ensuring funds availability when needed most. We had a team of over 80 staff including three NPFC case managers, and provided detailed review of $400 million in pollution removal funding authorizations and military interdepartmental purchase requests from over 40 federal, state, and local Defense and non-Defense agencies. Our early planning for operational reorganization allowed timely consolidation of two ICPs into the current Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, reducing staff by 67 percent.


Relationship with the Responsible Party

My father was a career firefighter for the City of Houston, so he knew a thing or two about refinery fires. My mother was a career employee for Exxon, who, at the end of her career, worked at Exxon's world headquarters in Irving, Texas. She retired shortly after the company merged with Mobil. I did my best to use that background as a spring board for developing my relationship with my counterparts from BR During the first few days, I kept my distance while assessing the environment at the UAC. Eventually, I approached their FSC and began to build a relationship beyond simple introductions. I explained to him how the Coast Guard's financial statements were developed each day, and he went over a one-page summary of their financial accounting. One of several components of BP's cost accounting for the response was the Coast Guard's reimbursement claims, which BP was faithful to pay 100 percent. That isn't always the case, since some responsible parties lack the commitment and resources to foot the bill.

Visits to the Incident Command Posts

I set a goal to make at least one site visit a week to meet our people and see other locations, which had the fringe benefit of getting a breather from the UAC spaces, seeing the local areas, and meeting the veteran Finance and Supply Chiefs. I firmly believe in having positive initial contacts with one's key stakeholders, as opposed to having a first encounter when things have gone wrong or a contentious issue demands that you first speak to someone you have never met. I had heard one of the Coast Guard's most experienced Finance and Supply Chiefs was located at the ICP in Houma, so that was my first stop to meet MSTC Heather Norman (who is permanently stationed at the Marine Safety Unit in Houma). Instead of coming across as the new sheriff in town, I asked her to show me around her operations and tell me how I could help her and her team. A visit the second week to the ICP in Mobile and the third week to the Coast Guard base in New Orleans (located on NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility) made the eventual phone calls to downsize the organization by 67 percent much less painful than they could have been. At the Coast Guard base, I saw some initial physical evidence from the disaster, which was literally under wraps, from a distance. This is where the failed blowout preventer was later stored during the federal investigation, which was co-chaired by Captain Hung Nguyen. He and I were stationed together in Duluth, Minnesota, from 2002 to 2003, which just goes to show you, it's a small Coast Guard.

Timeline and Key Events

Day 1: APR 20 Fire and explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon

Day 3: APR 22 Deepwater Horizon sinks with over 700,000
 gallons of diesel fuel aboard

Day 10: APR 29 Incident declared a SONS

Day 12: MAY 1 Admiral Thad Allen desinated as NIC

Day 19: MAY 8 Cofferdam attempt unsuccessful

Day 40: MAY 29 Top kill attempt unsuccessful

Day 82: JUL 10 Capping stack installed

Day 87: JUL 15 Capping stack secured, well shut in,
 source secured

Day 107: AUG 4 Static kill complete on Coast Guard Day

Day 121: AUG 18 Bottom kill delayed to assess well integrity

Day 138: SEP 4 New blow-out preventer installed,
 no pressure concerns at well head

Day 150: SEP 16 Relief well intercept confirmed

Day 153: SEP 19 Bottom kill complete




Commander James "Brett" Millican began serving as Comptroller at the Coast Guard Integrated Support Command Portsmouth in July 2008. He is a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate and a Certified Government Financial Manager. For his service on the Deepwater Horizon response, Commander Millican received the DHS CFO Exceptional Service Individual Award and the DHS CFO Team Award for Superior Mission Achievement Service for his work with other Coast Guard financial managers. Commander Millican is a member of ASMC's Hampton Roads Chapter.
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Author:Millican, James "Brett"
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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