The next time there is an oil-spill disaster, emergency response and remediation contractors will have a new generation of tools, thanks in part to techniques and equipment deployed after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon drill-ship explosion.


The disaster released an estimated 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the ensuing 86 days. Full cleanup may take years.

In a briefing on Aug. 9, Adm. Thad Allen, national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, said that with a cap on the well apparently holding, the response now is shifting from source control to dealing with oil in marshes and on beaches. On Aug. 4, with the runaway well finally capped, the Coast Guard and the joint incident command pulled off the job all vacuum equipment that had been sucking slicks and foam from the water.

Despite repeated inquiries, the official oil-spill response information centers in New Orleans, Houston and Houma, La., would not comment on cleanup equipment criteria. Less reticent contractors say cleanup techniques range from sucking oil and foam from open water with portable, high-tech, high-volume pumps to extracting the stuff from marshes with modified wet vacs and 55-gal drums, or sifting beach sand for tar balls with shovels and gloved hands.

On a day-to-day basis, contractors say cleanup resources are deployed centrally by the oil-spill-response unified command in reaction to oil-tracking data. Contractor input guides equipment deployment and oil removal specifications, but overall cleanup directions come from the unified command, reports Bob Isakson, managing director of the DRC Group, a cleanup contractor based in Mobile, Ala.

“You have a huge number of different plans to pick up oil, and every plan requires different types of equipment,” Isakson says. “Recovery efforts change as oil volumes change, according to flow, weather and depth of water.”

By the beginning of August, DRC had 478 vessels and more than 1,000 oil response technicians working under contracts in five Louisiana parishes and eight Florida counties.

DRC has placed about 500,000 linear ft of boom and has been engaged in everything from beach cleaning to operating vacuum barges, on which it has made heavy use of portable vacuum units normally used for shoreside tank cleaning.

Most of DRC’s vacuum equipment is manufactured by Triton Industries LLC, Baton Rouge. The largest units employ deep-vacuum, liquid-ring pumps made in Germany, for which Triton has exclusive North American distribution rights for non-truck installations, says Mike O’Rourke, Triton’s general manager.

Liquid-ring pumps have an off-center impeller that keeps the tips close to the wall of the pump chamber on one side and farther away on the other.

The rotating impeller slings a reservoir of liquid from the pump body to the wall of the chamber, creating a liquid seal between the ends of the blades and the wall. The eccentric axle placement, however,...