In a civic center in St. Bernard Parish last night, BP and government agencies working on the oil spill set up folding chairs and posterboards describing their work in a kind of high school science fair approach to meeting the public. There was NOAA, setting up vials of simulated dispersed oil like a flight of wine; there was the Coast Guard captain in charge of the recovery, Roger Laferriere, giving a heartfelt speech about his dedication to Louisiana with the earnest aplomb of a student body president.
But while the attendees were dominated by a scrum of reporters and camera crews, there were a few hopeful locals mostly interested in meeting one man: Kurt A. Hansen, a project manager with the Coast Guard standing between a table and a sign plainly marked "Alternative Response Technology."
Hansen's job is to take ideas from the public about the fixing the oil spill. He has the inscrutable expression of a man who’s heard it all.
When I approached his table, Hansen was listening patiently to a man complaining that he’d been ignored by BP for weeks. He had an idea to contain and use the oil at the ocean's surface, he said, although it was mostly proprietary and he couldn't really go into details about it. He told me he'd taken his idea to a bunch of "wacko associates," with a pause and meaningful lean that indicated that he was being facitious, and these friends agreed it was a great idea. They'd tested the new boom technology he'd invented and it worked great.
"Those little orange things are a joke," he said. "A joke."
I had to agree – our own scientist, Dr. Jeff Short, had seen lines of orange booms jumbled and twisted in the Gulf just a couple weeks after their deployment. This decades-old technology isn't cutting it.
Across the room, Michael Matherne, a lifelong Louisiana resident and welding inspector at a nuclear power plant, held a manila envelope filled with photocopies of his plan to cap the broken oil pipe still gushing tens of thousands of barrels of oil every day. In a line drawing, he outlined a steel cap placed over the broken pipe, filled with concrete and topped with a valve to contain the oil until the concrete set, sealing the leak.
"I think I'm holding the answer in my hands, but I can’t get it to the right people," he said, a forlorn note in his Cajun-accented voice. "To me, this is 100 percent guaranteed it would work."
I asked him if he showed it to Kurt A. Hansen, over there at the Alternative Response Technology table. He shrugged and seemed deflated. He'd emailed the plan to BP, too, but no one was responding. The plan to drill a relief well in August, he said, seemed too little too late.
"If it don't work in August, we're destroyed. We're already destroyed," he said. "We have a dead sea."