Want to Help Clean Up the BP Oil Spill? Stay Home

there's little work for untrained volunteers in BP oil spill cleanup
there's little work for untrained volunteers in BP oil spill cleanup

Environmental groups have a message for people eager to travel to the Gulf of Mexico to help clean up the worst oil spill in U.S. history: Thanks, but, no thanks.

As President Obama recently noted, more than 20,000 people are now working to clean up the oil from the deadly April 20 and April 22 explosions on the Deepwater Horizon rig. In addition, more than 17,000 National Guard members have been activated in four states, and more than 1,700 vessels were assisting with the cleanup.

That leaves little work for volunteers -- particularly ones with little training -- to do.

More Harm Than Good

"It's not clear that there is a role for large numbers of volunteers," says Aaron Viles, a spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based non-profit that has received dozens of offers from help from as far away as Canada, in an an interview. "Untrained volunteers can do more harm than good."

Cleaning up oil is a dirty and potentially dangerous business because it's a hazardous material. The people doing it have been trained and are employed by BP (BP), which has taken responsibility for the catastrophe. A few cleanup workers have reportedly been hospitalized. Most of the volunteers that are working with the oil company are local residents.

Some of lasting images of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill were pictures of oil-soaked animals being cleaned by eager volunteers. Many people are hoping to do that type of work in the Gulf. One problem: Exxon Valdez happened closer to shore than the BP calamity. "A lot of the animals in distress are never going to come to shore," says Miles Grant, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation.

Do You Have the Right Skills?

Indeed, the group is recruiting experienced volunteers that are "skilled in wildlife observation and tracking (bird-watchers, naturalists, or sportsmen)" and "preferably local to one of the surveillance locations," according to its website. Even people with expertise won't have an easy time getting to where they can help.

"Access is difficult and complicated in the immediate spill area," says NWF Senior Scientist Doug Inkley, in an interview. "You never know where you are going to run into the oil. . . . Don't simply go down there and say, 'here I am.'"

Like all groups working to fix the environmental devastation in the Gulf, the National Wildlife Federation understands that people are genuinely moved by the devastation. The pictures of the oil gushing on to the sea bed are unforgettable. Moreover, the thoughtless and arrogant statements from BP executives including CEO Tony Hayward (typical: "I would like my life back") are angering people even further.

The organizations that know the situation best, however, are encouraging people to stay home. "We are trying to encourage them to do what they can locally -- and there is a lot they can do locally," including attending rallies, says Kristin Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, in an interview.

Your Suggestions, Please -- Unless You're James Cameron

People are also offering their own ideas on how to stop the oil, including actor Kevin Costner and filmmaker James Cameron. A fair number are obviously the work of crackpots, though it's difficult to say which ones may be legitimate. "We don't have the resources to verify any of this stuff," Viles says.

(In the case of Costner, he actually teamed up with his scientist brother and has spent some $26 million and 15 years since Exxon Valdez to fund the development of oil filtration technology, and BP has reportedly agreed to test six of the Ocean Therapy Solutions machines. And Cameron, who is noted for his underwater filming expertise -- remember Titanic? -- and work with robotic submarines, says BP turned down his offer of assistance.)

The disaster is more than 40 days old. After making a second cut in a pipe connecting the leaking rig, BP and government officials said today that they were optimistic that they would be able to install a cap on the leak that will eventually be able to send most of the oil to a ship. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government's point man for the spill, said the oil company made a "significant step forward," but as the Wall Street Journal acknowledged, "the cut wasn't as smooth as hoped, which could complicate attempts to capture the oil."

Deep Well of Anger

Deepwater Horizon will be making people angry for years. The public should voice their frustration at members of Congress and President Obama for failing to develop a coherent energy policy. As I argued earlier this week, boycotting BP stations, most of which are independently owned, isn't the answer, and neither is heading uninvited into the cleanup of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"I would recommend against people just hopping in their car and driving down here, as noble and wonderful as a sentiment that might be," says Rick Steiner, an independent scientist working with environmental groups in the Gulf.