Thursday, July 22, 2010

Slick Times for the 910th
Reserve’s aerial spray mission takes part in response to BP oil spill.

By David Small, Director, Air Force Section and Communications

The military’s oil dispersing capability was put to use for the first time during a natural disaster, as the Reserve used its aerial spray mission to combat the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The C-130s deployed from the 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, and returned home June 4 from Stennis International Airport, Miss., where they had been since May 1 helping with the Deepwater Horizon spill. With the two specially equipped aircraft were 60 Reservists. Together, they flew a total of 92 sorties, spraying 30,000 acres with nearly 149,000 gallons of aerial spray dispersant.

Initially, high winds and turbulent waters hampered the mission. "This is a situation we have trained for, for years," MSgt Bob Barko Jr. said of the Gulf mission. "To have the opportunity to do it in the real world and help folks along the Gulf Coast with this capability is really gratifying for everyone involved."

"We're very proud to have supported this cleanup effort," Col Fritz Linsenmeyer, 910th Airlift Wing commander, said in a press release. "Our Airmen have been training for this type of response, and we are pleased to have been able to utilize their skills and capabilities to help make a difference."

Since the Air Force’s inception in 1947, the service has had an aerial spray mission to control disease vectors, pests, and undesirable vegetation. Since 1973, that mission has resided solely with the 910th Airlift Wing. Most people familiar with the mission know of it for its success at abating the mosquito population, particularly around bases, but most notably in the wake of disasters such as Hurricanes Hugo, Floyd, and Katrina.

But just as missions across the Air Force expand their potential, so has the aerial spray mission. After decades of existence, the 910th Airlift Wing began participating in oil-spill clean-up exercises with the Coast Guard between 1992 and 1994, demonstrating the unit’s capability to spray oil-dispersing materials from its C-130H aircraft. This chemical helps the environment reclaim oil from slicks, such as the one from the Deepwater Horizon drilling incident threatening the Gulf Coast.

Like a liquid dishwashing detergent to a greasy pan, the chemicals take the oil molecules and break them down into smaller particles that the ocean can naturally process. Since the process can take years, scientists are uncertain of the long-term effects.

Popular Mechanics recently published a write-up on how these chemicals work. “As soon as oil hits water, the ocean begins its deconstruction. In fact, the marine environment handles oil much like a human body handles alcohol: destroying, metabolizing, and depositing the excessive compounds—in oil's case, hydrocarbons—then transforming the compounds into safer substances,” said Stanislav Patin in the Popular Mechanics article. An international expert on marine pollution, he is chairman of the Aquatic Toxicology Committee under the Russian Academy of Sciences.

While the long-term effects of the dispersant sprayed by the 910th Airlift Wing cannot be determined, its initial effectiveness was monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

This portion of the military mission ended as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected a larger role for the military in combating the oil spill. “Gates says the deep-water disaster is beyond the military’s expertise,” the Air Force Times reported during Gates’ trip to Singapore in June.

Under the 2005 Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, to avoid competition with the commercial sector, any further needs for this type of mission will be handled by the oil company, BP.

While the clean-up responsibilities do not lie with the government, other government responders included people from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Additionally, the Navy dispatched 66,000 feet of inflatable oil boom and other equipment to the region.

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