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denny kelso
FROM THE REDWOOD FOREST TO THE GULFSTREAM WATERS: Ocean Conservancy vice president Denny Kelso now divides his time between Santa Cruz, the Gulf and Washington, D.C., in an effort to clean up the BP spill and prevent more like it.

Petrol Patrol

First the Exxon Valdez, now the BP gusher. Denny Kelso is getting uncomfortably familiar with cleaning up oil spills.

By Jessica Lyons

THE SMELL hits first. As soon as the helicopter lifts off the ground in Venice, La.— 60 miles away from the BP oil spill—the pungent odor settles in the back of your throat and you can taste the toxic fumes. Once in view, the spill is a mélange of bizarre shapes: thick bands, ribbons, textured patches that look like hamburger patties, sheens that stretch to the horizon.

That's how Dennis Takahashi Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, describes it, and he would know. Kelso lives and works in Santa Cruz—and now in Washington, D.C., and in various towns around the Gulf of Mexico as well, working feverishly to help facilitate recovery from the disaster. He arrived in Louisiana within days of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers on April 20. Initially, the government estimated that between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels a day of oil were pouring into the sea. Officials have since upped that number, saying it could be as high as 60,000. In other words, an amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez spill could be gushing into the Gulf every four days.

That figure has special meaning for Kelso. In 1989, he was Alaska's Commissioner of Environmental Conservation; when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound shortly after midnight on March 24, he was one of the first people on board assessing the magnitude of what had just happened. He saw the iconic images of the catastrophe firsthand, the dead sea otters and the oil-coated birds. He also saw the human tragedy: fistfights breaking out in his office doorway, crusty old fishermen crying in the street. Drug and alcohol abuse spiked and domestic violence and suicide increased as the fishing communities watched their livelihoods coming to an end and Alaskan natives began to fear for their food supply. He worked on the cleanup for two years.

But today, 21 years after Exxon Valdez, oil still fouls the beaches of Prince William Sound. So when Kelso heard the news about an explosion aboard a drilling rig working on a BP well one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, he felt a flash of urgency and outrage that continues to this day.

"Here the oil spill continues with no end in sight," he says. "How can it be 20 years later and we still have not made very much progress in spill technology—especially when we are choosing much higher risk technologies? The gap between gains that have been made in extracting oil and the capacity we have for responding is huge."

THE BP gusher is the largest oil spill in American history; President Obama has called it the worst environmental disaster the county has ever faced. Flying over the Gulf in late April, Kelso saw patches of thick oil. It's a deep rust, he says—not black—sitting on the surface. At the edges of the slick it breaks off into smaller streamers and glossy pools. The clean water next to it is stunningly blue and beautiful.

Almost two months after that first view, on June 23, Kelso looked down on the spill again, this time from airspace over the Florida Panhandle, about 300 miles east.

"The same kind of pattern: thick bands but not continuous wall-to-wall," he recalls. He walked the beaches with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the white powdery sand laced with black oil.

Since April, Kelso has flown to the Gulf four times—right now he's in Barataria Bay, about an hour south of New Orleans—meeting with government officials, scientists, fishermen and community members. The BP spill, he says, brought back a flood of haunting memories of the Valdez and a dismaying sense of déjà vu.

"After Exxon Valdez, I had worked on a variety of things, including successfully prevailing in lawsuits against the Department of the Interior—where the Minerals Management Service lives—because of the rubber-stamp decisions that the Minerals Management Service had been making," Kelso says.

The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, repeatedly refused to act on advice from its experts on ways to minimize the risk of failed oil rig blowout preventers, according to a New York Times investigation. It also concluded that deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf posed no significant risk to wildlife.

"So when the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, it was a bitter confirmation that the Minerals Management Service was not taking these risks seriously—and the consequences were huge," Kelso says.

He's also been reminded that basic precautionary measures have been ignored to a shocking degree. In order to ship oil from the Valdez Marine Terminal, Alaskan law required Exxon to formulate an oil spill "contingency plan." Kelso approved the plan and says it provided a thorough response for specific scenarios, including detailed maps and input from fishermen and other locals. During the actual spill, Exxon didn't follow the plan. But at least there was one.

"Compare this to the BP Deepwater case," Kelso says. "There was no spill response plan."

SOON after the oil spill, the Ocean Conservancy deployed teams of scientists and other experts to the Gulf (it has regional offices in Austin and St. Petersburg) and to Washington. Their task: focusing on the three Rs: relief, restoration and reform.

It's bad—the Gulf is home to half of the wetlands in the continental United States, 40 percent of which are in Louisiana alone. "They're remarkably productive," Kelso says. "For example, 97 percent by weight of the commercially valuable fish and shell fish species come from the Louisiana wetlands for that state. So you have to take that pretty seriously."

The problem continues as oil—and marine species—move down the water columns. Kelso explains that some organisms that start life in the marshes move offshore and into different water levels corresponding with their life stage.

"Some have a survival strategy that allows them to go to deep water during the daytime when there's light and they're more vulnerable to predators, and then they come up at night when it's dark to feed," he says. "So depending on where the oil is, if there's an oil cloud, they may be traveling through it."

As Kelso witnessed in Alaska and now in the Gulf states, the oil spill's a human tragedy, too. Eleven workers lost their lives, and countless others—fishermen, restaurateurs, charter captains, innkeepers—have seen their source of income thrown into uncertainty.

"It is really hard for the affected people to look beyond the immediate crisis," he says. "They want the oil out of the water. Nothing short of that is going to feel good. But what has to happen now—right now—is the Natural Resources Damage Assessment has to be on its way, and BP should be paying for the NRDA up front."

The NRDA measures the damage, sampling oiled areas of the Gulf and areas that are not yet oiled to assess the environmental impact of the spill. (Read the Ocean Conservancy's June 3 letter to the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce about the NRDA at

It also takes into account the loss of tourism, fishing and other industries that depend on the ecosystem to determine BP's liability.

"The damage assessment is the driver," Kelso says. "If you don't have that, you don't have much. The restoration flows from that, and restoration is multiyear. But if you don't know what's broken, you can't fix it."

And then there's the matter of reforming the laws that led to the oil rig explosion in the first place. To that end, Kelso and other Ocean Conservancy staff recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources (read the full testimony online, also at

"If we do not take advantage of the learning from this," he says, "then shame on us as a society. People have died. People's livelihoods are in grave danger. We need to understand what policies and legislation must change so this doesn't happen again."

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