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Alabama Pilots to Continue Monitoring Oil Spill's Impact
October 4, 2010
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  • By Kym Klass

    William Johnston has flown to the Gulf Coast 66 times since April 20, and he said it doesn’t look like the flights will be tailing off anytime soon.

    Johnston, who is based inMobilebut commutes betweenMobileandMontgomeryregularly, is the chief pilot with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

    He has been making the flights to theGulfCoastsince an accident destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig April 20, killing 11 crewmembers and causing what has become the worst oil spill inU.S.history.

    Johnstonis part of the ongoing monitoring of the environmental effects of the oil spill — an impact he said is likely to be studied for the next two decades.

    A lot of high-tech equipment has been used in monitoring the crisis, butJohnstonsaid few pieces of equipment have played a bigger role than aircraft such as planes and helicopters.

    Along with ADEM, the Alabama Department of Conservation has played a vital role in monitoring and preserving wildlife and the waters along the coast ofAlabamasince the BP oil spill.

    “Our interest was for the birds, the fish and so forth,” said Ramon Stroud, chief pilot for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and who is based inMontgomery. “The first flight we took was to look at the oil on the water.

    “After that, we anticipated oil on the shore. This was during the nesting season, and we took photos of ‘before,’ and we monitored the installation of the booms.”

    Not only has aircraft been used to transport both equipment and officials to the Gulf, but officials have relied on aircraft to monitor the installation of booms in the waters, taking aerial photographs of wildlife nesting sites before potential oil damage and monitoring oil spill activity along the coast ofAlabama.

    AlthoughJohnstonsaid the Gulf is in a recovery phase now, he foresees flights like he is making being made for the next two decades to monitor both the oil’s impact and the work being done.

    Part ofJohnston’s job is measuring the thickness of the oil with an Oil Code Thickness and Concentration Values scale — which determines thickness based on the oil’s color.Johnstonadds that he assists environmental biologists who usually are on board with him.

    The thickness of the oil on theGulfCoastwas about 100 micrometers on his most recent flight, he said.

    Johnstondid this type of relief work in 1998 — efforts that were (and that still are) being made because of the Exxon Valdez oil spill inPrince William Sound,Alaska. That March 1989 disaster occurred when an oil tanker bound forLong Beach,Calif., struckPrince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil.

    “Twenty-one years later, and they are still dealing with it,”Johnstonsaid, adding the ongoing efforts on theGulfCoast”will be looked at to see how the oil continues to impact” the region.

    And that earlier oil spill pales in comparison to the one on theGulfCoast. On Thursday, scientists estimated that the BP oil spill had resulted in approximately 4.4 million barrels worth of oil being spilled.

    The spill in the Gulf has caused significant damage to the ecosystem and has resulted in an outpouring of organizations utilizing varied resources to aid in the monitoring and cleanup, saidJessica Thorpe, development director for Aviation Across America.

    Both Stroud andJohnstonare independent members of theAlliancefor Aviation Across America — a nonprofit group that supports the interest of the general aviation community across various public policy issues. Its goal is to protect this economic lifeline to rural and small communities, which is a crucial resource for business, medical care, disaster relief and a key transportation asset to residents in isolated areas.

    Stroud has flown biologists to theGulfCoastfor oil spill relief efforts about a half-dozen times. He said the advantage of having a small plane — he flies a Cessna 182, which can get as close to 500 feet above the water — is being able to fly very low over theAlabamaGulfCoastin less than an hour.

    WhenJohnstonflies for ADEM — in a Cessna 208 — they are more focused on the environment. They have been very active from the beginning.Johnstonsaid ADEM flew to the coast every day for the first two weeks after the spill.

    “Once the agencies came in (including the National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard), we took more of a supportive role,” he said.

    Ramon said the oil spill experiment was not a lot different from what they do every day.

    The department just took a different approach “because we had something so unnatural occurring in the coast. Normally, we just count birds … but then, you’re (also) looking at the oil.”

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