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Responding to the Spill

April 20, 2011

One year ago today, an explosion aboard a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. It took BP, the company that leased the rig, until mid-July to cap the well. When officials asked Baton Rouge Community College to provide training for oil spill cleanup along Gulf Coast beaches, the institution was able in just four weeks to design an appropriate curriculum, mobilize instructors and begin certifying workers to respond to the oil that was starting to arrive on nearby shores.

William Seaman, program director for construction education at Baton Rouge, said his institution’s quick response to the oil spill was a testament to the flexibility and role of community colleges.

“Not every training provider can respond like that,” Seaman said. “We’re here for that reason.”

Seaman and other Baton Rouge officials discussed their role in the oil spill cleanup at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, which was held earlier this month in New Orleans. And though they said they wanted to share how their institution developed credit and non-credit programming to address the current and future needs of the Gulf Coast since the oil spill, they also noted that they wanted to keep the disaster on people’s minds, given that many of its environmental effects are not yet apparent.

“People are forgetting,” said Jo Dale Ales, dean of science, technology, engineering and math at Baton Rouge, about the oil spill. “We don’t want anyone to forget. It’s not over. It’s not going to be over for a long time.”

Baton Rouge began working on a curricular response to the disaster almost immediately after the spill. Seaman noted that PEC/Premier Safety Management, which was contracted by BP to organize training for the cleanup, tapped a number of institutions in the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Baton Rouge, for example, already offered HAZWOPER (hazardous waste operations and emergency response) training, a 40-hour certification process that helps individuals meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for all variants of this type of work. College officials isolated portions of HAZWOPER training that were relevant to the oil spill and arranged them into a single four-hour training session that could bring most anyone up to speed on proper beach cleanup procedure -- specifically in the removal and cleanup of oil tar balls on the shore.

“The urgency was certainly there,” Seaman said of organizing the curriculum and training the instructors. “But we had to respond to the thing. Oil was coming to the coast, and it was going to be detrimental to the economy. Some schools can respond faster than others. For instance, we’re lucky we had industrial training programs already in place for this type of thing.”

On May 20, 2010, exactly a month after the explosion aboard the oil rig, Seaman and three other instructors held their first day of training classes in Mobile, Ala. Seaman noted that nearly 350 individuals, some from as far away as New York and California, showed up for training.

“The lines at our training site were incredible,” said Gery Frie, a Baton Rouge Community College instructor. “We had to hire police to manage the crowd of people who were interested in training.”

More sessions were offered until late June 2010 in cities along the Gulf Shore from Houma, La., to Panama City, Fla. Students who took the training sessions are hard to track, but Seaman noted that he has heard of some who have found further work in safety management.

“When people hear about the opportunity for work, they’ll just get in their vehicles and drive to get it,” Seaman said. “It’s actually kind of opportunistic. This work opened the doors up for other things…. People got safety experience, got credentialing and have a resume to build on now.”

Baton Rouge instructors trained nearly 1,300 individuals over a seven-week span last year. They had between 45 and 100 students in each four-hour class session. Seaman noted that many of the students were on the beaches cleaning up within 10 hours of finishing their training course.

“Oil was still leaking in the Gulf while were training people,” Frie said. “We didn’t know how long [the spill and the training of cleanup personnel] was going to go on. At some point it seemed like they’d never be able to get the well plugged.”

At Baton Rouge, the lasting impact of the spill is evident in the expansion of its HAZWOPER program. Frie noted that the college continues to train more and more individuals in safety management. He credits the college’s response to the spill with spurring this programmatic growth. He said he is still training individuals who are involved in some way with the oil spill’s cleanup.

“It’s just rewarding to be part of some kind of a solution,” Frie said.

 

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