Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Isle Coast Guard crew returns

The cutter Walnut completes six months of helping to clean up oil from the BP spill

By Leila Fujimori


Honolulu-based Coast Guard cutter Walnut and its crew returned yesterday from a six-month patrol to the Gulf of Mexico, where crew members recovered 270,000 gallons of oil from the BP oil well blowout.

Crew members employed skills they had learned during regular training in Hawaii waters in their first real oil spill in operating the Spilled Oil Recovery System equipment for sweeping, skimming and pumping oil.

"It was an interesting experience in that we were able to help them out," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Taitano, a rigger and crane operator. "A lot of the people there are hurting."

The crew worked day and night along the coast from Louisiana to Florida, skimming and collecting oil and pumping it onto a 200-foot barge.

"Some days we would pump into the night," changing shifts "until we couldn't find any more oil," Taitano said.

"Everything you see was covered in black," he said, pointing to the 225-foot Juniper-class buoy tender, whose main mission is to maintain navigation aids.

The ship's buoy deck was covered in plastic to try to keep things clean, but it made conditions slippery, Taitano said.

Crew members wore gloves, eye protection, hats and disposable, waterproof jumpsuits, which quickly turned black.

"So you could tell who was working hard," he said jokingly. "Pretty much everybody was pretty filthy."

In May the crew was prepared to depart for a two-week marine debris recovery job in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands when they got the call to leave the next day for six months, including the 15,000-mile journey to the gulf via the Panama Canal.

The Walnut's skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Huff, said he did not think the cutter's crew had ever been tested before, especially with an oil spill of this magnitude.

Lt. Andrea Holt, the cutter's executive officer, said it was the cutter's first real oil recovery. "Our crew worked in extreme conditions. ... Our days were long, hot and often oil-soaked, but Walnut's crew got the job done."

Should a spill occur in Hawaii waters, "We would be ready to respond," said Rear Adm. Charles Ray, commander of the 14th Coast Guard District.

Preparedness and readiness plans are in place for a potential large spill in Hawaii, involving state and federal agencies and private cleanup companies.

He said the Coast Guard in Hawaii was prepared to react to the gulf oil spill, watched from afar and waited for the call.

Huff said that en route off the Central American coast, the crew encountered drug traffickers jettisoning cocaine off their boat. The crew helped recover 300 pounds of the drug.

Families reunited with crew members, who normally do not spend more than a couple of weeks apart.

Petty Officer 1st Class Robbie Robinson scooped up three kids at once, then picked up 8 1/2 -month-old Phoebe, who was 2 months old when he left.

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