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Gulf oil spill: Why booms, in short supply, may not save the day

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The cost of absorbent boom, made of polypropylene (which repels water and soaks up oil), has tripled over the past two weeks, says Mitchell Mark of Snee Chemical, a wholesaler of oil-containment products in Harrahan, La. The region's wholesale stocks of boom have been exhausted, he says. "Manufacturers here in Louisana are working as fast as possible to keep up, but it reaches a point where it's impossible to meet demand. Wholesalers like me are looking everywhere for boom now, including China."

Several types of boom are used to contain oil spills, Duke explains. Floating hard boom, most often seen in media reports, is used to corral or deflect floating oil slicks. Absorbant boom soaks up oil. Fire-proof boom is used in operations burning off oil slicks. "About 80 percent of our business is floating boom," says Duke.

On the west side of the Mississippi River in Terrebonne Parish, parish public safety officer Ralph Mitchell is attending a meeting Wednesday with representatives from the US Coast Guard and British Petroleum (BP) to hear their plan to protect Terrebonne’s coastline.

“We have questions about what sort of resources, like boom, will be available,” says Mr. Mitchell. “We understand that you can’t string boom across the whole parish, and that right now this equipment needs to be in areas where the current danger is, but we’re concerned about what will be here if the oil comes our way.”

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