Thursday, June 10, 2010

Washed out of the boats

Well I flunked field work. After 6 days of going to a boat ramp every morning I was informed by my boss that my team members reported that they didn't think I liked working in the field. So my boss said I could try doing something around the operations center instead. I was thinking of something like preparing histograms and scatter plots in Excel to start looking for trends in the data they're collecting -- you know, science. But they were thinking something more along the lines of making deliveries. Of course that is more logical. They are in fact paying me less than a quarter of the rate I used to charge for thinking and problem solving anyway, so it is right for them to remind me to do nothing pertaining to my education or skills gained beyond the age of 16.

I actually liked going out in the field. I primarily enjoyed the sightseeing. My favorite days were the two when we got rained out and I could take pictures on the way back. There's all kinds of things to see here.

I also liked riding in the boats and seeing the vastness of the marshes. The first day I went out there were terrible thunderstorms first thing in the morning and I sat in my car and read my book for an hour and a half then my colleague called me from across the parking lot and said we were calling it off. I saw this interesting pirate sculpture at the gas station where I made a pit stop. I have that same outfit. Only I'd be armed with a GPS and camera instead of a pistol and cutlass.

The next day I went to that spot again. Me, four guys I didn't know and a boat driver went out in a 20' Boston Whaler. The air boat was for back up. We raced some storms to do a little work. The ride back to the landing we got drenched with spray. My new XL rain jacket kept me dry in the sitting down place. I was delighted to be able to just unzip the legs of my fancy nylon britches when I got to the car.

The day after that I went to another site even farther away. It was lightning and raining before I even left my hotel. I called my colleague to see if we were calling it off and he said to go there anyway. There were a ridiculous number of fiddler crabs on the highway. The captains of the two boats call them tooloulous. After they called off the trip for thunderstorms after all I took some animal pictures on the way back.

I can't decide what to call this last creature. I could go with wild boar, but I think it's a sow. And if it was really wild then how come I was able to pull up next to her on the side of the road, roll my window down and take her picture without even turning down the stereo? I'm going with vehicle-tolerant furry pig on the loose.

Saturday I went back to that same spot again. The boat drivers I knew, and two of the science team were the same. My colleague was different. The one I worked with before went back to his regular job. This other guy decides that me and the other new guy (Federal) who are essentially in training should go on the other boat. We are a little confused how we will be trained when we aren't even on the same boat. But they insist and off we go. We pound through a vicious 3 foot chop for 45 minutes. It is hard to really participate with the process with that many extra people. Some of the stuff they were doing was directly incompatible with what the head guy told me to do. So I just kept my mouth shut and rode along. After doing our job we had to go all the way back to the operations center and turn in the data to NOAA. Working in the field is a long exhausting process that starts at 5 am and ends at 9 pm. Sunday we do it all again. The boat captain and the extra Federal guy and myself, coincidentally all older by some 15 to 30 years than the people in the other boat,  agree that we are very sore from the day before. The bay is a lot calmer the second day and it's a pretty good time, although the rest of the team keeps wanting to ignore the instructions I've been given by the boss back at headquarters. I'm the only one with cell phone coverage because I have ATT and they all have Verizon. My instructions were to call in when we get on the water, at mid day, and when we get back. So I call in and the boss says to come on back in and they say no, they want to do two more locations. So I just keep my mouth shut and wait, really wishing I could go to the bathroom and not drinking water because of it. Which gives me a severe headache.

Monday I go to a new place with a new team. I don't know anybody, but fortunately the boat drivers are the same. They have different boats though. Once again my third colleague in the field so far insists that I ride by myself in the other boat. We have a bay boat and an airboat so I go in the airboat. (I have my sound pressure level meter with me so I check to see how loud it is. 120 dB. That's really loud. When all the engines are turned off the sound pressure level in the open water of the bay was 70 dB. That's surprisingly loud too. The ambient sound level in the woods at my house is 58 dB. That's why I can hear every truck passing by from half a mile away.) I finally get a chance to fill in the paperwork when we get out on a sandy island. This is the only time I got to touch the official paperwork in the 6 days I was in the field. The other sites we did that day they didn't let me get involved. Well, me being in the other boat and all....

Tuesday I went back out with the same person from my company plus an extra woman who just got into town from California. The state and federal people were different, and I was in a different boat with a new boat driver. Of course all the official parties were on another boat again.

Then that night my boss has the sit-down with me to tell me about the reports he's getting that I don't like field work. I told him I would do fine if I was out there by myself, it's just not a feasible situation to participate in the filling out of forms from a separate vessel. Plus I'm extraneous. You only need a consensus of the three agencies. Adding another opinion doesn't improve the quality of the data.

Basically I have real concerns about the use of precision giving a false sense of accuracy. I suppose it's the engineer in me clashing with the scientists. To me the important thing is to achieve consistency in the assumptions from site to site. That is just not happening. The data is going to be analyzed by people who weren't even out in the field in an Excel spreadsheet where the estimated values are reduced to a single number with no error term. I could have either had a big clash with the 11 different people I worked with to insist on consistency and productivity, or I could just shut up and look at the dolphins. So the report came back that I don't like field work, which I suppose is better than being accused of being stubborn and impossible to deal with. I am glad they didn't take it personally.

I am grateful to not be out in the sun all day anymore. It is hot. Which is a problem for most people. The safety people have declared that our teams have to come off the water by 12:30 because of the heat. For me the main problem is the UV radiation. I have to cover all my skin with long sleeves, long pants, boots, hats. My hands stick out and they've gotten browner than my arms. Another problem is not being able to go to the bathroom when I'm out on these little boats.

Finally I am bothered by the fumes. The two-stroke outboard motors on these boats make terrible fumes. And since I'm usually following another boat I have to breathe a lot of it. I was worried that the oil would smell bad, but in truth the oil-burning boat engines bothered me more than the creosote and paraffin smell of the oil slick. After talking to my brother about it one night I realized what a gigantic carbon footprint this whole operation has. Thousands of cars going hundreds of miles a day, hundreds of boats. There were 7 vehicles going to these boat ramps every day, sometimes over a 200 mile round trip, just for the one team I was on. Then there are the boats themselves which pollute way worse than the cars. It's really quite ridiculous.

The BP Operation Center in Houma has expanded to such an extent that today I saw people from OSHA, the Department of Labor, and the local fire marshall. The fire marshall laid down the law on people plugging in their computers around the walls of the cafeteria. In the week I've been here the number of cars parking there every day has doubled. It's utterly nuts. Everybody has completely lost contact with the big picture. They are so involved in their part of the thing they just work themselves into a nervous state and don't realize that they could just say no. Nobody says, "Wait, this could be doing more harm than good. Let's take a step back and run the numbers." They are terrible at using technology. Driving electronic data from Venice to Houma every day is ridiculous. Having everybody use their personal cell phone to coordinate everything is not very efficient. They could be using text messaging to send updates to predefined mailing lists from their computers at HQ in case of an emergency, but the company phones have texting disabled. Lots of places where a voice call will break up from poor signal strength you can get a text message through fine.

So as I type this I am feeling pretty sick. Sore throat and sinus congestion. All those days in the field in the open air with oil and dispersant and engine fumes and cigarette smoke and the cologne of country boys I was fine. Plenty of dilution in the open air. But tonight I had to drive a rented cargo van to pick up ice chests full of water samples. My sensitivity to the outgassing in the enclosed space has done me in. I flunked out of the field and I'm afraid I'm going to fail being a courier as well. Misanthropy got me in trouble with the first one, and chemical sensitivity is going to get me in the job I could do all by myself. I don't really know what to do. I guess I can suggest they let me use my own car. I offered today and they said no, though. Maybe if I explain why it's important. I just feel like they can easily find somebody else who is fine in a rental car. I'm just not a good employee am I? It may turn out that being a hermit is not a choice but a necessity. My nice boss is gone tomorrow, back to his regular job for two weeks. I have no idea what happens next.


  1. Unfortunately, I can't say I'm surprised that you've run into a Chinese Fire Drill there. Are the people running the cleanup the same people who allowed the whole mess to happen? And if so, why should we expect different (e.g. positive) results?

    Hopefully, things improve for you.

  2. I can't decide what to call this last creature. I could go with wild boar, but I think it's a sow.

    That . . . is yer standard-issue razorback hog. And it was a good thing you stayed in the car, 'cos razorbacks are not afraid of people, they have bad tempers, and they will charge.