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U.S. hesitant to accept Dutch oil clean-up tech

Bert Groothuisen of the dredging company Van Oord. He stands in front of a point showing his company's plan for a sand dune or berm to protect the Louisiana coast from oil.

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Kai Ryssdal: While BP ponders its dwindling fortunes, the cleanup in the Gulf continues. There are still plenty of questions about the U.S. response to the leak -- down along the Gulf Coast, in Washington and in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. Nobody manages water as well as the Dutch do. Hardly surprising when more than 40 percent of the country's below sea level. They've been building dykes and pumping out flood plains for centuries now. In Rotterdam, an enormous oil shipping port, the Dutch would have developed one of the most sophisticated oil spill recovery programs on the planet. Expertise the U.S. has yet to tap into.

From Rotterdam, Stephen Beard reports.


Stephen Beard: Some companies do very well in wake of a disaster, like the Kampers marine construction firm. It makes the so-called "sweeping arm oil skimmer."

Gerbert Kampers: Thanks to the world's largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we are now at top production levels.

Gerbert Kampers says he is building three pairs of sweeping arms a week to send to the Gulf. That's how many he usually makes in a year. They cost half a million each, so Gerbert is glad to get the extra business. But he says the U.S. would have been better off if his skimmers had been deployed at the outset.

Kampers: If they had sweeping arm systems around from day one, these sweeping arms would have been able to sweep up close to 100 percent of the oil that came out. It's a matter of scale.

Within days of the Deepwater Horizon blowing up, the Dutch government offered to send some of its sweeping arms to the Gulf. Initially, the offer was rebuffed. One reason -- because of the way the skimmer works.

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The arm sucks up huge quantities of oily water fast, separates it, stores the oil on the ship and then drains the remaining water into the sea. But that breaks U.S. pollution rules.

Wierd Koops represents the Dutch oil spill recovery industry.

Wierd Koops: We say, we should recover as much oil as possible in as short time as possible. The Americans say, we should recover pure oil and not drain water, which has been polluted by a small quantity of oil. And we say, that is incredible, that is crazy. That is so stupid.

Because, he says, the U.S. allowed tons of chemical dispersant to be pumped into the Gulf instead. Koops claims the whole fiasco demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the American approach.

Koops: In the U.S., the company who is polluting is responsible for the oil spill response and I think that is, as well, crazy.

He says BP opted at first to disperse and burn the slick, the cheapest and least effective method. In Europe, that would not happen, because governments immediately take charge when there's a spill.

Koops: This is absolutely crucial, because government has the equipment, government can take action immediately and not worry about getting the money back. They send help immediately, because they know the polluter will always pay at the end.

BP has already set up a $20 billion fund to pay for the Gulf of Mexico spill. Some Dutch companies say the U.S. is determined to ensure that only American firms profit from that fund.

Ad for Van Oord: Van Oord, specialists in marine and civil projects.

Van Oord based in Rotterdam is one of the world's biggest dredging companies. It offered to build a massive sand dune or berm to protect Louisiana's marshlands from the oil. The company was rebuffed. American contractors are now working on the berm.

Bert Groothuisen of Van Oord is not impressed with their work.

Bert Groothuisen: The top width is 20 foot. Only.

Beard: And that's too little in your view?

Groothuisen: We had 300 foot. That's the sort of difference.

Beard: You think their dune, their berm, is not going to stand up to the tide?

Groothuisen: Definitely not. One little storm and the berm is gone.

Groothuisen believes that his company's plan was rejected out of pure protectionism. And that other offers of Dutch help were rejected out of misplaced American pride.

Groothuisen: What are you doing? Do you have a problem, don't you have a problem? We believe they have a problem with millions of liters of oil floating around. So clean the bloody mess! Yeah? Get all the help all the help you can get!

Although miffed, the Dutch say they're not entirely surprised by the U.S. rejection. It's happened before following the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident in 1989. A Dutch team flew in to Alaska to offer their help. They were told they weren't needed and should go home.

In Rotterdam, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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