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Federal Response Grows As Oil Spill Spreads

Susan Buchanan | 6/20/2010, 10:44 a.m.

As BP tries to stop the gusher near Louisiana's coast, President Obama has signaled in recent weeks that the federal government will more closely manage efforts to combat the Gulf oil spill. On June 1, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder opened a criminal investigation against BP to determine whether laws were broken in the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

In the week after the rig accident, the Administration said the government didn't have the technology to plug the subsea leak. At that time, BP was expected to lead cleanup efforts because it was considered liable for up to $75 million in damages, along with oil-removal costs, under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act.

The White House, meanwhile, pledged to work with Congress to raise the $75 million cap. Damages from the spill have since swelled and now total billions of dollars, while no decision has been reached on the cap.

"We've allowed BP to call the shots because we assumed it had the best smarts and technology to do so," said Oliver Houck, law professor at Tulane University. "That assumption is washing away however." Results of a USA Today/Gallup survey, released on May 29, showed 73 percent of respondents nationally gave BP either a poor or very poor rating for its handling of the oil spill.

Six weeks after the explosion, anger at BP mounted as the well kept gushing, spraying of dispersants continued, wildlife and vegetation suffered and recovery workers fell ill. Leaders of coastal parishes grumbled that sopping up the concoction lapping their shores was not a BP priority.

For its part, the Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard have worked together since late April on the government's handling of the spill, with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen overseeing the cleanup.

Houck said "I would tell the government to take over the job, and not just coordinate it with BP." But that doesn't mean it's time to send in the Marines, he said, and added "there's no reason to believe that the Army or the Navy can drill oil wells."

Houck continued "the military is used to setting up command structures with deadlines, transparency and accountability." More accountability, he said, "would relieve us from the nauseating spectacle of BP personnel denying on a regular basis the scope and nature of what it has done."

Meanwhile, coastal parish leaders, anxious about the June-October hurricane season, want assurance that Washington will provide support." While BP has the technical expertise, we need help from the federal government to deal with the economic impact of the spill on our jobs and business," said Jefferson Parish president Steve Theriot. "BP answers to shareholders but the government must answer to citizens."

Theriot continued, "We want to know we can count on the Dept. of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to process claims if a hurricane brings more oil onto the coast."

He discussed his concerns with Barack Obama during the President's May 25 visit to Louisiana. In the event of a damaging storm, "we don't want to try to collect payments from BP," Theriot said last Wednesday-as the Jefferson Parish Hurricane Expo on preparedness was held in Kenner.

Experts say a multitude of resources will be needed to combat the ever-expanding spill. "We desperately need offshore skimming of oil, and I can't see any other way than to require government and military resources to do it," said Edward Overton, retired Louisiana State University environmental-science professor. "People are needed to make phone calls, find all the skimmers they can in the U.S. and other countries, and get them delivered here, using military C-117 aircraft, if needed." Skimmers are equipment used to recover spilled oil from water.

Meanwhile, in the military arena, the U.S. Navy has coordinated the deployment of oil-pollution control equipment to support spill response, according to the U.S. Dept. of Defense. The Navy is providing containment boom, along with so-called Modular Skimming Systems, related pollution-control equipment and contractors.

The military's Modular Vessel Skimmer System is a self-propelled, 36-foot, skimming vessel that's fitted with boom, a rotating filter to pick up oil, and a recovery bladder. Overton had additional sug??gestions, and said "we need infrastructure, like floating hotels or a cruise ship to house the community of workers used in coastal areas to remove oil from the water."

BP and its subcontractors have in fact set up a "flotel" with bunk beds on a barge at Port Fourchon for 500 workers engaged in clean ups. But additional lodgings will be needed as the oil spreads.

"We also need overhead blimps to sight the oil, using special infrared cameras to find oil thick enough to skim and tell the surface skimmers where to go," Overton said. "And we need a lot of shallow-draft vessels to collect oil and clean oiled booms." He said those vessels should have oil-water separators to recover oil.

"I believe we'll to have to look to the government and the military to get this work done, " he added.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers recently approved a modified permit for the state of Louisiana to proceed with a test project that will dredge sand from the Gulf and erect six-foot barriers against oil.

Critics of BP see many justifications for Washington to control the recovery effort, including the spill's occurrence in federal waters. Under the Clean Water Act, President Obama is authorized to direct clean-up efforts if oil discharged in any navigable water poses a threat to public health or welfare.


"We've allowed BP to call the shots because we assumed it had the best smarts and technology to do so," said Oliver Houck, law professor at Tulane University. "That assumption is washing away however." Results of a USA Today/Gallup survey, released on May 29, showed 73 percent of respondents nationally gave BP either a poor or very poor rating for its handling of the oil spill.

Six weeks after the explosion, anger at BP mounted as the well kept gushing, spraying of dispersants continued, wildlife and vegetation suffered and recovery workers fell ill. Leaders of coastal parishes grumbled that sopping up the concoction lapping their shores was not a BP priority.

For its part, the Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard have worked together since late April on the government's handling of the spill, with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen overseeing the cleanup. Houck said "I would tell the government to take over the job, and not just coordinate it with BP."

But that doesn't mean it's time to send in the Marines, he said, and added "there's no reason to believe that the Army or the Navy can drill oil wells."
Houck continued "the military is used to setting up command structures with deadlines, transparency and accountability." More accountability, he said, "would relieve us from the nauseating spectacle of BP personnel denying on a regular basis the scope and nature of what it has done."

Meanwhile, coastal parish leaders, anxious about the June-October hurricane season, want assurance that Washington will provide support." While BP has the technical expertise, we need help from the federal government to deal with the economic impact of the spill on our jobs and business," said Jefferson Parish president Steve Theriot. "BP answers to shareholders but the government must answer to citizens."

Theriot continued, "We want to know we can count on the Dept. of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to process claims if a hurricane brings more oil onto the coast."

He discussed his concerns with Barack Obama during the President's May 25 visit to Louisiana. In the event of a damaging storm, "we don't want to try to collect payments from BP," Theriot said last Wednesday-as the Jefferson Parish Hurricane Expo on preparedness was held in Kenner.

Experts say a multitude of resources will be needed to combat the ever-expanding spill. "We desperately need offshore skimming of oil, and I can't see any other way than to require government and military resources to do it," said Edward Overton, retired Louisiana State University environmental-science professor. "People are needed to make phone calls, find all the skimmers they can in the U.S. and other countries, and get them delivered here, using military C-117 aircraft, if needed." Skimmers are equipment used to recover spilled oil from water.

Meanwhile, in the military arena, the U.S. Navy has coordinated the deployment of oil-pollution control equipment to support spill response, according to the U.S. Dept. of Defense. The Navy is providing containment boom, along with so-called Modular Skimming Systems, related pollution-control equipment and contractors.

The military's Modular Vessel Skimmer System is a self-propelled, 36-foot, skimming vessel that's fitted with boom, a rotating filter to pick up oil, and a recovery bladder. Overton had additional sug??gestions, and said "we need infrastructure, like floating hotels or a cruise ship to house the community of workers used in coastal areas to remove oil from the water." BP and its subcontractors have in fact set up a "flotel" with bunk beds on a barge at Port Fourchon for 500 workers engaged in clean ups. But additional lodgings will be needed as the oil spreads.

"We also need overhead blimps to sight the oil, using special infrared cameras to find oil thick enough to skim and tell the surface skimmers where to go," Overton said. "And we need a lot of shallow-draft vessels to collect oil and clean oiled booms." He said those vessels should have oil-water separators to recover oil.

"I believe we'll to have to look to the government and the military to get this work done, " he added.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers recently approved a modified permit for the state of Louisiana to proceed with a test project that will dredge sand from the Gulf and erect six-foot barriers against oil.

Critics of BP see many justifications for Washington to control the recovery effort, including the spill's occurrence in federal waters. Under the Clean Water Act, President Obama is authorized to direct clean-up efforts if oil discharged in any navigable water poses a threat to public health or welfare.