In Gulf oil spill 'war,' cleanup foot soldiers threaten mutiny

Claims problems and mixed messages from the Gulf oil spill unified command structure has local leaders from Pensacola to Plaquemines Parish fuming as the Gulf comes under what some call a 'tarball attack.'

By , Staff writer

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    Coast Guard Capt. Mary Austin, Incident Commander for Louisiana, speaks to residents at an open house for information and assistance with the BP claims process, in Lafitte, La. on Tuesday.
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Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, President Obama's pointman on the Gulf oil spill, has called the effort to contain the runaway Macondo well and keep its crude release off beaches and out of marshes "an insidious war."

But if the framing of the Deepwater Horizon accident and its aftermath has morphed from disaster rhetoric to war imagery, local officials say the shared BP and Washington response has suffered from a lack of situational awareness, racking up a long list of battlefield mistakes that is hampering efforts to keep tens of millions of gallons of gooey crude from coming ashore in the kind of "tarball attack" that hit Pensacola Beach Wednesday.

"You've got a militia sitting in this room," Gulf County commissioner Bill Williams told Coast Guard and BP officials in a combative meeting on Wednesday. "They can either be with you or against you."

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IN PICTURES - Staff shots: Response to the oil spill on the Gulf Coast

The Coast Guard has admitted that it has failed to both anticipate and control the 2,500 square mile oil slick that's hiding in the waters off places like Perdido Key, Orange Beach and Plaquemines Parish, resolving to do better.

In recent weeks, the joint BP-Coast Guard Unified Command has created four regional command centers with the goal of pushing command and control down to spill level to better orchestrate the movement of boom and skimmers as the spill evolves.

Allen said Wednesday he hopes BP's replacement of Tony Hayward with Mississippi-born Bob Dudley as the spill response manager will improve communication and movement of resources.

"BP's decision to greater response organization for the Gulf ... is a very, very good decision," Allen said Thursday.

Earlier in the week Allen touted the success of the operation. "We have marshaled the largest response in our nation's history, and we have continued to adapt and evolve this response at every turn," he said.

But local officials say they've seen little improvement as their requests get bounced around, ignored or even opposed.

The main problem, they say, is the confusing command structure, which to them seems to have too many generals and not enough battlefield commanders, thus gumming up the ability of local leaders to react to approaching oil.

"How can you fight a war when you don't let the people on the ground make decisions," says Escambia County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson. "You're going to lose that war."

Mr. Robinson told the Monitor that requests for more help after a large swath of oil washed up on Pensacola Beach Tuesday night were initially rebuffed because central command in Mobile said they couldn't put certain kinds of equipment on a national seashore. But most of Santa Rosa Island is a public beach. "How could they not know that?" Robinson said.

In Plaquemines Parish, Mr. Nungesser blamed "government bureaucratics" for shutting down construction of a piece of a new protective berm structure over concerns they were dredging an area outside the allowed perimeter, possibly damaging the natural sand dunes. The delay came as northwesterly winds drove the spill toward the Chandeleur Islands. Two weeks ago, the Coast Guard temporarily shut down a barge pumping operation run by the state of Louisiana because the boats didn't have enough life vests aboard.

“We have told ... the Army Corps of Engineers and every federal agency that we are in an emergency situation here," Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday. "This is a disaster for our state. Days count. Hours count. We cannot wait for more conference calls and meetings for discussions. We need to adapt to the situation on the ground...."

Many are pointing to the inadequacy of the Oil Protection Act of 1990, which didn't anticipate a Gulf disaster of this magnitude. President Obama has said "The buck stops with me" on response to the oil spill, but that has also set him up for criticism of a management style that tends toward careful deliberation, not rapid on-the-ground decisions.

"[The] effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP," the New York Times' Campbell Robertson wrote recently.

Part of the problem is having BP in charge of the purse strings, says Robinson. The struggling multinational has vowed repeatedly to pay all claims and costs, but the route of the money is far from clear in a constantly changing claims structure. Robinson said his county has had to go through three different claims processes to get paid for nearly $2 million in local expenses, but has yet to receive a check.

On the largely Republican-leaning Gulf Coast, the failure to ramp up both a symbolic and even real military effort to fight the slick has become, to many, indicative of a federal relief effort beholden to BP, even as the administration criticizes the oil giant.

"I’m just so frustrated because I can’t get a straight answer, I can’t see any sense of urgency yet in this administration," Sen. George Lemieux (R) of Florida tells blogger Ed Morrissey. "When I meet with the Navy and the Coast Guard, no one seems to be in charge. We’re the greatest country in the world and we can’t marshal the resources to suck up this oil before it gets on our beaches."

As a result, local communities and counties are starting to work outside the command structure to protect what Santa Rosa Island Authority member Tom Campanella called "sacred" beaches and marshes, some even risking jail in the process. But such battle rank dissension could just as well hamper, not help, the overall response.

The reaction from local officials is beginning to closely resemble reaction in Alaska to the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, as anger, depression, and a sense of inevitable doom struggle for outlets as the oil comes ashore.

"We're trying to explain to people this is going to be a long-term situation – the table is set just like in 1989. Everyone is very, very distracted, maximally disrupted, they're expressing anger," sociologist Steven Picou tells McClatchy newspapers.

IN PICTURES - Staff shots: Response to the oil spill on the Gulf Coast

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