Top five bottlenecks in the Gulf oil spill response

Local officials complain about lack of urgency in the federal Gulf oil spill response. Here are five reasons that the government seems to be dragging its heels.

By , Staff writer

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    Workers skim a large patch of weathered oil by hand near the boat ramp at Ken Combs Pier in Gulfport, Miss. The Gulf oil spill became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, based on the highest of the federal government's estimates.
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With each oily wave hitting marshes and beaches from the Gulf oil spill, desperation grows along the already stained Gulf Coast.

In part, the magnitude of the spill has simply overwhelmed the ability of the White House and BP to completely contain it. But it is clear that bureaucratic red tape – echoing the post-Katrina federal response five years ago – has bogged down clean-up efforts as a host of agencies – OSHA, EPA, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and others – weigh in on most decisions.

Meanwhile, as November elections approach, the oil spill has a political dimension as both parties begin to use the massive oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon accident to bolster their prospects. Democrats will point out Republican ties to Big Oil, and Republicans will chide what they'll call a lackadaiscal response by the White House.

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If the Macondo well is capped, oil cleanup is ramped up, and no hurricanes hit the slick, the oil spill crisis is likely to eventually abate. But the impression many Gulf Coast residents have so far is of a Keystone Kops response, where mundane regulations and misplaced priorities stand in the way of protecting local livelihoods and the Gulf's natural environment.

"The cleanup effort is drowning in the proverbial sea of red tape," writes Gulf Coast native Winston Groom, the author of "Forrest Gump," in the Weekly Standard.

Here are the top five bottlenecks impeding the Gulf oil spill cleanup so far:

Enough life vests? The Coast Guard has not eased any of its safety regulations and will likely continue to refuse to do so. A Louisiana effort involving 16 oil-sucking barges was shut down for nearly a day on June 18 by the Coast Guard, which wanted to make sure there were enough life vests and fire extinguishers on board.

"The Coast Guard is not going to compromise safety ... that's our No. 1 priority," Coast Guard spokesman Robert Brassel told The Daily Caller. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called it "frustrating."

The Jones Act. It's unclear to what extent the Jones Act, a 1920 protectionist law that mandates only US vessels and crews operate within the US three-mile maritime border, has really affected the ability to move foreign oil skimmers into the spill theater.

At issue in the law is both availability and proximity of US based skimming vessels. Several nations have said their offers of help have been rebuffed at least in part by US officials citing the Jones Act. This week, Obama sent out a call for more nations to join the clean-up response, but the President has not publicly addressed the legal and practical issues around US law and the foreign fleets ready to help.

"We want all the skimming vessels in the world deployed," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser tells the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans.

(Factcheck.org says, "In reality, the Jones Act has yet to be an issue in the response efforts.... So far, offers from six foreign countries or entities have been accepted and only one offer has been rejected. Fifteen foreign-flag vessels are working on the cleanup, and none required a waiver.")

EPA says no, then yes. Three days after the accident, the Dutch government offered advanced skimming equipment capable of sucking up oiled water, separating out most of the oil, and returning the cleaner water to the Gulf. But citing discharge regulations that demand that 99.9985 percent of the returned water is oil-free, the EPA initially turned down the offer. A month into the crisis, the EPA backed off those regulations, and the Dutch equipment was airlifted to the Gulf.

'Ever hear of Radio Shack?' In a recent fly-over of a spill area near Perdido Bay, BP official Doug Suttles expressed amazement that spotter plane pilots couldn't communicate directly with skimming boats on the surface to direct them to oil patches. "We need to get the skimmers to the oil," Suttles said. Local officials in Escambia County, Fla., have been asking for weeks for plane-to-ship communications, to little avail.

"Haven't they ever heard of Radio Shack?" writes Mr. Groom.

Who's in charge here? President Obama has said "the buck stops" with him. But the actual incident response command structure is a Gordian Knot for local officials requesting help and resources. Frustrated by red tape, some officials have been warned they'll be arrested if they take matters into their own hands. The lack of a clear command structure has hampered the ability to move resources like booms and skimmers quickly, especially in a still-growing spill that's at the whim of the Gulf's ever-changing tides, currents and winds.

While most of the criticism has been heaped on federal agencies and the Obama administration, questions are being raised about the extent to which the four Gulf state governors (all Republicans) are responding too – specifically, on deployment of National Guard troops under their command.

In a recent investigative report, CBS News found that Louisiana's Gov. Jindal had deployed just 1,053 of the 6,000 troops available to him. "Alabama has deployed 432 troops of 3,000 available," according to CBS. "Even fewer have been deployed in Florida - 97 troops out of 2,500 - and Mississippi - 58 troops out of 6,000."

Jindal told CBS that the White House had instructed state officials that "Coast Guard and BP had to authorize individual tasks" for National Guard units.

But Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander in charge of the government's response to the spill, disputed that. "There is nothing standing in the governor's way from utilizing more National Guard troops," Allen told CBS.

"Whether it's simple confusion or the infusion of politics into the spill, the fact remains thousands of helping hands remain waiting to be used," concluded CBS.

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Related:

Gulf oil spill: The story so far

Jones Act: Maritime politics strain Gulf oil spill cleanup

After Gulf swimmers report illness, questions about opening a beach

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