Is the US ready for a 24-hour coastal oil spill response corps?

Neither BP nor the Coast Guard was ready for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Having booms, boats, aircraft, and local responders in place is expensive, but experts say teams should be ready to go.

Andrew Wardlow/The News Herald/Panama City, Fla./AP
Workers unload oil spill containment booms from a flatbed trailer at a marina in Panama City, Florida. The US Coast Guard is deploying between 300,000 and 400,000 feet of boom in the water between Pensacola and Perry, Florida.

With the Deepwater Horizon oil spill there’s new interest in a national coastal rescue corps to augment the kind of industry and US Coast Guard safeguards that haven’t adequately protected sensitive shorelines and economies.

“What you need are local watchdogs to monitor oil exploration and transportation,” says Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of South Alabama who studied the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. “The tragedy is that such programs usually come about only after you have a catastrophe, but you could put it in place all over the Gulf of Mexico. But it does take a lot of money and politically it’s not always popular.”

The ultimate impact on US oil exploration from the Deepwater Horizon spill is uncertain. But it’s likely to boost international production of oil as Washington has begun reviewing industry safety, including the adequacy of so-called blow out preventers intended to stop an incident that’s now tied to a bursting pocket of methane struck by the Deepwater drill.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

But political attitudes could also change as the apparently inadequate response by BP and the Coast Guard is weighed by elected officials and the public in the coming months and years.
“This spill is about extremes, and the political response is likely to be extreme,” says Robert Bryce, author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.” “The fallout … is going to be top-down review of regulations of [among other things] safety and spill response.”

Today, the US relies heavily on the oil industry to both frame safety requirements and spill response. In both the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP’s role in safeguarding the coast – as well as that of regulators – has came starkly into focus.

Responsible for the Alyeska Pipeline Consortium, BP had told regulators it had barges, helicopters, and booms ready for any accident in Prince William Sound. But when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in 1989, it became apparent that the full regiment of booms, barges, and workers were not available as promised. Locals hired to man the response teams had been fired and replaced with what fraud investigator Greg Palast calls “phantom crews.”

A delayed response contributed to the extent of the damages, says Mr. Palast.

“There’s one thing about the [booms]: you’ve got to have lots of them at the ready, with crews on standby in helicopters and on containment barges ready to roll,” says Mr. Palast, writing on Truthout. “They have to be in place round the clock, all the time, just like a fire department, even when all is operating A-OK. Because rapid response is the key.”

A week after the Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22nd, a quarter million feet of boom was available, a number that grew to 1 million feet in the following days.

But “why is it that the US Navy is hauling in 12 miles of rubber boom and fielding seven skimmers, instead of BP?” asks Palast.

Nancy Kinner of the Coastal Response Research Center contends that annual oil response drills by the Coast Guard and local communities in coastal areas of the US makes the current national spill response system highly effective.

“We have the best system for dealing with spill response in the world,” says Ms. Kinner, who is co-director of the center, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of New Hampshire. “It’s all laid out and it’s taken very seriously.”

“The problem here is, the confluence of events where first the focus was on the people, the fire and the explosion, and only then can you start to deploy assets to figure out what we can do to help there,” she says. “And at that point the weather was not good.”

After the Exxon Valdez spill, state government created the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council to provide both citizen oversight and spill response to thwart another disaster. Independent from both political and industry pressure, the advisory council is funded through a direct contract with oil companies.

An important component of the council is a program that trains and equips boat captains to fight oil spills. A similar program is now taking shape in response to the Gulf of Mexico spill, says University of South Alabama sociologist Steven Picou, who studied the Valdez disaster as a template for a Gulf Coast response force.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill


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