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Former USCG head assesses the BP spill

28th January 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Last Monday in New Orleans, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told scientists and others about the challenges he faced as National Incident Commander during the 2010 BP spill. For one thing, he said, south Louisiana parish leaders were forces to be reckoned with as the feds and BP tried to respond to the disaster. He didn’t name anyone but said “political leaders want to be relevant.” Allen, now a senior vice president at consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, spoke at a three-day conference with over 800 attendees, organized by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative or GRI. The GRI oversees BP’s pledge to fund $500 million in independent spill-related, scientific research over ten years.

Allen said he’d known about the power of Louisiana parish leaders because of an April 2002 offshore well blowout in Terrebonne Parish, and he witnessed their influence again in 2010. During the BP spill, Allen had to coordinate with officials and politicians in five states and the nation’s capital. Dealing with the spill “crossed boundaries and jurisdictions, it was a shared response and trust had to be built,” he said.

Former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson brief President Barack Obama about the BP oil spill in Venice, La. on May 2, 2010. Official White House photo

Former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson brief President Barack Obama about the BP oil spill in Venice, La. on May 2, 2010. Official White House photo

Allen didn’t have much in the way of government protocol or legislation for direction. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a reaction to Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, didn’t take into account an accident on the scale of BP’s disaster, he said. And the regulatory regime for the BP spill, including where the U.S. Dept. of Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard had jurisdiction, was complicated.

To get things done, “we needed to go door to door to Cabinet secretaries” in the Obama Administration, he said. “It was applied civics. You had to find a way.” Allen said his focus from the April 2010 start of the spill was to cap the well and stop the flow of oil. “We wanted to get the relief well drilled,” he said.

On an Air Force One flight in mid-June 2010, President Obama asked Allen “what resources do you need?” Allen said he wanted control of air space over the Gulf. “There were so many helicopters and planes flying around that near collisions were occurring,” Allen said Monday. Obama agreed to his request. Allen said he’d learned about the need for airspace control during the U.S. response to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

Allen said a great challenge for him in the Gulf spill was getting BP to do what was needed to stop the flow of oil and to clean up, while making sure the company didn’t walk away without paying its penalties and meeting legal requirements. Maintaining that balance with BP was the hardest thing he’s ever done, he said.

Dealing with BP was tough and “things broke down when third-party contractors were brought in,” Allen said. He’d think twice about using private boats for a big, oil-spill cleanup again. Local fishing boats removed oil under BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program or VoO. “But oil seeped into boat hulls,” he said. “BP ended up buying a lot of those boats.” Even worse, but not discussed in any detail by Allen, was that a number of fishermen employed in BP’s VoO say they became ill from contact with oil and dispersants.

When an audience member asked about the use of dispersants to break up BP oil, Allen said “research, policy and legal issues linger.”

Allen said when community health concerns developed during the spill, the existing, oil-spill doctrine didn’t offer much direction. The need for community health and oil-exposure information grew and required coordination between the U.S. Occupational Safety & Heath Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies.

The three-day conference in New Orleans included hundreds of scientific presentations that were either talks or poster displays of research. Over 40 of them directly covered dispersants, more than 40 were about fish and seafood, over 25 were about oiled marshes, over 20 were about health and at least 20 examined oil plumes, water columns and currents.

Allen told the audience that “it was clear from the start of the spill that we were losing our baseline” scientific information. Early in the spill, he asked for extensive, water sampling to understand the presence of oil in the Gulf.

Allen said “Natural Resource Damage or NRDA studies protect things that need to be protected for a good reason.” After the spill, BP agreed to pay $1 billion in NRDA money for coastal restoration projects. The company has input on what projects are funded. But Allen said it takes awhile for NRDA to kick in fully, and science has a role to play outside of NRDA in developing more information about the post-spill environment. “There ought to be a better, science-response plan” to a spill than what we have now, he said. He also said that hiding knowledge creates a credibility gap.

As for litigation against BP, Transocean and Halliburton, Allen said “accountability is being discussed in court, and the legal system is running as fast as it can.” BP is preparing for a federal trial, starting on Feb. 25 in New Orleans, that will decide its fines for breaking environmental laws.

“The spill was enough of an insult to the environment,” Allen told the audience Monday. “We can’t have a failure to learn. Discussions about hydrocarbons aren’t going away. What we learned here in the Gulf will help other parts of the country and other habitats.”

Last Wednesday at a public forum that was part of the spill conference, coastal residents discussed their grievances. Some fishing areas are closed, fishermen are ill from contact with oil and dispersants, and consumers wonder about the safety of Gulf seafood, they said.

This April marks three years since the start of the spill, and it took awhile for post-spill research to get rolling. You may question whether it’s safe to eat Gulf oysters and shrimp or spend an afternoon on some Louisiana beaches. To learn more about the conference’s scientific presentations—its talks and poster research displays—visit http://gulfofmexicoconference.org/program/abstracts/.

Last August, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative granted awards with BP money to scientists at Louisiana State University, Tulane, University of New Orleans, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and to researchers at out-of-state schools. Before that, GRI in 2011 gave Florida State University the lead role in a long-term study on Gulf spill effects, citing FSU’s expertise in marine sciences. GRI said that FSU would work on that study with three other Florida universities, the Georgia Institute of Technology; the Naval Research Laboratory; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; the Norwegian Meteorological Institute; the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Science Applications International Corp.

This article was originally published in the January 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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