Oil spill man­ager has some ad­vice for next dis­as­ter

As­sign a third party, not the govern­ment, to take charge of the re­sponse, he says.

Los Angeles Times - - 9• 28•10 - Neela Banerjee re­port­ing from washington nbaner­jee@tribune.com

Re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, com­man­der of the fed­eral re­sponse to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mex­ico, called Mon­day for the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent third party to over­see con­tain­ment and cleanup of fu­ture spills in­stead of leav­ing the job to the govern­ment.

Allen told mem­bers of Pres­i­dent Obama’s com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gat­ing the spill that the pub­lic mis­trusted the way BP and the govern­ment han­dled the dis­as­ter and that an in­de­pen­dent ex­pert would re­duce con­cerns about con­flicts of in­ter­est.

He said his rec­om­men­da­tion did not re­flect a lack of con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of the Coast Guard or other fed­eral agen­cies to re­spond to such in­ci­dents.

In tes­ti­mony to the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on the BP Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon Oil Spill, Allen said he did not think BP had shirked its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. De­spite the large scale of the cleanup ef­fort and BP’s pledges to make amends, how­ever, the pub­lic largely thought the re­sponse sys­tem was bro­ken.

“The rea­son, I be­lieve, we may want to con­sider an in­de­pen­dent, qual­i­fied in­di­vid­ual is largely due to the per­cep­tion of the Amer­i­can peo­ple and our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers that this is not work­ing,” Allen said. “And if the per­cep­tion is that strong, we just [should] try to do some­thing about it.”

The Clean Wa­ter Act al­lows the govern­ment to clean up a spill on its own or have the re­spon­si­ble party, in this case BP, par­tic­i­pate, said Joshua Force, an ad­junct lec­turer at Tulane Uni­ver­sity Law School and an at­tor­ney with Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hil­bert.

But Force said that when the pol­luter plays a key role in the re­sponse, it in­her­ently raises ques­tions about a con­flict of in­ter­est. “Are they do­ing it the best way or the cheap­est way?” he said.

In his com­ments, Allen pro­posed an en­tity that “would rep­re­sent the in­dus­try, over­see the re­sponse, have ac­cess to the re­sources, but ba­si­cally would be fire­walled from any fidu­ciary link back to the share­hold­ers — al­most putting the re­sources in trust and hav­ing them ex­e­cuted by an in­dus­try ex­pert.”

Allen said that many Gulf Coast “prin­ci­pals” in­volved in the spill re­sponse had missed a March drill de­signed to in­form them what the govern­ment would ex­pect from the re­spon­si­ble party.

As a re­sult, BP’s role in the re­sponse cre­ated a lot of ten­sion on the ground, Allen sug­gested.

BP’s in­volve­ment in the re­sponse, par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mand cen­ter de­ci­sions and at­ten­dance at briefings prompted “a vis­ceral re­ac­tion at the site,” Allen said.

Some gulf ad­vo­cates as­serted that their mis­trust of BP is rooted in the lack of a co­or­di­nated spill re­sponse with the govern­ment and con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion that was re­leased, es­pe­cially in the first few weeks, when the govern­ment ap­peared to de­fer to BP.

Aaron Viles, cam­paign di­rec­tor for the Gulf Restora­tion Net­work, a New Or­leans-based ad­vo­cacy group, said that ini­tially the govern­ment cited BP’s much lower es­ti­mates of oil flow­ing into the gulf rather than higher es­ti­mates by oth­ers.

That lack of trust has lin­gered and con­tin­ues to af­fect the eco­nomic lives of peo­ple in the area, said the net­work’s di­rec­tor, Cyn­thia Sarthou. For in­stance, many peo­ple along the Gulf Coast so mis­trust au­thor­i­ties that they refuse to eat lo­cal seafood, fear­ing con­tam­i­na­tion from chem­i­cal oil dis­per­sants, de­spite govern­ment as­sur­ances it is safe.

“Allen’s re­spond­ing to what we see on the news here at night,” Force said. “And so, peo­ple don’t think the re­sponse is fast enough or that they are get­ting all the re­sources here they need. You have to un­der­stand that given what has hap­pened in the last five years here, peo­ple are go­ing to speak up fast when they don’t see the kind of re­ac­tion they need.”

Hyungwon Kang

MAT­TER OF TRUST: Thad Allen, the re­tired Coast Guard ad­mi­ral who led the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the BP oil spill, tells a panel that too many peo­ple — jus­ti­fi­ably or not — mis­trusted the way it was han­dled.

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