US agencies treated spill as catastrophe from outset, panel told

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 28 -- US departments and agencies responding to the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico treated it as a catastrophe from the beginning, officials told the independent commission established by US President Barack Obama to investigate the event and its implications on federal offshore oil and gas policies.

Initial estimates of oil flowing from the Macondo well that were provided by well operator BP PLC have been criticized as being misleading, but did not affect federal strategies, they told the commission as it began its second hearing in Washington on Sept. 27.

The hearing focused on government responses to the massive oil spill which started 2 days after the well blew out on Apr. 20, causing an explosion which destroyed Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drilling rig and killed 11 workers. Leaks began on Apr. 22 as the rig sank and connections ruptured deep below the surface.

US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said he quickly determined that science would have to play a dominant role in combating what he felt was “probably the worst oil invasion in the nation’s history.” He told the commission that he met immediately with US Energy Sec. Steven Chu to begin a coordinated effort, and conferred often with US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

“From the onset, over 200 staff members from EPA worked on the response,” Jackson testified later in the commission’s hearing. “We quickly stood up a process of rigorous testing of air and water quality, and of sediments, and began working immediately with other federal agencies and departments.”

Nationally significant
Edwin M. Stanton, the US Coast Guard’s New Orleans sector commander, said the US Department of Homeland Security division also initially responded with a maximum effort because it recognized that the spill was a nationally significant event. “You can always pull resources back if they’re not needed,” he observed.

NOAA also took the spill seriously from the beginning, added Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the US Department of Commerce agency. “We think anything over 5,000 bbl is significant,” he said.

Retired USCG Adm. Thad W. Allen, who became the government’s incident commander, said it quickly became apparent that this spill posed significantly greater problems than the one in 1989 which resulted from the tanker Exxon Valdez running aground in Prince William Sound off Alaska. Congress passed the federal Oil Pollution Act the following year in response, but programs established under that law clearly wouldn’t work this time, he said.

“There was not an overall sufficient knowledge of how the national contingency plan was structured, particularly the relationship and role of the responsible party,” Allen testified. Many of the affected parties had not participated in the last spill response drill in the gulf in 2002, he continued.

It helped that the USCG had a unified Gulf Coast command with experienced members in New Orleans, Houston, and Mobile, Ala., but it became necessary to adopt a firefighter’s approach in attacking the Macondo well spill because it involved several leaks. What the nation expected in a federal response could not be accomplished with OPA 1990 programs, Allen said. “They did not cover issues such as potential seafood contamination. New programs had to be created,” he said.

Local impacts
A coordinated response was critical, but this was the first time that a unified command was needed to respond to an oil spill, according to Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production. “Impacts obviously were local. It became necessary to work more closely with local governments to speed up responses,” he said. “We learned that it was crucial to provide space and support to front-line responders so they could respond quickly and effectively.”

State and local officials quickly felt excluded, however. “I’m angry that we’re talking about the successful things that happened,” said William (Billy) Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana. “We should have had a seat at the table from Day 1. The berms were approved and we are picking up oil. But here, this late in the game, I still can’t tell you who’s in charge.”

Nungesser said federal officials did not recognize the importance of keeping spilled crude out of coastal marshes until Obama came to the area for a visit and local officials complained. “Had we used the word ‘emergency’ earlier, we would have kept a lot more oil out of the marshes and protected more of our seafood resources,” he declared.

Richard Harrell, a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality environmental permitting official, said many officials in Gulf Coast states quickly realized that contingency plans had not kept up with oil and gas production growth offshore. Shoreline response and cleanup operations went well, while near-shore operations, skimming and containment control did not, he indicated.

“Mississippi declared an emergency mainly to bring certain assets from our national guard and make sure county emergency operations were funded and adequately staffed,” he said. “One of the biggest issues which can be improved is managing expectations. We had 3,000 volunteers sign up who couldn’t be used because of various laws. Our county and local officials didn’t know how they could contribute or understand what was going on.”

State coordinators
As more government and company officials arrived from outside the region, Mississippi found that it was necessary to acquaint new response participants with local problems, Harrell said. The situation improved dramatically when BP assigned state coordinators in early June. USCG saw what had happened and quickly followed suit, he said.

Jackson said EPA quickly learned the importance of speaking with people in the local communities, and responded by conducting tests at sites they recommended. “As the response wore on, one of our strengths was our good relationship with non-government organizations and other government agencies,” she told the commission. “Yet there still was a lot of skepticism. I spent hours with fishermen and other groups assuring them I wasn’t going anywhere and that I was concerned about conditions there.”

The situation was not helped when politicians in Washington began to question the idea that coastal restoration should be a part of the long-term response, Nungesser said. “For someone so far away to throw rocks at a plan our parish spent millions of dollars developing was dispiriting. They should at least be willing to sit down at the table and show us their data,” he said. “If we don’t start restoring the barrier islands, we’re not going to have an oil and gas industry in Louisiana.”

Salazar said coastal restoration definitely needs to be part of the federal government’s long-term response. “In my view, what happened in the post-Exxon Valdez period over several administrations dealt with finite amounts of spilled oil. We very quickly found with this one that bigger challenges existed,” he said. “The last 6 months have been a laboratory of learning. There are testing requirements for blowout preventers that were never required before. The lessons we’ve learned will be applied in the new regulatory framework that [US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement Director Michael R.] Bromwich will initiate in the days ahead.”

Allen said the federal response this time was better than many people believe despite its challenges and problems. “I’d say OPA 1990 worked pretty well, even with all the bumps and grinds,” added Stanton. “I would call it a good, if somewhat ugly, response.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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