Berms and boom were largely ineffective responses to oil spill, panel reports


About of a third of the way through the National Oil Spill Commission’s 400-page report, there is a 43-page chapter on the oil spill response and containment efforts that suggests that berms and boom were pretty much a bust, collecting more headlines than oil.

Along the way, the report also casts a rather unflattering light on Louisiana officialdom, singling out Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Garret Graves, Gov. Jindal’s top adviser on coastal issues, said Wednesday that the contempt displayed by Washington for the “Cajun ingenuity that was the real saving grace in this disaster” was itself contemptible, and factually incorrect in every particular.

The portrait painted in Chapter 5 is of a region, and especially a state, under siege from the worst oil spill in American history, frustrated by repeated failed attempts by BP to cap the well, and by what it considered an inadequate federal cleanup response, clamoring for fixes that may have done little to contribute – and may have in some instances undermined – the response effort.

According to the commission’s narrative, the festering animosity in Louisiana’s relationship with Washington was nurtured by a news media that thrives on conflict.

“Local resentment became a media theme and then a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the report concludes. “Even those who thought the federal government was doing the best it could under the circumstance did not say so publicly.”

Instead, according to the report, “journalists encouraged state and local officials and residents to display their anger at the federal response, and offered coverage when they did. (CNN reporter) Anderson Cooper reportedly asked a Parish President to bring an angry, unemployed offshore oil worker on his show. When the President could not promise the worker would be ‘angry,’ both were disinvited.”

The commission, named by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the April 20 blowout of the Macondo well, presented its findings and recommendations in Washington on Tuesday and again in New Orleans on Wednesday.

What will come of its recommendations for overhauling the way industry conducts, and government regulates, deepwater drilling for oil, remains to be seen.

But, its formidable report to the president – “Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling” – is now part of the official historical record of the event, “the gold standard of what happened,” according to Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley.

And so, while the disparagement of the building of oil-blocking berms as essentially “Jindal’s and Nungesser’s folly,” was already contained in a staff working paper posted by the commission in December, that paper did not carry the official stamp of the commission. The report, however, does.

When the working paper was released, Jindal described it as “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense.”

On Wednesday, Graves said that the effort to create offshore berms to keep oil from coming ashore was backed across the board by public officials in Louisiana, and ultimately by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard, which gave the green light. He said, as of now, there is no way of knowing how much oil the berms kept from coming ashore.

He also said that a couple of anecdotes about the governor in Chapter 5 were flatly wrong.

For example this passage: “Coast Guard responders watched Governor Jindal – and the TV cameras following him – return to what appeared to be the same spot of oiled marsh day after day to complain about the inadequacy of the federal response, even though only a small amount of marsh was then oiled. When the Coast Guard sought to clean up that piece of affected marsh, Governor Jindal refused to confirm its location.”

Graves said that story is false and ridiculous on several counts. The governor, he said, had “over 600 miles of oiled shoreline” to choose from, and visited multiple locations and not one secret “honey hole.” And, he said, “If that Coast Guard official (detailed to accompany the governor) wanted to know where he was, he could have asked us.”

Tension between the Jindal and Obama administrations during the spill response was obvious.

But, while the commission was named by Obama, it did not completely spare the administration from criticism.

On Tuesday, the Commission’s two co-chairs – former Florida governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former EPA Administrator William Reilly, a Republican – restated their view that the Obama administration’s moratorium on deepwater drilling after the disaster, was a mistake, though that finding was not a part of the commission’s report.

And, Chapter 5 takes Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, to task for overstating, in early August, how much of the spilled oil was “gone” from the Gulf.

But on Tuesday, Reilly said that he had concluded that “after a slow start” the administration “had responded quite effectively to his spill.”

“So make no mistake about it,” he said. “Despite some allegations, this was not Obama’s Katrina.”

On the boom, Chapter 5 quotes one Terrebone Parish resident as describing it as “eye candy – seeing it gave him a sense of satisfaction (even if it did not do much.).”

And the report describes a counterproductive tug of war over the boom, between states and parishes, with Nungesser at one point threatening “to blow out the tires of trucks carrying away boom.” (“Though he claimed he was joking,” the report writes, “the FBI called to reprimand him.”)

The net result, according to the commission report: “Responders knew that in deploying boom they were often responding to the politics of the spill rather than the spill itself.”

And on the berms, Chapter 5 notes that BP, which agreed to pay for the project, “estimates the cost to be $360 million, double the entire amount it had spent as of early June in helping the region respond to the oil spill.”

But, as the governor noted in response to the critical staff working paper in December, “We are thrilled that this has become the state’s largest barrier island restoration project in history.”

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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