Dereliction of Duty: U.S. Coast Guard Approves BP’s Plan to Shut Down Spill Cleanup


As fresh oil continues to blot on our sugar-white beaches and our fragile coastal marshes remain choked with thick crude, BP is set to pull the plug on cleanup efforts across the Gulf Coast – and, inexplicably, the U.S. Coast Guard is clearing the way for the oil giant’s hasty retreat.

Here’s how Associated Press reporters Cain Burdeau and Dina Cappiello covered the disturbing disclosure on Nov. 8:

BP will no longer be responsible for cleaning up oil that winds up on shores of the Gulf Coast unless officials can prove it comes from the company’s well that blew out in 2010, causing the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, according to a plan approved by the Coast Guard…

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the mission of the U.S. Coast Guard has changed. The USCG mission I’m familiar with (and I’m paraphrasing) is to protect our shoreline, our citizens and our way of life. The new mission, as far as I can tell, seems to be to protect BP from future damages regardless of how it impacts our shoreline, our citizens and our way of life. Absolutely unbelievable.

Even within the context of abject disgust and disappointment in the way our federal government has handled this disaster from Day One, I am floored by this latest revelation. The decision to let BP off the hook is clearly one of the biggest blunders the federal government has made to date – over the course of a 17-month response littered with egregious lapses in judgment.

BP’s plan – just approved by the Coast Guard on Tuesday – will make any remaining or residual spill damage permanent. Once you cross the line of letting BP walk away from the mess it’s made and you don’t have any mechanism for long-term monitoring, we’re dooming the Gulf Coast to damage and contamination we will never get out from under.

I applaud Bobby Jindal, the governor of my home state of Louisiana, for not allowing this sham of a plan to be shoved down his throat. More from the AP report:

Louisiana officials wouldn’t give their approval because they were concerned about what they perceived as a lack of long-term monitoring in the document. They also complained that the Coast Guard gave them only five days to review the plan, according to a letter sent to the agency by Garret Graves, a top aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal for coastal affairs.

That concern was echoed by Ralph Portier, an oil spill cleanup expert with Louisiana State University.

“If we have learned anything from Valdez and Ixtoc, there needs to be an awareness for long-term monitoring,” Portier said.

He was referring to the Exxon-Valdez tanker spill in 1989 in Alaska and the 1979 Ixtoc oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said the Coast Guard should have a plan to respond to problems that may arise.

The Coast Guard has no such plan in place, so we can only conclude that unless it can be proved that the oil in question is from BP’s Macondo Well, state and local government or landowners themselves will be burdened with the cleanup and its cost.

One of the many problems with the “prove it’s BP oil” requirement is that the process takes both time and money. It usually takes four to five weeks for samples to be tested and a fingerprint match to be determined. In that amount of time, fresh oil and all its contaminants will have “disappeared” into the landscape – no longer visible but poisoning the environment nonetheless. And did I mention that the testing is prohibitively expensive? At a cost of $2,000 per single sample, how many times do you think BP will be forced to return to a beach for remedial cleaning? Zero sounds about right to me.

According to the AP report, government officials claim that 90 percent of the Gulf Coast has “been deemed” clean – which is a confoundingly relative term as laid out in the plan. From the AP report:

Under the plan, the cleanup standards will depend on the terrain.

A bit more oil will be allowed to remain on remote wild beaches where intense cleanup could do more damage. On beaches where people live and play, BP will be off the hook once there is no visible oil or oil is “as low as reasonably practicable” to clean up.

Marshes will be deemed clean when there is no thick oil left or when officials decide that it’s best to let nature clean up the mess.

The “no visible oil” standard is troubling because one day there’s no visible oil on a stretch of beach and the next, there’s fresh, gooey tar balls and mats littering the sand. Consider this from a Sept. 10, 2011, Mobile Press-Register report by Ben Raines detailing the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee:

Moist and gooey, like a chocolate chip cookie just pulled from the oven, some of the fresh tarballs had layers of liquid oil inside them. Oil bled from the tarballs sitting in the sun on the beach, collecting in little pools on the sand.

Ed Overton, an oil chemist and professor emeritus at Louisiana State University, said…the new tarballs likely broke off from mats buried underwater and seemed to share the characteristics of fresh tarballs, which he described as “jellybeans” – crusty on the outside with jelly in the center.

State and federal officials, as well as BP crews, have reported finding numerous tar mats offshore of Gulf beaches. In some cases, the mats are more than a foot thick.

With relatively fresh oil laying in thick mats just offshore, we will inevitably see more re-oiling and re-contamination of beaches, particularly after rough weather. The lack of long-term monitoring in the plan, is extremely beneficial to BP and extremely detrimental to the Gulf Coast and its residents. More from the “fresh oil” Press-Register report:

“It sounds like there was a fairly thick lens of oil out there that had not mixed with sediment. We’re going to be seeing this for years,” Overton said. “This is an irritation compared to what we had last year. Last year was a disaster, this is, ‘Oh no! We’ve got to clean up the beaches again.’ But don’t be surprised when this happens again.”

In addition, it’s been confirmed that fresh oil continues to rise from the Macondo Prospect, the epicenter of last year’s massive spill. Ed Overton, the same LSU oil chemist cited above, conducted rigorous fingerprint testing on samples taken from a slick floating above the Macondo Prospect in late September. “It is a dead-ringer match,” Professor Overton said. “I was amazed that the ratios matched as good as they did.”

To make matters worse, we received lab-certified test results on Oct. 28 that suggest fresh Macondo oil is making landfall on Horn Island, more than 100 miles from the source. Consider this from my Nov. 2 post:

According to civil engineer Marco Kaltofen, another member of my team:

This lab report provides more evidence that the Macondo Prospect is still leaking. The data show that the Horn Island sample taken September 20th contains lighter hydrocarbons that normally degrade quickly. This oil looks like the original BP oil fingerprint from last summer. It’s very fresh and very toxic.

Mr. Kaltofen believes now is precisely the wrong time to shut down cleanup efforts: “We have fresh, unweathered BP oil washing ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi, we should be increasing our cleanup and surveillance, not quitting.”

As for BP’s assessment of the cleanup, try to stomach this from the AP report:

Edward Owens is a technical adviser for BP and a veteran of the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He said the Gulf cleanup was in its final stages.

“We call it the polishing stages, where you try to get that nice shine on your car,” he said.

What a crock of you-know-what. Mr. Owens, before you start buffing that car, you should get out to the Louisiana marshes or Horn Island or Grand Isle and see for yourself just how far we are from applying polish. And don’t forget to bring your buddies from the Coast Guard.

Read the AP report in its entirety here:

Read the Mobile Press-Register’s “fresh oil” report from Ben Raines:

Read my previous post on BP’s grossly inadequate cleanup plan for Horn Island:

Read my previous post on fresh Macondo oil making landfall on Horn Island:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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