Officials gather in Tampa, talk about lessons learned from gulf oil spill


TAMPA — The man from BP stood at the lectern Tuesday morning, telling the crowd packing the Tampa Convention Center ballroom about all his company had done to deal with the Deepwater Horizon disaster — the $11 billion spent so far, the 48,000 people deployed.

Finally, Billy Nungesser had had enough. Sweating, the Plaquemines Parish, La., council president got up and headed for the exit.

“I had to leave because of my high blood pressure,” Nungesser said. Of those thousands of people BP and the Coast Guard dispatched to deal with the disaster, he said, “how many did anything at all to clean up the oil? And how many stopped us from cleaning up the oil?”

This week marks the 20th annual convention of a group called Clean Gulf, featuring oil company executives, government officials and private contractors gathering to talk about oil spills. The main topic this year, of course, is the disaster that began six months ago and left nearly 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico coastline tainted by oil.

In the keynote address by Mike Utsler, who was in charge of BP’s response in Houma, La. (the speech Nungesser walked out of) and later in a panel discussion featuring Utsler and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the main topic was “lessons learned.”

Utsler said it was important to examine what happened because the industry will be drilling in deep waters again and needs to know how to deal with any future calamities.

But according to Nungesser, nobody learned anything, and the people on the panels “were the same ones who had no sense of urgency about this thing right from the start.”

Because the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped and killed, he said, BP officials want to demobilize the cleanup crews in his region. But oil continues washing ashore in his parish, and he remains frustrated by the poor response to the disaster.

He said he found it ironic to find himself surrounded by contractors who sat idle in Louisiana for days “and they’re going to tell us how to respond to the next one.”

Every disaster response should begin with local officials, he contended, since they know the area and its resources better than anyone. Ironically, that’s the one point on which BP might agree with him.

The only mistake Utsler admitted to making was not seeking the help of local officials right from the beginning.

Otherwise Utsler, who will now be the chief operating officer of BP’s gulf coast restoration organization, strongly defended his company and the entire Deepwater Horizon containment and cleanup effort, even controversial moves such as spraying chemical dispersants a mile beneath the ocean — something no one had ever tried before.

“This is an important tool in our toolbox when used right, and we used them right,” he told the standing-room-only crowd.

However, other speakers mentioned some of the things that went wrong. Roland Guidry, Louisiana’s oil spill response coordinator, showed photos of poorly deployed boom that was pushed into marshes by high waves, damaging the grass and allowing oil to get in.

Phil Wieczynski of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection talked about the early, erroneous predictions that showed oil washing into Florida waters a month before it actually arrived which “sort of drove us nuts.”

And Landry, the Coast Guard admiral, talked about the frenzy to find enough boom to cover the coastline, and how it led to a BP unit in Alabama outbidding the BP unit in Louisiana — even though Louisiana, at that point, needed it more.

To Nungesser, all those misfires and missed communications pointed to the one basic problem that hampered everyone in dealing with the disaster.

“To this day,” he said, shaking his head, “I can’t tell you who’s in charge.”

The convention, which is sponsored by oil companies such as BP and Shell as well as spill contractors such as Eagle-SWS, continues through today.

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

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