WASHINGTON – Thad Allen, who oversaw the federal response to the BP oil spill, said key federal officials probably would have been better able to deal with the disaster if they hadn’t missed a mock oil spill exercise last March.
Allen, the national incident commander, told the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling today that the “unavailability of the principal people who would have learned most” from that exercise was a problem. Allen plans to turn over his position overseeing the spill response Friday.
Neither federal nor local officials really understood the Oil Pollution Control Act and how it directs significantly different response responsibilities than a hurricane. It was hard for many, including members of the Obama administration, to accept that BP, as the responsible party, had the major responsibility for spill containment, under the supervision of federal officials.
William Reilly, the commission co-chairman, who helped oversee the federal government’s response to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 said he is “amazed and disappointed” that the nation’s ability to respond to a spill hadn’t evolved further than it did.
Skimming only captured 3 percent of the oil, burning 5 percent and distribution of an unprecedented quantity of dispersants 13 percent.
An “enormous effort,” he said, generated “very disappointing results.”
Reilly also said he was surprised that the administration’s drilling moratorium had not yet been lifted. He said that the commission was told that the 33 deepwater rigs affected by the moratorium had been inspected and the nine violations discovered, have been corrected.
“I would have expected it would have come off by now,” Reilly said. He said it “isn’t entirely clear what needs to be done.”
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said it was hard to get the Coast Guard and the BP to respond to requests for help — outside the times when President Barack Obama directly intervened.
Nungesser said that though he suspects people don’t want to hear it, oil continues to be found near sensitive marshes surrounding his parish.
“To this day, I still can’t tell you who is in charge,” Nungesser said.
Capt. Frank Stanton, the Coast Guard’s sector commander for New Orleans, described the response as “good, but ugly.” He said that he, like Nungesser, was frustrated at the delays in getting boom to keep oil from heading to sensitive marshes and beaches.
Allen, asked by commission members, whether the response was hampered because of early low flow rates estimates from the BP spill, said that the response was based from the very beginning that this was a “major catastrophe.” As a result, the initial low flow rate projections didn’t really affect the response to the spill, the worst in U.S. history.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., co-chairman of the commission, said the panel was told an early effort to stop the flow of oil may have failed because it was based on the lower oil flow projections from BP.
The spill commisson was appointed by President Obama to determine the cause of the BP spill and to recommend steps that should be taken to avoid a future major spill. It is also been asked to recommend ways to improve future responses to major oil spills.
Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University scientist, told the commission he disagreed with statements from BP and the federal government that most of the oil from the spill has disappeared.
“The BP oil discharge was at least 10,000 times more concentrated in space and time and about 12 times greater in magnitude than the total annual release from natural seeps of the Gulf of Mexico,” MacDonald said. “In my scientific opinion, the bulk of this material was dispersed in surface layers, from which about one-third evaporated and 10 percent was removed by burning or skimming. An additional 10 percent was chemically dispersed. The remaining fraction — over 50 percent of the total discharge — is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation. Much of it is now buried in marine and coastal sediments.”
MacDonald also said that the impact of the spill on wildlife, particularly a whale population threatened before the spill, could be substantial.
“In Prince William Sound, for example, no dead orcas were found after the Exxon Valdez spill,” MacDonald said. “Nonetheless, the present orca population in the Sound was reduced by over half by the spill.”
He called for long-term monitoring of the fish and wildlife population in the Gulf.
Bill Lehr, a senior scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, disagreed with earlier Monday, saying initial estimates on the size of the spill did matter.
When NOAA first determined that the spill was at least five times as large as initial BP estimates, Lehr said he got the immediate OK to use NASA and other sophisticated spill monitoring technology and employees were called back from vacation and retirement — all from an agency where it typically takes two years for authorization to replace a computer monitor.