White House oil spill commission releases new reports


WASHINGTON – Conflicts between federal and local officials over the distribution of boom designed to keep oil from the BP spill from reaching shorelines were a “serious distraction that took time away from responders’ ability to deal with the crisis, according to a draft staff report from the White House spill commission released today.

In four separate draft working papers, the commission staff suggests that “over optimism” about the size of the spill during the first 10 days after the Macondo well exploded April 20 slowed the response.

“While it is not clear that this misplaced optimism affected any individual response effort, it may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear,” one of the staff reports said. “Most responders thought that their initial approach was too slow and unfocused.”

But by May 27, 2010, when polls showed 60 percent of Americans thought the government was doing a poor job of responding to the spill, and President Barack Obama announced he would triple federal manpower and resources, Coast Guard commanders believed they were already “throwing every resource into fighting the spill,” the commission draft report says.

The staff reports fault the Obama administration’s early estimates of the flow of oil from the BP spill, and its August report suggesting that as much as 75 percent of the oil has been dispersed in one form or another.

Initial reports were that 1,000 barrels a day was spilling into the Gulf. During the second week of the spill, the flow estimate was increased to 5,000 barrels a day, and the last estimate, after the flow of oil had stopped, was 52,700 to 62,200 barrels a day.

The commission said that in late April or early May the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to release some of the worst-case scenarios for the amount of oil spilling into the gulf.

But it said the White House Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA’s request, according to NOAA staff interviewed by the commission.

While the Obama administration said the lower flow rates did not affect the administration’s response to the spill, the commission staff said the hugely understated estimates resulted in less public confidence in the pronouncements about the disaster from both the federal government and BP.

It said that the Obama administration was misleading in suggesting that its report in August that as much as 75 percent of the oil had been removed had been peer reviewed by scientists. Independent scientists provided recommendations on “analysis methods” and contributed field data, but it is unclear “whether any of the independent scientists actually reviewed the final report prior to its release,” the commission report said.

It may be sometime until it can be determined whether the government’s estimate of the remaining oil is accurate, according to the staff report.

On the large-scale use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil, the commission staff says that in the view of experts,’ the “environmental trade off between the deep-ocean ecosystem and the shorelines made dispersants” was an acceptable choice.

But it said the finding came with several key caveats. For one, it said, the government was not prepared in advance of the spill with enough information about the environmental dangers of large scale use of dispersants.

While reporting cooperation between Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Lisa Jackson and Thad Allen, the incident commander, in the key decisions on dispersants, the commission staff said EPA waited until late June to permanently install one of the agency’s most senior officials as the Unified Command in Robert, Louisiana, to monitor the daily decisions on dispersant use.

The seven-member National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill and Offshore Drilling is scheduled to release its final report on the disaster January 1.

The tensions between local parish officials and the federal government were extensive, according to the staff report.

“Once parishes had boom, they did not want to let it go. On July 22, 2010, (Plaquemines Parish President Billy) Nungesser opposed the Coast Guard’s decision to began removing boom in preparation for Hurricane bonnie. He threatened to slash the tires of trucks carrying away protective boom. He later explained that his statement was only a joke,” according to the commission staff.

The commission report said the disputes were a major distraction. “For example, because state and local officials wanted to be able to evaluate the response on their own terms they measured the feet of boom deployed, a measurement that took time to compile, but was of very little value in evaluating the effectiveness of response efforts,” the commission report said.

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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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