Month after oil spill, why is BP still in charge?
Matthew Daly, Associated Press Writer
Fri May 21, 2010
WASHINGTON – Days after the Gulf Coast oil spill, the Obama administration pledged to keep its "boot on the throat" of BP to make sure the company did all it could to cap the gushing leak and clean up the spill.
But a month after the April 20 explosion, anger is growing about why BP PLC is still in charge of the response.
"I'm tired of being nice. I'm tired of working as a team," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.
"The government should have stepped in and not just taken BP's word," declared Wayne Stone of Marathon, Fla., an avid diver who worries about the spill's effect on the ecosystem.
That sense of frustration is shared by an increasing number of Gulf Coast residents, elected officials and environmental groups who have called for the government to simply take over.
In fact, the government is overseeing things. But the official responsible for that says he still understands the discontent.
"If anybody is frustrated with this response, I would tell them their symptoms are normal, because I'm frustrated, too," said Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.
"Nobody likes to have a feeling that you can't do something about a very big problem," Allen told The Associated Press Friday.
Still, as simple as it may seem for the government to just take over, the law prevents it, Allen said.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Congress dictated that oil companies be responsible for dealing with major accidents — including paying for all cleanup — with oversight by federal agencies. Spills on land are overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, offshore spills by the Coast Guard.
"The basic notion is you hold the responsible party accountable, with regime oversight" from the government, Allen said. "BP has not been relieved of that responsibility, nor have they been relieved for penalties or for oversight."
He and Coast Guard Adm. Mary Landry, the federal onsite coordinator, direct virtually everything BP does in response to the spill — and with a few exceptions have received full cooperation, Allen said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was even more emphatic.
"There's nothing that we think can and should be done that isn't being done. Nothing," Gibbs said Friday during a lengthy, often testy exchange with reporters about the response to the oil disaster.
There are no powers of intervention that the federal government has available but has opted not to use, Gibbs said.
Asked if President Barack Obama had confidence in BP, Gibbs said only: "We are continuing to push BP to do everything that they can."
The White House is expected to announce Saturday that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and ex-EPA Administrator William K. Reilly will lead a presidential commission investigating the oil spill. Graham is a Democrat. Reilly served as EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush. The commission's inquiry will range from the causes of the spill to the safety of offshore oil drilling.
BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the federal government has been "an integral part of the response" to the oil spill since shortly after the April 20 explosion.
"There are many federal agencies here in the Unified Command, and they've been part of that within days of the incident," said Chapman, who works out of a joint response site in Louisiana, near the site of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Criticism of the cleanup response has spread beyond BP. On Friday, the Texas lab contracted to test samples of water contaminated by the spill defended itself against complaints that it has a conflict of interest because it does other work for BP.
TDI-Brooks International Inc., which points to its staffers' experience handling samples from the Exxon Valdez disaster, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped audit the lab and approved its methods.
"A typical state laboratory does not have this experience or capacity," TDI president James M. Brooks said.
The company's client list includes federal and state agencies along with dozens of oil companies, among them BP, a connection first reported by The New York Times. TDI-Brooks said about half of the lab's revenue comes from government work.
Test results on Deepwater Horizon samples will figure prominently in lawsuits and other judgments seeking to put a dollar value on the damage caused by the spill.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who traveled to the Gulf the day after the explosion and has coordinated Interior's response to the spill, rejected the notion that BP is telling the federal government what to do.
"They are lashed in," Hayes said of BP. "They need approval for everything they do."
If BP is lashed to the government, the tether goes both ways. A large part of what the government knows about the oil spill comes from BP.
The oil company helps staff the command center in Robert, La., which publishes daily reports on efforts to contain, disperse and skim oil.
Some of the information flowing into the command center comes from undersea robots run by BP or ships ultimately being paid by BP. When the center reported Friday that nearly 9 million gallons of an oil-water mixture had been skimmed from the ocean surface, those statistics came from barges and other vessels funded by BP.
Allen, the incident commander, said the main problem for federal responders is the unique nature of the spill — 5,000 feet below the surface with no human access.
"This is really closer to Apollo 13 than Exxon Valdez," he said, referring to a near-disastrous Moon mission 40 years ago.
"Access to this well-site is through technology that is owned in the private sector," Allen said, referring to remotely operated vehicles and sensors owned by BP.
Even so, the company has largely done what officials have asked, Allen said. Most recently, it responded to an EPA directive to find a less toxic chemical dispersant to break up the oil underwater.
In two instances — finding samples from the bottom of the ocean to test dispersants and distributing booms to block the oil — BP did not respond as quickly as officials had hoped, Allen said. In both cases they ultimately complied.
"Personally, whenever I have problem I call (BP CEO) Tony Hayward" on his cell phone, Allen said.
Associated Press writers Frederic J. Frommer and Ben Feller in Washington, Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans, Matt Sedensky in Marathon, Fla., Ray Henry in Atlanta and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., and Michelle Roberts in San Antonio contributed to this story.