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Oil Messed Up

Anger grows along the Gulf Coast at the Obama administration’s pathetic response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By WINSTON GROOM
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Point Clear, Alabama

Oil Messed Up

Photo Credit: Getty

The most breathtaking irony in the whole sorry oil spill saga is that the Obama administration has selected BP—which it continues to demonize as reckless, greedy, and incompetent—as the principal entity to contain and clean up this vast and dangerous mess.

The millions affected by the ongoing fiasco watch in dismay and outrage as they weigh the possibility that their way of life may be changed for a long time, if not forever. I am among them. Fishing and boating waters are closed. Swimming warning flags are flying. Orange containment booms line the shores, and the news is filled with pictures of dying birds. I have not seen the oil yet, but I have smelled it from a dozen miles away. It is not a pleasant smell. If it gets into the deltas and the marshes and streams that are nurseries for the marine life here on the coast, it could become a great tragedy. Which is all the more reason for anger and frustration at the monumental incompetence of the attempt to contain this greatest of oil spills in U.S. history.

It has been apparent from the outset that the Obama administration had no wish to be responsible for fixing this problem without having some sort of “plausible deniability.” They saw what happened to George W. Bush with New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina and wanted no part of that kind of trap. Instead, the White House embarked on a program of finger-pointing, bad-mouthing, scolding, and threats. Reckless, greedy, and incompetent as BP may be, this only made the company’s task considerably harder to perform—especially with the government’s much publicized “boot on their throat.”

Nobody along the Gulf Coast has a crystal ball or divining rod to read what’s in the administration’s mind, but anyone with a brain can see that a massive effort will be necessary to avert an ecological and economic catastrophe. Between double and ten times the presently available personnel and equipment is needed, and they are needed now.

People here have become cynical. There have been suggestions that Obama wants to use the oil spill as a “teachable moment” in his effort to pass his cap and trade energy legislation. And there are even darker intimations, the suspicion that something else must be afoot. If the spill had occurred in Long Island Sound, say, or San Francisco Bay—or in Nantucket Sound with oil lapping at the beaches of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard—would there be this indolent a response from Washington?

So far, the effort to contain the spill has been pathetic. Oil washes up, and after a while a truck arrives with a cleaning crew hired from distant states, who mop-up or shovel it into plastic bags that may or may not get picked up later. They then return to sit under a tent until the next call comes or, as has happened in a few cases, a sheriff arrives to arrest them on outstanding warrants. Meantime, fleets of college kids using daddy’s fishing boat are being paid up to $2,000 a day to tool around looking for oil. 

Each morning seems to bring a new fool’s errand. On June 18, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard apprehended a dozen oil-skimming barges in the midst of performing their duty, and shut down their operations for the rest of the day in order to determine if they were carrying the proper number of life preservers and fire extinguishers. If the Coast Guard was so worried about safety, why not simply take a big pile of life preservers and fire extinguishers out to these craft and hand them around, so that the skimmers could keep at their essential job?

But that is not the way government operates. At least not this government, which has created a perfect storm of bureaucratic and regulatory gridlock around the Deep-water Horizon disaster. Whatever is done to prevent the oil from coming ashore must be approved by the EPA, OSHA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and a host of lesser bureaucracies.

Just a few days ago, a large slick of oil several hundred acres in size was allowed to enter Mobile Bay and hover in the lee of Gaillard Island, one of the largest Brown Pelican rookeries in the United States. According to a spokesman for BP, “None of the 135 boats working out of Dog River, or the 54 boats working out of Fairhope, had the training to handle the oil.” It seems oil skimming or booming requires taking courses and passing tests given by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. -Otherwise you run the risk of being arrested.

Same goes for trying to save oiled birds or other wildlife. Federal permits—which can take up to three years to process—are required, and violators are subject to arrest, fines, and jail. So if an oiled mallard washes up on shore, best leave him be and call the proper authorities to scrub him down with Dawn soap, never mind if he dies before they get there.

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