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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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Right after the disaster struck, 13 oil producing nations around the world, plus the U.N., offered the services of their dredges and large skimming ships, capable of removing hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. They were turned down by the Obama administration because of the Jones Act, a piece of labor union-inspired legislation that forbids foreign vessels or foreign crews from working in U.S. waters. Republican legislators have called for President Obama to waive the act as President Bush did during the Katrina disaster, but so far he has declined.

The lack of skimmer vessels becomes more critical each day. All the boom in the world cannot contain an oil spill without something to quickly skim it up. Waves, wind, and current soon push the oil over or under the boom. When that large slick was allowed to enter Mobile Bay, promises were made by BP and the Coast Guard that the mouth and other entrances would be protected by skimmers. Part of the slick went 25 miles north to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the largest wetlands systems in the nation. There were no skimmers available to deal with it.

According to the Coast Guard there are 400 skimmer vessels working along the affected coast—which, depending on how its measured, is somewhere between 500 miles (the linear measure) and 5,000 (if you measure every cove and creek). There are said to be 2,000 skimmers available in the United States. Gulf Coast residents are wondering just what the other 1,600 are doing. Apparently many of them are required by government regulation to remain right where they are in case of emergency. The mayors of a number of small towns along the coast are seeking to purchase their own skimmers instead of relying on the effort by BP and the government, but that leaves open the danger of government regulators insisting on weeks of training and testing before they can be put to use. When the oil is upon you, it is not a matter of weeks, but of hours, even minutes. The cleanup effort is drowning in the proverbial sea of red tape. The interesting contradiction here is that the entire response is turning into one of the greatest arguments against government regulation that could possibly be imagined.

If BP’s relief well is successful and the leak is plugged, and if an armada of skimmers is built up to work round the clock and manages to keep the shores mostly clean then, barring a hurricane, the oil out in the gulf will probably degrade and/or evaporate naturally and the emergency will have passed. But make no mistake, these are big ifs.

Late on Father’s Day, I walked out to Julep Point, a peninsula jutting into Mobile Bay from which, on a clear day, you can see Dauphin Island, a dozen miles south, and the gap at the mouth of the bay where Admiral Farragut cried, “Damn the torpedoes.” Beyond that, out in the great gulf itself, a bank of dark rain clouds was tinged pinkish-gold, backlit by the setting sun. Out there, too, was the oil, upwards of 80,000 square miles of it, rocking silently on the waves. I grew up here on the coast and had the bay and the gulf beaches and the miles of river delta to enjoy. I wonder if that will be true for my 11-year-old daughter. There are many others here like me who gaze into a lowering future, and do not like what they see.

Winston Groom is the author of numerous novels and histories, including Forrest Gump (1986). His most recent book is Vicksburg, 1863 (Alfred A. Knopf).

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