Getting Clear on the Oil Spill Response Failures

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On June 14, 2010, the CNN live cablecast of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico said an underwater camera was providing “a live view of the BP oil leak.” But the picture was so murky that one could not make out anything about the size of the leak or what was being done to stop it.

“Murky” is a good word to describe the behavior of the Obama administration in dealing with the oil leak. There have been tentative steps toward coordinated activity to contain the spill and promises from the president for a full cleanup, very similar to those made by BP in its apologetic, self-protective advertisements. But the overwhelming White House response has shown a great deal of deference, if not obedience, to BP, effectively leaving the failing oil company in charge of every key aspect: stopping the leak; containing the spill; running the cleanup; compensating the victims and informing the public, or not, on what is happening to them, their environment and future.

What has been lacking is an assertion of total, effective control of the situation by the federal government in support of the public interest. Rather, we find the federal government too often continually asserting control by rubber-stamping BP’s continuing bad decisions. We have reached a point at which criticism of BP by politicians can no longer hide their unwillingness to challenge BP.

While this may be a matter of ineptitude in the White House, it is critical that we, the public, learn immediately how much of its failure to protect the public interest has been a matter of conscious decision by the president and other of our public employees.

To this end, I propose that a special prosecutor be immediately appointed to begin examining all White House communications with BP, other oil companies and with pertinent federal agencies to determine, at a minimum:

  1. Why sensors to monitor the flow of the BP gusher are only being installed at the wellhead more than 50 days into the catastrophe and why these sensors and videos of the gusher are not under the control of the US government and constantly available to the press, with narration.
  2. Why a panel of experts was not immediately established to take control of stemming the gusher.
  3. Why the US Navy has not been involved in providing logistics help in moving in barges and boom to block oil flows onto beaches and into channels and marshlands.
  4. Why the Environmental Protection Agency has not completely controlled the use of oil dispersants and monitored air quality in the Gulf waters and on land, with regular public reporting on its findings. Further, why oil cleanup workers are being allowed to work without respirators and other protective clothing.
  5. Why Gulf coast workers and business people have not been able to get for immediate financial assistance through the federal government, which would be reimbursed by BP.
  6. Why the Food and Drug Administration, which handles seafood inspection, has not issued daily reports on its food inspection activities in the Gulf to inform the public on what it is doing to ensure that only uncontaminated seafood is going to market and from which seafood processing plants.
  7. Why the US Public Health Service is not issuing daily reports on the numbers of reported illnesses related to the spill and the cleanup.
  8. Why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is not issuing water quality reports daily from major beaches along the Gulf that go beyond the random reports on appearances of tar balls, which tell little of the overall safety of the water.
  9. Why the White House has negotiated a $20 billion escrow fund with BP when it appears that costs of the gusher will go well beyond that sum and while there is no predictable end to the oil flow other than what BP hopes. T. Boone Pickens estimated on the June 15, 2010 CNN Larry King show that the leak would continue until mid-September 2010.

President Obama sometimes seems to be talking about the Gulf leak as though it were staunched. But right here and right now, we need to start acting without restraint to protect our people and our natural world. To do that in the best way possible, I suggest that we need to know exactly why this has not been done in the last 50 plus days since the Deepwater Horizon exploded.