The presidential commission investigating the Gulf oil spill called government officials and scientists to account Monday in Washington. Some of those officials said the government and the oil industry were unprepared for such a catastrophic event, and they said the nation needs a better plan to deal with big spills.
Retired Adm. Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard was the government's point man on the spill, but he acknowledged that sometimes it wasn't clear who was actually in charge -- the feds or well operator BP.
"First of all, I think we need greater clarity on what the responsible party is, who they are," he told the commission.
BP insists that the government was always in charge, and Allen didn't dispute that. But he told the commission that what the public saw was that BP was an equal partner in the recovery effort.
Allen said for a future spill, it might be better to have an independent executive, rather than someone from the polluter's camp, running the industry's effort.
Publicizing The Recovery Plan
Another problem, he said: the national plan for responding to an oil spill was something of a mystery to a lot of people.
"Without a clear understanding of the national contingency plan, what was intended of the legislation -- in advance of the event -- trying to explain that to the American public, local government leaders and even national leaders became very, very challenging," Allen said.
"Very challenging" is putting it mildly, according to William Nungesser, the president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, which was hit hard by the spill. He told the commission that it was a battle just getting booms to stop the oil from coming ashore and fouling coastal marshes.
"We couldn't get an answer," he said, saying he still doesn't know who's in charge. "BP would say it's the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard would say it's BP, and it became a joke the command was the Wizard of Oz -- some guy behind a curtain -- because we never got a name, we never got a person in charge to say, 'Hey, are we going to get [booms] or not?' "
That's not what Capt. Edwin Stanton of the Coast Guard remembers. He said he talked with Nungesser about booms and boats to stop the oil but he said it was sometimes difficult to obtain enough equipment to protect the huge areas that were threatened.
"To say that we did not attempt to protect the marshes -- I realize it's a tempting thing to say, but it's not because of lack of effort," Stanton said.
A Scientific SWAT Team
The commission also called on a panel of Gulf scientists to report what kind of damage has been done biologically. The scientists said it's hard to tell in part because there hasn't been much money or leadership to organize research. They said any new oil spill plan should provide for a scientific SWAT team ready to deploy on short notice.
In the meantime, the scientists agreed it could take 10 years to find out the damage to the Gulf of Mexico.
"I think that the way to track that over time is to consider the species that are dependent on a healthy ecosystem," says Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University. "Species like sperm whales, bluefin tuna, sea turtles which are large, charismatic animals," and also humble organisms like periwinkles and clams that live at the base of the marine food chain.
MacDonald said by his calculations, half the oil that escaped the broken well is still out there somewhere, and he says much of it may be on the bottom. Even there, it's still a threat to sensitive marshes and beaches if rough weather churns it up and returns it to the whims of wind and unpredictable currents.