Pressure mounts for federal takeover of oil spill response

McClatchy NewspapersMay 24, 2010 

WASHINGTON — BP chief executive Tony Hayward Monday defended his company's use of a chemical agent to disperse the oil leaking from a well deep under the Gulf of Mexico, despite an Environmental Protection Agency order for BP to stop using it.

The company has applied more than 600,000 gallons of the chemical, called Corexit, since the oil spill began more than a month ago, and Hayward said its use would continue. The EPA last week ordered the company to switch to a less toxic dispersant by Sunday.

"We have used dispersants from the beginning that are on the EPA approved list,” he said. "Everything we do with dispersants is with the explicit approval with the EPA."

The unprecedented scope of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the widening criticism of BP's response to it is forcing federal officials to rethink the government's role in such a wide scale disaster, the commandant of the Coast Guard said Monday.

"I'd say we're actually defining that as we go, because I've never dealt with a scenario like this," Adm. Thad Allen said. "I've been dealing with oil spills, you know, for over 30 years. This is an unprecedented anomalous event."

As Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday again pressed the federal government to do more, Allen and other Obama administration officials faced growing questions about whether the federal government could or should take over the job of stopping the spill and leading the cleanup from BP.

"We need to make the federal government accountable," Jindal said Monday in Louisiana, with a top member of the Obama administration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, at his side.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Monday called on the EPA to enforce its dispersants order.

"EPA must stop the use of toxic chemical dispersants and force BP to the most responsible resolution to this environmental and economic disaster," Nadler said.

Allen insisted at the White House that the federal government is doing all it can do, given its equipment and expertise.

He brushed aside a weekend comment from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggesting that the government might "push" BP out of the way. That was just a metaphor, Allen said.

"To push BP out of the way would raise a question, to replace them with what?" Allen said.

After constant talks with BP as well as experts from other oil businesses and the private sector, Allen said he remains convinced that BP is doing all that can be done to deal with the catastrophe.

Sometime Wednesday, BP plans an exercise called "top kill" that will shoot heavy mud and cement into the well to try to plug it. BP officials estimated the chance of success at 60 to 70 percent.

"They are pressing ahead. We are overseeing them. They're exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak," Allen said.

Allen dismissed suggestions that the federal government take over, noting that the government doesn't own the kind of equipment needed to operate at underwater depths of 5,000 feet. "BP or the private sector are the only ones that have the means to deal with that problem down there. It's not government equipment that's going to be used to do that," he said.

As critics such as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accuse the White House of dragging its feet in the response, Allen said the Coast Guard started deploying equipment to the Gulf on April 21, the day after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and the day before it sank.

He acknowledged, however, that the Coast Guard is still flying in equipment from other sites, more than a month after the explosion.

The government has detailed plans for oil spills that were written in 1990, a year after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Allen said. However, those plans didn't envision a spill of this magnitude or at this depth.

Allen acknowledged Jindal's request for more booms to block oil on the surface. He said the first booms were deployed according to plans written with state cooperation before the spill occurred. More are being sent to the Gulf Coast, he said.

Allen also said he assured Jindal that the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are working quickly to examine his proposal to create man-made barrier islands to help stop oil from reaching coastal areas.

Jindal and Louisiana officials have asked for federal permits to build a set of berms and barrier islands, one to the east of the Mississippi River on the Chandeleur Islands or in Breton Sound, and the other to the west of the river.

As federal officials continue to look at such questions of where the material to create the barrier islands would come from and the overall environmental impact of the idea, Allen said, he noted that the barrier islands wouldn't be a quick fix.

"We need to understand," he said, "that building a set of barrier islands and berms that large is going to take a very, very long time, even by the state's own estimate, six to nine months in some cases, and a significant amount of resources associated with that that might be applied elsewhere."

Obama on Thursday will receive his first detailed report from Salazar on how the spill occurred, and is expected to speak about it then. He's also ordered another review by a bipartisan commission.

(Thomma reported from Washington. Goodman, of The Miami Herald, reported from Galliano, La.)

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