Environmental

How has the federal government responded to BP's oil spill?

As frustration escalates over BP’s inability to cap and contain its massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, more and more people are directing their anger at the federal government for not doing more to curb the catastrophe and stem the economic impact the spill is having throughout the Gulf. Neither the U.S. nor BP has ever faced an environmental disaster of this magnitude, so nearly every response carries an element of the unknown with it. And along with the unknown comes an element of fear that the fix could do more damage than the oil itself.

President Obama’s administration has classified the BP oil spill as an “incident of national significance,” defined as an event that requires a coordinated response to mitigate damage, save lives, and plan for long-term economic recovery. The federal government’s National Response Team is composed of 16 government agencies and departments that are directly involved in responding to the growing crisis.

To protect the Gulf’s coastal environments, the Obama administration has established five staging centers from which containment and clean-up efforts are planned and launched. These centers are located in Venice, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; Pascagoula, Miss.; Theodore, Ala.; and Pensacola, Fla. More than 22,000 people employed by the federal government coordinate the response.

The U.S. Coast Guard and BP have sent an armada of ships and other seagoing craft into the Gulf to participate in containment and cleanup efforts. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that more than a thousand vessels have been sent to the Gulf “to skim, to lay boom, to pick up oil.”

This fleet is assisted by several winged aircraft, helicopters, remotely operated vehicles and two mobile offshore drilling platforms. The Coast Guard and support vessels have laid about 300 miles of oil boom to contain the slick.

The Defense Department has deployed C-130 Hercules cargo planes specially designed for aerial spraying. The planes have been releasing oil dispersant chemicals over the spill. To date, nearly 700,000 gallons have been used. Additional cleanup craft and equipment have been provided by the military.

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to stay abreast of the  impact that the various spill responses have on the environment. As portions of the spill are burned, the agency measures the air quality in the region. As BP continues to release hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical oil dispersants into the water, the EPA prescribes a course of action based on its environmental impact findings. Other staff are working independently and with BP and other consultants to develop strategies for the capping and cleanup of the oil.

In what seems like a too-little-too-late move, the Department of the Interior has sent inspection and enforcement teams from the Minerals Management Service to check the blowout preventers and other critical safety and emergency measures on dozens offshore drilling platforms operating in the Gulf. Essentially, the MMS teams are out in the Gulf doing what they were supposed to be doing before the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank without anyone in the world knowing what to do about it.

The Justice Department has dispatched attorneys from multiple divisions to New Orleans to meet with response teams and gather information about the efforts being made to control the spill. Attorney General Eric Holder’s team is gathering information related to the spill and may launch a criminal investigation of BP based on their findings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is mainly busy with tracking the spill, predicting its trajectory, and estimating its size. The agency also provides official weather forecasts to the entire response team and is working with government authorities and BP employees to determine the potential impact of the spill on fish, birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and other Gulf inhabitants. NOAA is reportedly using experimental satellite data to survey the pollution and determine the extent of its fallout on the area’s natural resources.

The State Department is involved in assessing the spill in the wider context of U.S. interests and national security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that offshore drilling cannot be done in the future without the proper safeguards to prevent a disaster like this one from occurring.

Interestingly, the U.S. spends several billions of dollars every year tracking and monitoring the harm that outside people and entities pose to our national security, while it allows giant oil corporations to write their own rules, thereby exposing the entire country to environmental calamity and economic hardship.