USA — Allen Outlines Federal Role in Oil Spill Response

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2010 — The Gulf of Mex­i­co oil spill could soon reach lev­els on par with the 250,000 bar­rels of crude oil lost in the1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, the Coast Guard com­man­dant said yes­ter­day in an inter­view on CNN’s State of the Union.

“By the time we get this leak sealed, the vol­ume that’s out there is prob­a­bly going to start to approach that much,” Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the nation­al inci­dent com­man­der for the Gulf oil spill, told Can­dy Crow­ley.

“Our big con­cern right now is oil that’s com­ing to shore around Port Four­chon in south­ern Louisiana and try­ing to rede­ploy our forces there to meet that,” he con­tin­ued. “At the same time, we’re see­ing tar balls in Mis­sis­sip­pi and Alaba­ma. And this spill has real­ly spread out wide, con­cern­ing its perime­ter, but it’s real­ly con­cen­trat­ed, heavy starts, through­out the area of about a 200-mile radius.”

In a White House news con­fer­ence today, Allen out­lined the basic com­mand-and-con­trol struc­ture for how oil spill response works. He told reporters that although the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has over­sight, the spiller is respon­si­ble for financ­ing cleanup, equip­ment and recoup­ing dam­ag­ing, accord­ing to the Oil Pol­lu­tion Act of 1990. In the Gulf of Mex­i­co, the oil com­pa­ny BP is the account­able par­ty, Allen said.

The leg­is­la­tion was passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, and also cre­at­ed a lia­bil­i­ty trust fund to fund respons­es where there was no respon­si­ble par­ty. The leg­is­la­tion charges Coast Guard area com­man­ders with respon­si­bil­i­ty in those zones. These cap­tain of the port zones work with state and local offi­cials and stake­hold­ers to devel­op pro­tec­tion plans, main­ly for “sen­si­tive areas,” he said.

Cap­tain of the port zones are present on every sin­gle part of the coast­line of the Unit­ed States. When they have to acti­vate a response, the local Coast Guard com­man­der is des­ig­nat­ed the fed­er­al on-scene coor­di­na­tor and coor­di­nates with state and local gov­ern­ments and directs the respon­si­ble par­ty in the cleanup, the admi­ral explained. “That is the way we have been pros­e­cut­ing this case since the explo­sion on the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon on the 20th of April,” he said. “Even in advance of the sink­ing of the drilling unit, we were stag­ing equip­ment that was against the sce­nario we would have a worst-case spill.

“We start­ed actu­al­ly mobi­liz­ing equip­ment sal­vage engi­neers and every­thing right after the event hap­pened into the 21st of April,” he added. For the Gulf Coast spill, the zone com­mands were brought under the com­mand of Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mar­ry Landry, because of the size of the spill, Allen said. Landry over­sees com­man­ders in Mobile, Ala., which cov­ers Mis­sis­sip­pi, Alaba­ma and west­ern Flori­da. Landry also super­vis­es a com­mand in St. Peters­burg and Key West, Fla.

“If some­thing gets large enough where there’s a nation­al issue,” Allen said, “it will come up to the nation­al response team.”

The nation­al response team con­sists of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Coast Guard, the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion and oth­ers. Also, the pres­i­dent can declare “a spill of nation­al sig­nif­i­cance” if the coor­di­na­tion becomes “com­pli­cat­ed,” Allen added.

“This is not pol­i­cy,” he said. “This is a com­mand-and-con­trol struc­ture. It’s actu­al­ly con­tained in the Code of Fed­er­al Reg­u­la­tions that imple­ments the Oil Pol­lu­tion Act of 1990. So there are actu­al­ly clear def­i­n­i­tions.”

Allen said the fed­er­al response team “needs to make sure [BP] exe­cute their respon­si­bil­i­ties as the respon­si­ble par­ty and we car­ry out our respon­si­bil­i­ties and be account­able as the fed­er­al on-scene coor­di­na­tors.”

Allen also explained that in this role, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can issue an order to BP to apply resources in a par­tic­u­lar way if the gov­ern­ment is not pleased with BP’s method. How­ev­er, BP, or the respon­si­ble par­ty, is the one with the means to deal with the spill. The mil­i­tary does not have the equip­ment or tech­nol­o­gy to address the Gulf Coast spill alone, he said.

“Ulti­mate­ly, we are account­able to make sure [BP cleans up the spill],” he said. “The law requires them to play a cer­tain role, to pay for it, to pro­vide equip­ment and so forth, and par­tic­u­lar­ly with try­ing to deal with a leak on the bot­tom of the ocean there — 5,000 feet down.”

While BP works to cap the leak, states have request­ed sup­port from the Army Corps of Engi­neers to pre­vent oil dam­age ashore. Louisiana has applied for a per­mit that sug­gests estab­lish­ing a sys­tem of bar­ri­er islands and berm struc­tures, the admi­ral said.

The Army is eval­u­at­ing the requests and look­ing at costs and sched­ule as well as issues the engi­neers may face. Build­ing the bar­ri­er islands could take as long nine months. The review is still ongo­ing by the Army and Coast Guard, he added.

Oth­er U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port comes from the Air Force, who has been con­duct­ing aer­i­al spray mis­sions to help in neu­tral­iz­ing the oil spill with dis­pers­ing agents. Also, the Air Force is trans­port­ing boom from Alas­ka. Mean­while, the Navy is sup­ply­ing ves­sels to act as stag­ing plat­forms for BP work­ers and equip­ment. Allen esti­mates that it could take until August to cap the oil spill.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)