Angry. That is the first word that comes to mind listening firsthand to how folks on the Gulf Coast feel about the federal government’s response the oil spill disaster. For many, this far worse than Katrina. That hurricane swept through three states in hours, covering thousands of square miles; wiping out roads, communications, and everything else needed to respond to the disaster. It is understandable why it took aid too long to reach too many. The oil spill, on the other hand, has been a disaster in slow motion. Everyday people on the Gulf Coast watch what has been their livelihood for decades succumb to the growing cancer of oil contamination. About one-third of all American fisheries are rooted in the marshlands and estuaries of Louisiana where fish and wildlife breed—all that is at risk; as is a once thriving energy industry as a result of the drilling moratorium.
The oil spill was a disaster, but it was not a catastrophe. It is becoming a man-made catastrophe because of a failure to clean-up the spill and respond quickly to the environmental damage being caused by the oil that makes landfall. While there are many people, from private contractors to the Coast Guard, working tirelessly to support the states in protecting their coastline, for many in the federal bureaucracy it seems like business as usual—or worse.
On Grand Isle, the state of Louisiana is fighting a battle to keep oil out of Barataria Bay. The Parish requested a permit from the Corps of Engineers to build rock dams. According to sources that I talked to, all the federal agencies that had to be consulted took 30 days to consider the proposal—then rejected it—and offered no alternative plan.
The sand berms off the Chandeleur Islands are part of the last best line of defense for the Mississippi Delta against a Hurricane headed for landfall. Dredging operations there are vital for building up the berms. Dredging had to be halted, sources told me, because federal officials insisted that contaminated sand be removed first. With Hurricane season already underway, stopping the operations is nothing short of a crisis. Choppy seas prevented boats from carting the sand away. In the end, the National Guard dispatched two helicopters to cart the sand away—probably the most expensive sand removal on record—so work could resume.
There is also a lot of concern and confusion about work rules concerning the clean-up. Long breaks are mandatory and little work is done at night. It is not clear if the problem is federal safety rules or decisions by BP, or if the right answer is that long breaks are unavoidable—in which case, hire more workers.
A Coast Guard regulation levies a heavy fine for coming within 65 feet of a containment boom or ship involved in clean-up activities. That restriction has sent some local officials through the roof. ) Some are concerned that the rule exists only to keep the media from covering the story. Others fear it will prevent volunteer clean-up efforts. If there was a logical reason for the rule, no one down here thinks it was articulated very well. Either way many see the regulation as little more than the heavy hand of government. Talk radio compares the Coast Guard regulation to the federal suit over the Arizona law to combat illegal immigration—a situation where Washington is not only not doing its job, but making everybody else trying to do their job harder.
The right answer to all these problems is a senior political principal federal official who can knock heads. Rather than sit in their air conditioned offices and saddle an under-manned, overworked Coast Guard with the thankless task of herding all the cats, there ought to be Washington official on the hot seat.
Our Live from the Gulf series is brought to you by our team of energy, environment, homeland security and response experts:
James Carafano: Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Jack Spencer: Policy Director, Energy and Environment, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies
Nick Loris: Research Assistant, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies
Rory Cooper: Director of Strategic Communications