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Is the Coast Guard “in bed” with BP?

Here in New Orleans much of the discussion on talk radio is centered on the Coast Guard’s handling of the BP/ Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Following the lackluster response to Katrina, the general public and local officials want swift and decisive action from federal responders. The problem is that the existing process set up by law makes the spiller responsible for the clean-up. The federal government requires operators to have response plans and contracts in place to clean up oil spills. The feds are responsible to make sure that the approved plans are followed. The general public and local officials have little understanding or tolerance for such processes during an emergency. In fact, some people seem to think that in a disaster all laws become suggestions commonly referred to as “red tape.”

 

If we want to improve our response in the future we must look at the factors which make government respond the way it does: laws and regulations. If an agency charged with enforcing laws and regulations steps in to intervene on response activities, they are looked at as obstructionist bureaucrats. Nothing will make federal agencies respond differently the next time by declaring them “Stuck on stupid.” Perhaps if the federal on-scene coordinator had waiver authority for all laws and regulations, and was shielded from all personal liability, the response would be smoother. Short of that, I suspect the general public will continue to be disappointed.

 

The Coast Guard is not perfect, and the disappointment of the public is understandable. However, the assertion that is being thrown about on talk radio and other media, that the Coast Guard and BP are in cahoots, is absurd. The latest accusation has resulted from a battle of letters between a parish president and a Coast Guard Admiral. According to NOLA.com, on July 22, St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis issued an executive order threatening arrest of anyone who tries to remove the barges protecting Lake Pontchartrain from encroaching oil. Davis issued that executive order after receiving a letter from Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft explaining that oil response assets would be repositioned due to an approaching storm. Rear Adm. Zukunft responded to Kevin Davis’ executive order with a letter which, according to the local Fox 8 News affiliate, states, "I am concerned that the tone of this order is inconsistent with your avowed desire to be a contributing partner in this response. For these reasons, I respectfully ask that you either rescind this order or take all action necessary to ensure that there is no interference with the ongoing federal response. Interference with personnel acting at the direction of the federal on-scene coordinator is a federal offense." The letter was “cc’d” to the U.S. attorney. The resulting story being spun in the local media is that the Coast Guard has threatened to arrest the parish president, which provides more evidence that the Coast Guard is looking out for BP’s interests and not the interest of the taxpayers.

 

The Coast Guard may be guilty of officiousness but certainly not conspiracy. It is difficult to win in the court of public opinion when local officials have the upper hand when dealing with the media. But the media spin must be considered on every action taken these days, even when drafting letters not intended for public disclosure. Who would have thought that five years after the Coast Guard performed heroically in the saving of over 24,000 lives during Hurricane Katrina, that they would be publically booed by the same citizens when their presence was announced at a minor league baseball game?

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