Fight smarter on front lines of spill

Published 8:39 pm Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Gulf Coast is far from winning its war against the oil spill, and one reason might be the chaos on the ground. Consider a few of these dispatches from the battlefield:

— A pelican soiled with oil on Ship Island died this week, partly because of delays, including when a wildlife hotline operator in Houston hung up on the Mississippi caller who was reporting the problem.

— The A Whale mammoth skimmer arrived in the Gulf last week, but couldn’t immediately work because the EPA had to sign off on the water it would pump back into the Gulf. That water, regulators fear, might contain trace amounts of crude oil.

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— While OSHA requires specialized training for cleanup workers, oily refuse can be found near public places. For instance, oil is being dumped at a site in Foley near the Grove retirement community until it can be shipped to Magnolia Springs.

— Three weeks ago, when there were 135 boats working out of Dog River and 54 out of Fairhope, none had the training required to handle the oil at that time. All captains could do was report the slicks.

— Volunteers seeking training in Ocean Springs ran into hassles during a mix-up on when and where classes were scheduled. A Web site that was supposed to show the training schedule was accidentally blocked to anyone who didn’t have a password.

— Through mid-June, individual calls to BP’s hotline were funneled through a lengthy maze of bureaucracy. It went like this: First, they reached an operator in Houston, who gave a report to a BP contractor, who routed the call to the appropriate federal agency at the Unified Command Center in Mobile. The center passed the report to the Situation Response Unit, which opened a case file.

Then, a copy of the case file was given to each department within the response unit, and unit members decided what action was needed. The response unit prioritized the reports and picked an operations team best suited to the situation.

The team then decided what assessment team was the right one to deploy. Once an assessment was made, resources were finally deployed. The company estimated that it took the Situation Response Unit about an hour to receive calls but, beyond that, the volume of calls determined the overall response time.

The anecdotes would be funny if the issues were not so serious. Why, for instance, would EPA ignore the oil slicks drifting toward shore in order to test for traces of oil in discharge water? Or why would a BP contractor consider it worthwhile to pay 200 boats to sit idle because it hadn’t trained the captains first?

There are no good explanations for such wrong-headed decisions.

In several of the incidents, officials promised a remedy. An operator was fired; the Web site was fixed; efficiency was to be improved. Maybe it’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. In fact, some remedies came too little and too late — as in the case of the pelican.

Ultimately, if the battle against the oil spill can be considered a war and if the Gulf Coast hopes to prevail, then everyone’s going to have to fight smarter on the front lines.

—The Press-Register