Oil spill response chief calls for third party to manage future disasters

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, commander of the federal response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, called Monday for creation of a independent third party to oversee containment and cleanup of future spills instead of leaving the job to the government.

Allen told members of President Obama’s commission investigating the spill that the public mistrusted the way BP and the government handled the disaster and that an independent expert would reduce concerns about conflicts of interest.

He said his recommendation does not reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of the Coast Guard or other federal agencies to respond to such incidents.

In testimony to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Allen said he did not think BP had shirked its responsibilities. Yet despite the large scale of the cleanup effort and BP’s pledges to make amends, the public largely believed the response system was broken.

“The reason, I believe, we may want to consider an independent, qualified individual is largely due to the perception of the American people and our political leaders that this is not working,” Allen said. “And if the perception is that strong, we just [should] try to do something about it.”

The Clean Water Act allows the federal government to clean up a spill on its own or have the responsible party, in this case BP, participate, said Joshua Force, an adjunct lecturer at Tulane University Law School and an attorney with Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert.

But Force said that when the polluter plays a key role in the response, it inherently raises questions about a conflict of interest. “Are they doing it the best way or the cheapest way?” he said.

In his comments, Allen proposed an entity that “would represent the industry, oversee the response, have access to the resources, but basically would be firewalled from any fiduciary link back to the shareholders — almost putting the resources in trust and having them executed by an industry expert.”

Allen said that many Gulf Coast “principals” involved in the spill response had missed a March drill designed to inform them what the government would expect from the responsible party. As a result, BP’s role in the response created a lot of tension on the ground, Allen suggested.

BP’s involvement in the response, participation in command-center decisions and attendance at briefings prompted “a visceral reaction at the site,” Allen said.

Some gulf advocates asserted that their mistrust of BP is rooted in the lack of a coordinated spill response with the government and conflicting information that was released, especially in the first few weeks, when the government appeared to defer to BP.

Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based advocacy group, said that initially the government cited BP’s much lower estimates of oil flowing into the gulf rather than higher estimates by others.

That lack of trust has lingered and continues to affect the economic lives of people in the area, said the network’s director, Cynthia Sarthou. For instance, many people along the Gulf Coast so mistrust the authorities that they refuse to eat local seafood, fearing contamination from chemical oil dispersants, despite government assurances it is safe.

“Allen’s responding to what we see on the news here at night,” Force said, “And so, people don’t think the response is fast enough or that they are getting all the resources here they need. You have to understand that given what has happened in the last five years here, people are going to speak up fast when they don’t see the kind of reaction they need.”