EPA and the “National Contingency Plan”

Did any of you know that the US supposedly has a National Contingency Plan for dealing with very large oil spills? And that EPA has legal responsibility for maintaining readiness for such an eventuality? Who knew? I’ve watched hours of coverage and this hasn’t been mentioned anywhere.

The National Oil and Hazardous Substances Contingency Plan Act was signed into law in 1994 (superceding previous legislation that went back to the 1969 Torrey Canyon oil spill.) Laws and regulations are collated here. The EPA has an online book describing the National Continency Plan. See for example http://www.epa.gov/oem/docs/oil/edu/oilspill_book/chap7.pdf (change the number to get other chapters.)

The EPA manual says:

WHEN A MAJOR oil spill occurs in the United States, coordinated teams of local, state, and national personnel are called upon to help contain the spill, clean it up, and ensure that damage to human health and the environment is minimized. Without careful planning and clear organization, efforts to deal with large oil spills could be slow, ineffective, and potentially harmful to response personnel and the environment. In the United States, the system for organizing responses to major oil spills is called the National Response System.

One of the principles of the National Contingency Plan is that an effective and prompt response is a national priority. The chair and vice-chair of the National Response Team are to come from EPA and the Coast Guard. The EPA manual says:

AFTER THE PLAN is developed, it is important to test it to see if it works as anticipated. Testing usually takes the form of an exercise or drill to practice responding to a spill.

Also, in a first reading, the presumption of the legislation is that dealing with major problems is a national interest and the government will take charge. The idea behind the plan is that there will be national readiness to deal with oil spills and that EPA will lead the national readiness. Section 3.1.1 (h) states:

Direct planning and preparedness responsibilities of NRT [national Response team] include: (1) Maintaining national preparedness to respond to a major discharge of oil that is beyond regional capabilities.

MMS, who have borne the brunt of criticism of government activities, play little to no role in the National Contingency Plan – based on my initial reading – and definitely a very minor role relative to EPA. MMS does not appear to be a member of the National Response Team (though 300.175 notes that MMS may have useful information and can be called on through the Dept of Interior representative).

I’ve noticed EPA involvement in worrying about dispersant toxicity, but otherwise EPA seems to have been surprisingly invisible given the prominent role assigned to them in the National Contingency Plan.

I’ve only browsed the legislation and manuals and it’s not an area about which I speak authoritatively. I invite readers to look through the Act, regulations and manuals and comment on the degree to which EPA and other agencies have met their statutory obligations. Please do so in relatively technical terms and avoid the temptation to hyperventilate.


  1. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:47 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting. What is the EPA’s capacity to analyze such risks and to formulate and co-ordinate a rapid response? Is it sufficient? If not, then why not? Delineating jurisdictions and responsiblities in the form of an Act does not mean the job gets done.

    • Kenneth Fritsch
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

      “Delineating jurisdictions and responsibilities in the form of an Act does not mean the job gets done.”

      I hope after all we have witnessed in recent months that this situation does not come as a surprise to interested readers. I think a major part of the problem is that there is little the government is capable of doing in these situations – besides “boot on the neck” and threats of law suits.

      What is perhaps surprising (to some) is that the EPA/government legislated responsibilities have not been dwelled on by the US intelligentsia – like the NYT and WashPost.

      • Kenneth Fritsch
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

        snip -

        Steve - please do not philosophize on “government” in general. ALl such discussions sound the same.

        What I’m suggesting is that reader take the National Contingency Plan at face value and analyse the consequences. What was EPA (or other agency) charged with doing? What should we have seen from them if they had fulfilled their obligations? How does that compare with what we’ve seen.

        No need to editorialize.

        CA readers – of all people – should understand the point of such analyses.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:55 AM | Permalink


          Steve – bender, let’s not argue about generalities

        • Kenneth Fritsch
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:27 PM | Permalink

          Not to worry Steve. Jim Edwards made my points quite well about government regulation and I believe we are seeing the evidence of that lately – even if the subject is off limits here.
          Jim Edwards also is doing his expected good job on conscientiously parsing the wording of this laws. I do not know if this is done purposely but sometimes the way he explains, in a most serious tone, these laws makes them sound more than a bit arbitrary and vague.

          So at this point in the discussion, do we agree that the EPA sees its role in the Gulf leak as more or less a passive sample taker and grand advisor on the environmental impact of the leak and with little role in containment. And that the oil spill contingency plan was probably more a matter of public relations with a concerned voting constituency than something that was structured to work under the current conditions.

          I see an hysterical press wringing its collective hands telling Obama he must do something, but I see very little journalistic digging into the matters broached in this thread, i.e. is there a contingency plan and who is expected to do what within its framework and further what has been attempted and why did it work or not..

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:38 PM | Permalink

          Ken asks:

          do we agree that the EPA sees its role in the Gulf leak as more or less a passive sample taker and grand advisor on the environmental impact of the leak and with little role in containment.

          That’s exactly what their own website says. In their minds, it seems monitoring is a response. Whereas in most people’s minds, monitoring merely provides data to guide response. Seems like they’re looking beyond containment to cost-recovery. That’s not EP.

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 6:08 PM | Permalink

          Thanks, Ken. I can’t take credit for the law being arbitrary and vague, though. Much brighter stars in DC have done that for us !

          To play apologist for the EPA [rare for me] the Coast Guard seems the obvious lead agency, to me.

          After all, the Coast Guard has ships, helicopters, and expertise. They have operational experience with currents and local weather patterns. They know the local shoreline. They perform search and rescue – which wouldn’t be required to find a land-based [EPA] spill. They are used to inspecting and communicating with the local parties that will be called upon to assist[and those parties are used to dealing with the USCG...]. They likely have better understanding of what can reasonably expected of operators than land-borne bureaucrats; a Coast Guard OSC would more likely say, “I expect you to be on station by 1800″, rather than, “Plug the damn whole!” They also have built up communications infrastructure along the coastline.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 6:25 PM | Permalink

          USCG may well be expected to lead the response. The question is: what was the response that they were supposed to lead? What was the contigency plan? Or were they expected to make one up from scratch, based on the framework that EPA provided? That can’t be right, otherwise how would they know to have a prioritized list of emergency operations to practice in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2010?

  2. Arthur Dent
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:48 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I suspect that the EPA is far too busy dealing with real emergencies like carbon dioxide emissions to worry itself about a minor oil spill.

    • dearieme
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:37 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Spot on, Arfur.

  3. RalpieGM
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe EPA is limited by the boundaries of the US. That would keep them out of the gulf up to 3 miles

    Steve: Nope. Economic territories include the offshore.

  4. Jim
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:02 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Note that this is to deal with a spill. It says nothing about capping the well. The way I read it, this plan would be equally applicable to a spill from an US leased well and a spill from a Mexican or even Venezuelan well.

  5. Mike
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:02 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Where, oh where, is Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA?

    Incredible, she regulated CO2 as a pollutant but can’t be found when there is a serious oil spill. The US at the moment looks leaderless with regards the oil spill. Assigning blame and threatening lawsuits does not stop an oil spill at the bottom of the sea.

    • Sean
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 2:42 PM | Permalink | Reply

      “Please do so in relatively technical terms and avoid the temptation to hyperventilate.”

      My Freshman year English teacher would have failed you for not reading all of the instructions before you start answering the questions.

  6. Tom Gray
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

    One of the strong criticisms of the Star Wars missile defense program was that rarely triggered large scale emergency responses never work. There is just no opportunity to exercise the program. As a result program bugs are never triggered and cannot be eradicated as is done in more used procedures. Personnel training is similarly compromised. Resources dedicated for the rarely used program will also be diverted to other more urgent sues despite stated policies to not do so.

    A national emergency program like this would have to managed like the Strategic Air Command. There would have to be a national commitment to maintain a high degree of readiness with political careers on the line in case of failure. Star Wars may have worked since it would have operated like SAC. A national oil spill emergency response system would never work.

  7. ZT
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:13 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I think that the basic idea is: the MMS is in league with the oil industry, the FDA is in league with the pharmaceutical industry, the IRS is in league with the financial industry, and the EPA is in league with the climate change industry. If an ‘unforeseen’ problem occurs (i.e. about once a year), a tax payer funded bail out is instituted. The entire plan is believed to be reluctantly underwritten by the rest of the world – but this has never been fully tested.

  8. Slabadang
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM | Permalink | Reply

    How typical?

    Great job as always Steve!
    They just love to point finger and demand responsability when there is someone else to take it. EPA is acting extremely bizarr not to step forward and take responsability now.

  9. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:21 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Readers, please feel free to quote excerpts from the act and manuals. There are many interesting and relevant sections.

  10. Kenneth Fritsch
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:25 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The link below relates some EPA reaction to the Gulf oil leak. Maybe we will not see much reported about the EPA invovlement until they have some really bad news to report.


    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:37 AM | Permalink | Reply

      So the EPA is gutless? I wonder why. Let’s investigate.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:49 AM | Permalink | Reply

      From their website they obviously have no shame in presenting themselves as having a purely monitoring function. So somewhere along the line they chose not to fulfill their legal responsibility for emergency response. Where was that break? When? Who? Dig.

  11. jim edwards
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:58 AM | Permalink | Reply

    When the spill is newsworthy enough to become a political problem, the regs have a loophole that take them out of the normal response structure:

    §300.323 Provides special consideration to discharges which have been classified as a spill of national significance. In such cases, senior federal officials direct nationally-coordinated response efforts.

    Before that point, local pre-designated on-scene coordinators are in charge. I’ve heard the local Coast Guard commander state it was her responsibility – she was probably the pre-designated OSC.

    See §300.120(a)(1) The USCG shall provide OSCs for oil discharges, including discharges from facilities and vessels under the jurisdiction of another federal agency, within or threatening the coastal zone. … [on page 49 of the pdf in your first link, there are some flow charts and jurisdiction zone maps around page 42.]

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

      senior federal officials direct nationally-coordinated response efforts

      This is why Ken’s comment is not just “philosophizing” and did not “sound like all anti-government rants”. Specifying an unspecified response mechanism is the same thing as not specifying a mechanism.

      Are these “senior federal officials” expected to spontaneously self-organize? And how long is that expected to take? Just a few emails I suppose.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:35 PM | Permalink | Reply

      From the EPA FAQ cited by Ken:

      Why isn’t EPA the lead for this environmental disaster?
      Typically for off shore environmental incidents the U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency for a response.

      Jurisdictional buck-passing? Misinterpretation of the Act?

  12. Bruce
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:58 AM | Permalink | Reply


    I think you are describing Plan B.


    • Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

      More like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

      • Tim Hulsey
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Bela Lugosi might do better than JAMES CAMERON!!!

  13. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

    EPA has legal responsibility for maintaining readiness for such an eventuality? Who knew?

    And who has legal responsibility for authorizing the drilling in the first place? NOAA? Or DoI & MMS? Was this work proceeding without a permit? Was the permitting process subverted? How were scientific data incorporated into the risk assessment phase of the permitting process?The regulatory landscape is looking pretty murky to me. No wonder no one’s talking.

    Steve: My own take is that throwing attention on the permitting process is a bit of a distraction. From a permitting point of view, there doesn’t seem to have been anything unusual about this drill hole. Nor is there any reason for each company maintaining its own spill response flotilla nor any obligation to do so. Nor is the scope of the present situation outside the anticipated scope – it’s well within anticipated scope. The big issue IMO – tho not one that the media has picked up on – is what happened to the National Contingency Plan? Why is everyone looking to BP and MMS for leadership rather than EPA? SHouldn’t Lisa Jackson have been doing more than fussing about dispersants toxicity – an important issue – but not the core of the National Contigency Plan? And shouldnt EPA have worried about Corexit toxicity before the crisis rather than in the midst of it?

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

      blockquoting doesn’t work like it used to
      oh well

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:25 PM | Permalink | Reply

      MMS should have had NOAA approval before issuing its permit to BP. This is not a single instance, but a pattern at MMS. Looks like Salazar inherited a corrupt MMS (lack of division between fee collection and safety regulation) and was in the process of reforming it when the accident happened. Now … how did MMS get to be that way prior to Salazar taking over?
      Solve this one and then we can talk about disaster response.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

      “Nor is there any reason for each company maintaining its own spill response flotilla nor any obligation to do so.”

      1. I never said “each his own”. I said “devise a private sector solution” if public sector solution are so unsatisfactory. Nothing saying the private sector can’t work together when it’s in their common interest.

      2. That there is “no obligation to do so” is exactly the problem that I am pointing at. I never said there was a *legal* obligation. But it is widespread public opinion that a moral injustice has been committed and that there is a *moral* obligation to do something to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

      That “something” has lots to do with regulation before the fact, not just emergency response after the fact.

      You can call it a “distraction”. It’s your blog. But I think it’s part of the story.

      • jim edwards
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Yes, there is no obligation to maintain a flotilla, and there is no reason to do so, but that’s BECAUSE of the regulation.

        It’s the law that caps the damages a driller must pay for a spill.

        If we got rid of regulatory schemes that over a century of history has demonstrated invariably favor large corporations, and moved to the fallback common-law position that “businesses must pay the full cost of their mistakes” we probably wouldn’t be in this mess.

        Would a company drill in these waters if liability were unlimited ? Not unless they had a way to prevent damages from bankrupting the company.

        There are private companies that put out oil well fires on land [remember Gulf War I ?]. They support all the major drillers. The market spreads the cost, nobody has to have their own team.

        I agree with you, Bender, the free market would create an opportunity for a regional crisis management / cleanup company for Gulf spills – if the oil companies had to fear paying out the full cost of their mistakes. The cost would be shared by all the regional drillers.

        It’s when the government steps in to remove risk from banks / oil companies / etc that the free market can’t provide a solution. The cap on damages prevented the market from functioning.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:23 PM | Permalink

          I’m not used to being in agreement with anyone. Where’s my error?

        • jonathan price
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:34 PM | Permalink

          So should we get rid of limited liability then? Big step……

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:45 PM | Permalink

          He’s just sayin’ …

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:52 PM | Permalink

          Well, it depends what you mean by limited liability…

          As bad as damages are likely to be, they’re probably much smaller than the funds you’d raise if you went ahead and liquidated all the assets of an Exxon, Shell, or BP.

          We have to be willing to allow the corporations to go bankrupt. If BP has to sell all their refineries, they’ll be operated by Chevron, they won’t disappear.

          Personally, I don’t find it desirable to pierce the corporate veil and go after shareholder’s homes and college funds. [the traditional definition of limited liability]

          I don’t want a bunch of politicians deciding that certain corporations are “too big to fail” and, thus, shouldn’t be fully accountable for the entire cost of their actions. [a modern sense of limited liability]

        • Jim
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:39 PM | Permalink

          That’s not the problem. The problem is, if there’s a finite risk of a 10 billion dollar claim, that’s going to drive a lot of drilling projects overseas where the liability is a lot more manageable. That’s why we have these caps. Not to keep the companies from going bankrupt.

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 12:36 AM | Permalink

          Then let them go overseas.

          It’s an international market for oil, after all. The price of oil in the US is primarily a function of the total quantity produced – no matter where the oil originates.

          [yes, I realize there are different grades and shipping costs, etc...]

          Even if you are correct, and the lack of a cap prevents oil companies from wanting to drill, at some point companies will have to choose between full liability with 5000 foot US wells vs capped liability with 12,000 foot Indonesian wells. There is a point where the additional exposure is cheaper than the avoided drilling cost.

          The true cost of the product should be reflected in the cost. If oil can’t be drilled economically, we should dig Canadian tar sands or switch to a different fuel.

        • Sean
          Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 2:47 PM | Permalink

          Would one of you be willing to change your name? This sub thread is both OT and confusing.

        • jonathan price
          Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 3:12 PM | Permalink

          The limiting of liability (in the traditional sense) was a very major example of governments acting to restrict what would appear to be a normal risk of ownership. Were they wrong? If not, might there be other cases where government action can improve the workings of markets?

    • jim edwards
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:44 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Steve asked:
      “Why is everyone looking to BP and MMS for leadership rather than EPA?”

      Because, as I noted, above, the regulations designate the Coast Guard as the On Scene Commander [OSC].

      The press has been communicating with the Coast Guard. I’ve heard the Coast Guard rep stating that they were the responsible party.

      The Chairmanship of the Nat’l Response Team belongs to EPA, except when there is an actual response, when the chairmanship passes to the agency providing the OSC [see, §300.110(b)]. So the vice-chair, from the Coast Guard, is now the chair of the NRT.

      • bender
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Illuminating. Switch chairs once crisis is triggered.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 1:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

      attention on the permitting process is a bit of a distraction

      Maybe. But not if, as NYT asserts, MMS scientsits advised that the rigs were unsafe (and skimming capacity was over-estimated, response times were liekly to be insufficently rapid, etc.) and permitters chose to ignore the risks.

    • EdeF
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:49 PM | Permalink | Reply

      There is something about this hole that is different from drilling on the continental shelf, and that is the extreme depth of the water. At this depth human divers are out of the question. Some organization should have required demonstration of shut-down technologies at this depth, since the only players that could reach this depth are ROVs. Do the BOP devices operate at this depth? Can you cement at this depth? On the issue of national response, in case of a national emergency, the President has the power and authority to take over any national response (powers given him by Congress) and can designate anyone he wants to lead the effort including the VP, a General, a
      Governor, etc. The gov’t could have stepped-in on day one and taken over if they wanted to. I won’t speculate on motives, just on the practicalities of getting the leak stopped and the oil contained. The Coast Guard was activated. Recall that the US Gov’t has at its beck and call the US Military
      including the Navy, with explosives experts and underwater experts, Air Force and Navy demo guys, you name it. They have not been called. EPA has been MIA. Its the Environmental Protection Agency. Environment. Protection.
      Once the spill starts the MMA is in the background like Tony Orlandos singing career. Contingency plans can be tested with drills, computer simulations…..yes computer simulations. How many large-scale exercises have the EPA and Coast Guard put on in the last 10 years with large oil spill recovery in mind?

      Steve: surely the leak itself and the spill mitigation are different theatres. Both in retrospect and even in any rational plan, the National Response Team would handle the mitigation – skimmers, dispersants, shoreline protection. I don’t see any role for BP or any private company in the language of the National Contingency Plan. The language of the Act contemplates that the National Response Team would have a plan and take charge. I wonder if there is any document evidencing the existence of a planned response and whether, as a reader asked, there have been exercises in the past 10 years.

  14. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:00 PM | Permalink | Reply

    bender – I’m trying to stay away from stereotyped public-private discussions. One may have adverse opinions of the police, but nonetheless they are charged with carrying out their responsibilities.

    The US government passed a National Contingency Plan Act. Surely the starting point of the analysis should be whether the parties executed this Plan the way it was designed.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:19 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I don’t dispute the legitimacy of that starting point. I dispute that it is the only starting point. But never mind. The analysis you suggest would indeed be very useful.

      So, the crisis triggers a shift in the seat of power. As power shifts from EPA to Coast Guard, we are then supposed to expect a vigorous and integrated response? How, during non-emergency times, is EPA supposed to keep track of the Coast Guard’s capacity to respond when they are separate organizations? Who’s job is it to analyze things like skimming capacity and deployment strategy? Obviously not the guys actually delivering the response. Weird.

    • jim edwards
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:38 PM | Permalink | Reply

      See §300.145, Re: Special Teams and other assistance available to OSCs

      [pp 51-53 in the first pdf you linked to]

      There is an NSF Gulf Strike Team that’s supposed to assist in containment / cleanup efforts [§300.145(a)(1)]

      The North Carolina-based NSFCC provides logistical support, arranging for locating / moving of needed equipment, etc. It was also the group that should have looked at the local contingency plans (see below) [§300.145(a)(2)]

      NSFCC also has a public relations agency [PIAT], so that the OSC doesn’t have to spend all their time talking to reporters. Are they being utilized ? [§300.145(a)(3)]

      One function the EPA does retain is an Environmental Response Team, tasked with providing advice to the OSC on issues like application of dispersants, cleanup priorities, and environmental assessment. [§300.145(b)(1-2)]

      For coastal spills, Scientific Support Coordinators are from NOAA, not EPA, and may be requested by the OSC [Coast Guard]. The NOAA team acts as the OSC’s staff [§300.145(c)(1-2)]

      The NOAA SSCs are supposed to have helped the regional teams come up with contingency plans ahead of time, as well as provided assistance with spill training and exercises [§300.145(c)(4)]

  15. Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:15 PM | Permalink | Reply

    What do you all mean?
    The EPA has performed admirably. So far they’ve fulfilled all my expectations.

  16. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Re: Response capacity

    From EPA’s website:

    Does EPA have sufficent financial resources to fund response efforts?
    As the responsible party, BP is required (by the 1990 Oil Pollution Act) to fund the cost of the response and cleanup operations. The administration will be aggressive in its response and it will use all of its available resources.

    BP may dispute that responsiblity. And how wise would it be for the Coast Guard to use “all available resources” in responding if there is a chance responsibility will not lie as EPA assumes? Is it even meaningful for EPA to promise such a response, if the magnitude of response is actually in the hands of the Coast Guard?

  17. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:38 PM | Permalink | Reply

    bender, the EPA and Coast Guard are both members of the National Response Team, which is charged with national preparedness. If they go live in an incident, the Coast Guard is chair, but normally EPA is chair.

    In the case at hand, the question is what they found when they went into the cupboard. Was the national preparedness plan up to date and usable? Based on performance, it doesn’t seem like it or they would be doing better.

    BP’s performance or lack of performance has no bearing on the responsibilities of EPA and other members of the National Response Team to provide a national preparedness plan.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:47 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I know. See crosspost immediately below.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:50 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Who were the EPA chairs of the NRT from 1994-2010?

  18. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 2:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Direct planning and preparedness responsibilities of NRT [national Response team] include: (1) Maintaining national preparedness to respond to a major discharge of oil that is beyond regional capabilities.

    So it is up to the EPA (chair) to “mainatain preparedness” of the Coast Guard (vice chair), so that when crisis strikes & the Coast Guard becomes chair, they have the capacity to respond? You’ve got to be kidding. Lack of preparedness because of musical chairs?

    Steve - bender, read the Act. They are supposed to form a coordinating committee to make a plan. Right now we don’t know whether there even was a plan.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

      What’s the NCP? Google: National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan Overview

    • jim edwards
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:13 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I’m sure there was a plan; the question is: was it a sufficient plan ?

      I had this debate with my administrative law professor, who was enamored of agencies, because they ‘could marshall incredible expertise.’ This, allegedly, enabled them to develop the correct plans and regulations.

      The problem is, agencies tend to hire last generation’s experts and give them life-tenure. They’re always looking to prevent the accident that would have occured twenty years ago. The private sector has, generally, long since moved beyond that point.

      All the innovation is occuring in the private sector, and the so-called government “experts” usually end up over their heads, technically. The MMS / NOAA / NSFCC “experts” that know anything about off-shore drilling probably understand drilling in 500 feet of water, not 5000 feet of water. The technical difficulties relating to pressure, high flow rate, and hydrate formation are levels beyond near-coastal drilling. It’s not surprising a shallow water plan wouldn’t work on a deep water plan.

      Government agency experts tend to be good at stifling growth while ignoring emergent issues until they blow up. [think building inspectors...]

      • bender
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:17 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:28 PM | Permalink

          So that’s two points of agreement ?

      • bender
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:21 PM | Permalink | Reply

        If there is a plan it must be one hell of a read. The plan framework alone is 112 pages:

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:41 PM | Permalink

          See the article EdEf, above, linked to Re: past exercises -

          …Experts maintain, however, that the government does deserve a hefty share of the blame, especially in regard to ensuring that both safety and containment technology kept pace with the oil industry’s expansion of drilling in deep waters. They said inflatable booms were an ineffective tool.

          “The technology that’s being used on the surface is over 30 years old,” said Jerome Milgram, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I can say this. I don’t see any practical effect for putting out booms when the sea conditions are such that the booms are totally ineffective.”

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:44 PM | Permalink

          Make that three points of agreement. Good digging. Lots still to drill into.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:50 PM | Permalink

          Steve’s specific question, however, is what is the evidence that old-school skimmers were not a sufficient coping method. This article tries to argue that new technology was needed and that it’s industry’s fault that it wasn’t developed fast enough to keep pace with the deep drilling. That side-steps Steve’s question about skimming capacity.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:56 PM | Permalink

          Reading further …
          I guess skimming capacity is partly determined by boom capacity. No booming, no skimming. Booming in deep water is probably not that effective.
          Seems this was a known problem.

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:26 PM | Permalink

          Even if the containment technologies worked great, the required clean-up is going to be a function of:

          1) well productivity / flow rate
          [This may be intensified where, as here, the petroleum is entrained with highly-pressurized methane.]

          2) leak duration
          [clearly longer when the leak can't easily be fixed]

          Ten skimmers might be appropriate for a near-shore leak. A deep-water leak might require two hundred skimmers to keep up with the rate. The skimmers also require tankers to load their oil-water mix into. A deep-water leak might require many more tankers on the water.

          There’s also a question of whether the oil is coming directly to the surface. If not, is it a problem if it remains submerged, and will submerged oil create a problem for correctly positioning the skimmers to anticipate where the oil emerges ?

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:31 PM | Permalink

          Yes. And I don’t see how you develop a rational response plan without a reasonable physical model of the problem. And how do such plans get approved as credible? MMS is how. And Steve wonders why they’re in the spotlight.

    • Keith Herbert
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 3:40 PM | Permalink | Reply

      My comments refer to Part 300 which begins on page 33.

      The National Response Team is so broad and generally defined it includes most agencies in the federal government at some level of cooperation (see 300.170).

      Section 300.110(h) states the NRT has “direct planning and preparedness responsibilities” and inumerates them in items 1-9. But takes some of the weight off in item 4, “coordinating a national program to assist member agencies…”. So whose responsibility is it, NRT or member agency?

      The lessening of responsibility occurs elsewhere. For instance 300.110 states USCG is a head member of the NRT then states in 300.175(b) they have responsibilites limited to surveillance, navigation, ports etc. So are they only responsible for preparedness of that aspect. If that is the case, they probably fulfilled their obligations.

      Given the “Soil Conservation Service” and “Food and Safety Service” are among the multitude of agencies sharing “responsibilites”, it is unlikely blame will stop at a specific agency (certainly not a government one).

      I am unable to find how the OSC (On-scene coordinator) is selected by the NRT(EPA?). Can EPA assign an official from BP as OSC and declare their job is done? It would be a strong argument that BP certainly knows more about oil spills than the EPA.

      • jim edwards
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:01 PM | Permalink | Reply

        The OSC is the Coast Guard’s local Captain of the Port [§300.120(b)], unless the incident gets escalated – when the Commandant of the Coast Guard names an OSC. [§300.323(c)]

        §300.210 lists the requirements of what comprise the federal contingency plans. [equipment, personnel, procedures, et Al]

        • Keith Herbert
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:41 PM | Permalink

          Except 300.120(a) says EPA “predesignates OSCs”. And I notice that OSCs are referred in the plural. So there are OSCs for different USCG ports and multiple EPA OSCs for different regions.

          But who’s in charge? The commentary on page 6 suggests the OSC is a public official but is that actually stated in the Act? It is telling also that a commenter suggested the since the OSC has “ultimate responsibility for the spill response effort…” they should be qualifed and possess certain skills; the EPA disagreed.

        • jim edwards
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

          Read again. §300.120(a) says the EPA and the USCG predesignate OSCs.

          The following §300.120(a)(1) further states that USCG provides OSCs for oil discharges within or threatening the coastal zone.

          §300.120(a)(2), on the other hand, tells us EPA provides OSCs for discharges on or threatening inland zones.

          The various OSCs will likely be based out of the zones shown on the diagrams on pp 45-46 of the pdf.

        • Keith Herbert
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 7:44 PM | Permalink

          I get that, but as this is viewed as an environmental crisis, shouldn’t we suppose the EPA also has their OSCs involved? But is there a head OSC? maybe USCG, maybe not. Doesn’t seem all that clear from the various sections. And certainly doesn’t seem clear from the news.

          I sense you suspect it all goes to USCG but I don’t read it that way. It is handed out to any agency that might have some jurisdiction. At this point there should be OSCs for oil recovery, fishing, recreation and so on. At least that’s how I’m reading it.

  19. Scott Brim
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:02 PM | Permalink | Reply

    In both government and private industry, there are any number of plans, processes, and procedures for handling a variety of contingencies that are rarely, if ever, invoked — even if the particular contingency being planned for actually does occur with some measurable degree of frequency.

    It’s all a matter of how much time and money, and how many people, management is willing to devote to any particular contingency, under their current list of work priorities.

    Moreover, is there an opportunity cost for being too proactive in preparing to deal with some types of rare-but-expensive contingencies at the expense of being able to deal effectively with others that are less costly, but more frequent in occurrence?

    Anyway ….

    If we examined EPA’s FY 2010 budget in some detail, would we find anything at all which specifically implements the National Contingency Plan, directly or indirectly?

    And if we looked at the EPA’s current organization chart and at a list of each individual organization’s assigned responsibilities, would we find any mention at all of the National Contingency Plan?

  20. bender
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:05 PM | Permalink | Reply

    If BP’s oil spill response plan (required by MMS) was reliant on optimistic estimates of skimming capacity (through fault estimates of boom efficiency), then this directly brings into question the issue of permits, and takes the spotlight off NRT et al. Part of what a NRT must do is evaluate what they will do if hard-wired planned responses fail. But there must be an assumption there that there will be a planned local response prior to the national response. If BP did not implement its planned response, then this answers Steve’s question as to why they’re receiving so much attention, and not EPA. The emergency responses come after the planned responses have failed. That’s why they’re slow. A phased response is engineered to be relatively slow.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:21 PM | Permalink | Reply

      A blown well in the Gulf of Mexico would seem to qualify as an event requiring an incident commander – regardless of the estimated volume of flow. So that 9d delay is inexcusable. The real problem here is not the lack of RAPID response attributible to goverment bungling. It is the lack of ANY effective response. How is that the government’s fault? Remember the role of emergency response was foisted onto them in 1994. The magnitude of that responsiblity was probably not appreciated. Yes, they’ve had 16 years to adapt institutionally. And how much opportunity to adapt technologically? Get real. Who did the foisting? What’s the business model here? Follow the money.

      • Scott Brim
        Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:08 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Bender, I’ve taken some time to skim through the EPA’s pdf, the one Steve linked to above, and it reminds me very much of the kind of paper-chase contingency planning that was being done in the Cold War for the possibility of a nuclear attack.

        There are a variety of roles, actions, and responsibilities described in the plan, ones which are assigned to a variety of people and organizations — the proper and effective coordination of which would require much prior training and much prior practice to properly achieve when done in the context of a real-world incident.

        In disaster planning, sometimes the disconnect between theory and real-world practice can reach absurd levels.

        Thirty-five years ago when I worked for the Department of Interior, we were given instructions as to what to in the event of a “National Emergency”, which was a code phrase for nuclear war with the Soviets.

        Our instructions were that if we were unable to report to our office — presumably because it was a pile of rubble — we were to report to the nearest operable US Post Office and fill out the Civil Service Employee Locator Form. The post office would then forward the form to our regional headquarters and we would be assigned to whatever recovery work was needed.

        My boss at the time, after reading these instructions at a staff meeting, told us that his own expectation was that if we survived the initial attack, we should look out for ourselves and for our families first, our immediate neighbors next; and if any free time was left over after that, we could then wander on down to the nearest post office, whatever was left of it, and fill out the form.

        • bender
          Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:32 PM | Permalink

          In disaster planning, sometimes the disconnect between theory and real-world practice can reach absurd levels.

          Great line. And story. But that’s in part why the NRT concept was centralized. They’re supposed to have a culture of knowing in advance that they will need to cope with such absurdity, regardless of the system. How do you respond according to your command structure, when your command structure appears to be broken? Failsafes fail. Then what?

  21. don
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 4:57 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Perhaps someone with the expertise knows. Would a one megaton nuclear device at BOP (blow out preventer) ground zero have stopped the gusher? If so, what would be the long and short term trade offs given what has actually occurred? And should such a scenario have occurred, if it did not, during planning for a national contingency plan?

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:08 PM | Permalink | Reply

      The question is what documents exist discussing the various response options. The sort of options one would expect to see reviewed in any response plan.

  22. Ed Waage
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 5:44 PM | Permalink | Reply

    According to a fact sheet here
    It states:
    “On-Scene Coordinator:
    At the federal level, the On-Scene Coordinator (OSC), is an official from EPA for spills in the inland zone and from the Coast Guard for spills in the coastal zone. The OSC is the lead federal official for spill response.”

    The Coast Guard is basically calling the shots while the politicians are scurrying around.

    More info is here:

    And a timeline is here:
    There is an apparent typo at the bottom of the page where it states: “More than 120 controlled burns have been conducted, efficiently removing a total of more than 2.8 gallons of oil from the open water in an effort to protect shoreline and wildlife.”
    If one divides 2.8 gal by 120 one gets about 0.023 gallons per burn or about 6 Tablespoons of oil.

  23. Scott Brim
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 6:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Regardless of how the paper plan reads, does the EPA itself have the human and material resources and the technical/administrative know-how to diligently coordinate and direct a multi-agency, multi-company, multi-government comprehensive response to this kind event?

    If the EPA actually was capable of doing so — I’m talking response coordination and direction here, not the on-the-ground disaster response field activities themselves — they probably would be doing so right now, given the high visibility and potential long-term consequences of the event.

  24. Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 6:18 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The National Response Team went running to the bunker where the fire booms and regular skimming booms and found the cupboard was bare.

    The National Response Team then issued their final order, never mind.

  25. Craig Loehle
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 7:34 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The idea of EPA directing real-world real-time emergency procedures (the clean-up operation) is comical. These guys spend 20 years developing water quality criteria or evaluating and regulating a pesticide. They are specialists at paperwork and saying “no”, not operating a fleet of ships. At least the Coast Guard regularly deals with real lost-at-sea and hurricane events. Heck, even the Forest Service deals with huge fires every year with airplanes, trucks, and 1000 people on the ground. They can’t take two weeks to evaluate whether to put in a berm, they’ve got hours to make decisions. Give it to them.

  26. ianl8888
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 7:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

    SMc may regard this as OT – he generally does. But my real-life experience of disaster response by Authorities as against operating personnel on the ground is that of a mixture of well-meaning but totally chaotic and inherently dangerous unfocussed activity combined with bureaucratic turf wars

    In 1984 I was the mine geologist for several operating underground coalmines in Central Queensland. One of those fine days, a catastrophic methane-initiated explosion took place in one of the mines during day-shift (by fortune, I happened to be elsewhere at the time although I had been underground each previous day for over a week)

    Recovery of the mine to collect the bodies and try and figure out what actually happened was slow, difficult, frustrating, highly pressurised (media reps everywhere) and fraught with potential “gotchas”. Desperate. Nonetheless, we were making progress in the critical task of bringing the atmosphere back to something resembling air, out of the explosive range. Still, at this point it was poisonous and was likely to drift back up into re-explosive territory

    I was sitting on the ground outside the Emergency Control Office on-site, totally f..ed for the time from drilling holes for underground atmosphere control over 36 hours non-stop. Suddenly a contingent of police (about 6 people) came trotting through the yard heading directly for the mine entrance …no underground gear, lights, boots, self-rescuers, oxygen masks or bottles – just them. They were tired of waiting for us and they were going to “resolve the issue”

    Detailed contingency plans from inexperienced authorities are not to be regarded as useful. I’m quite pleased that the various Govt bodies discussed above are just wringing their hands. Best it stays that way

  27. Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:25 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I just want to know why the rig blew up in the first place.

  28. David Smith
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 9:40 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The Coast Guard is the lead player in an event like this. EPA’s role is to chatter. My personal experience with the USCG is that they are good at their jobs. I suspect that, when the full story is told, they did well.

    Question (in the spirit of Climate Audit) – why, exactly, do people believe that the spill response has been bungled? Public communication has been poor, response leadership has been invisible and BP messed up before, during and after the rig incident. But, I suspect that the people doing the containment and recovery are doing OK.\

    Steve: My point in this is that the scale of the blow out is within expected cases. If the people are doing “OK” given their equipment, then surely there’s something wrong with the plan – because it seems like it should have been possible to do contain this thing.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

      “Contained” within Gulf of Mexico. Doing ok. Mission Accomplished.

    • David Smith
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 7:24 AM | Permalink | Reply

      I caution against using too broad a brush to characterize the parties. BP, US political leadership, EPA and some others have demonstrated ineptitude and/or irrelevancy. I don’t know that the Coast Guard and their response can be characterized in the same way.

      Facts would be helpful before passing judgment on the containment and cleanup effort. However, hard information (spill size, fraction captured both at the site and near shore, fraction underwater, nature and quantity of the material which is not contained, estimate of how much has actually come ashore and in what form, etc) is woefully rare in this incident.

  29. jg
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:18 PM | Permalink | Reply

    My simplistic view: Blowout prevention was the only practical spill containment strategy and without it spill containment and recovery were never practical.

    My experience has been in writing oil spill response plans for federal fuel storage facilities on land and at waterfront facilities where fuel was transferred to or from land.

    The plan would describe: the organization for operation of the facility and for spill response, the physical facility, the estimated spill scenarios (small to large), the predicted amount and direction of the flow of the spill, an inventory of the equipment available for response actions and its location, and a description of what should be done by whom with the equipment to contain, recover, and store the spilled oil.

    Regular drills are then conducted to validate the plan. Revisions are then made based upon the lessons learned in the drill.

    For a land facility or ship leak this is fairly straight forward because the oil will be on land or entering at or near the surface of the water. The oil will stay on the surface. The goal is to have a plan, personnel, and equipment ready to immediately contain the spill (usually with secondary containment structures on land or booms on the water) and then recover the oil by skimming it off the surface before weather or sea conditions mix the oil with the water(emulsify) which makes recovery much more difficult.

    But if they are drilling into a pressurized deposit one mile beneath the surface of the water, it seems to me it is not practical to develop a plan to contain oil that is jetting out under pressure into the water 5000 feet below the surface.

    This analysis may be too elementary due to my ignorance of deep water drilling but how could they have allowed them to proceed without a plan to address this potential spill scenario?

    If the plan followed the basic concepts used on land or sea it would have required (for all components of the system) primary containment to hold the oil under normal circumstances, with secondary containment to hold any leakage and monitoring in between for early detection of leaks. I am not sure how you could do this when the rig sinks and breaks the pipe connecting it to the bottom.

    What you have linked as BP’s plan does not contain the spill at the source but is only addressing the oil that eventually reaches the surface, and we all can see now that by that time the oil has moved great distances, emulsified, weathered and become impossible to contain or recover in any significant way.

    In other words they ignored the reality of the worst case spill and the federal reviews of the plan and permit applications did too.

    Sinking of the rig sounds like the worst case to me. If in that case they were relying on the blow out preventer as the last resort to prevent oil from leaking from the pressurized geological deposit then it should have been demonstrated to be redundantly fail safe.

    And the public should have been advised of these risks before BP was allowed to proceed.

    • RLS
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 10:10 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Well said!—-agree with multi-redundant valve operators (BOP)
      Not sure I agree with your last remark

      • jg
        Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 11:32 AM | Permalink | Reply

        The NEPA process was required (which informs the public of proposed federal action and potential envirnmental impacts – this is federal permited drilling in federal waters) but BP was granted a categorical exclusion from this requirement by MMS (who is responsible for that?).

      • H Davis
        Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 7:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Based on testimony at the Coast Guard hearings a few days ago the BOP was redundant. There were 2 independent systems on board to close the thing off, apparently powered by 2 hydraulic lines to the surface. This included a second set of shears (super shears)to handle the high strength pipe that was sometimes used. The on board electronics was also powered by 2 separate cable bundles to the surface. In the event of a failure of these there were batteries and pressure bottles on board the BOP to power the valves and electronics. Also, there was a dead man feature to automatically close the valves if a certain combination of lines to the surface were lost. In addition to closing the well off it appears the casing to the surface was supposed to disconnect where they are now sawing it off. The guy in charge of the BOP testified that he pushed the emergency button on the bridge to cause the BOP to close but he got no indication that anything happened.

  30. justbeau
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:19 PM | Permalink | Reply

    This is an oil well blowout, rather than a spill, normally associated with a leak from a ship or tank. Oil well production is a MMS reponsibility.

    There has never been a blowout of this massive magnitude, so EPA is likely under-resourced for its epic size.

    Steve: the present situation is clearly included in the terms of reference of the National Contingency Plan. MMS is not a party in the National Contingency Plan and, to the extent, that this Plan did not exist or was defective, this cannot be blamed on MMS, but on the members of the National Response Team, charged with ensuring preparedness.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:51 PM | Permalink | Reply

      EPA is likely under-resourced for its epic size

      But this sort of weakness in response capacity should have been identified in any contingency plan. Which begs the question Steve is asking: where is the emergency contingency plan? Second, you can’t mean it’s EPA that was under-resourced, but rather USCG, as the primary responder. And was this USCG’s fault, or EPAs? Who’s responsibility is it to periodically assess response capacity?

    • justbeau
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 6:35 AM | Permalink | Reply

      There are a great number of “spills”. They happen frequently. Many are trivial and utterly unnewsworthy.

      If a blown oil well constitutes a spill, the legally responsible party for the cleanup should be BP. The USEPA would add its personnel to the overall cleanup mission, augmenting rather than replacing, the company’s efforts. The USEPA should send BP a bill for its costs incurred, on the principle that polluters pay for their pollution. The NCP was probably authorized under the Superfund law and generally consistent with hazardous waste programs.

      • justbeau
        Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 6:46 AM | Permalink | Reply

        I read a little bit at the EPA web site. It sounds like the genesis of the NCP came before founding of the USEPA (Dec 1970). The first trigger was a conventional shipborne tanker accident, the Torrey Canyon.
        In general, cleanup of oil or other hazardous materials would be a USEPA and State environmental agency responsibility. BP either cleans up by itself or if the pace of cleanup is unsatisfactory, the USEPA and State environmental agencies will contribute their efforts (and bill BP for these). Either way, BP is fully responsible for paying cleanup costs, as the company knows and has publicly acknowledged.

    • Joe Crawford
      Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 10:45 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Re: justbeau (Jun 2 22:19),

      There has never been a blowout of this massive magnitude, so EPA is likely under-resourced for its epic size.

      The current spill is eerily similar to the Ixtoc I blowout in the Bay of Campeche in 1979 that, at least in the initial stages, spilled an estimated 30,000 barrels of oil per day and lasted for 10 months.

      • justbeau
        Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 4:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Joe, thanks for the Ixtoc link. A great blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and I had not heard of it. (I was on active duty at the time and far from keeping up with the news.)

    • Robert Waters
      Posted Jun 8, 2010 at 10:53 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Ixtoc I in 1979 was in shallow water and didn’t have the seafloor mounted BOPs and riser, and the blowout was triggered by incompetent people making a very bad decision. The deep water greatly increases the difficulty in performing any kind of mitigation effort, but it also brings on so much cost that safety regulations are usually strictly observed. Blowouts are almost always caused by at least two mistakes. BP made several, the last one or two uncorrectable. One similarity between this and Ixtoc was the attempt to use a containment device (called the “Sombrero in Ixtoc). The Sombrero was ‘way undersized and was overwhelmed by the oil and gas flow. Red Adair could not do anything effective because the surface riser was damaged. Ixtoc was eventually controlled by one of two relief wells. Much of the oil and tar made it the few hundred miles to Texas beaches.

  31. hunter
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 10:29 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Perhaps the EPA has been too busy promoting CAGW to do its actual job?

  32. Capt G
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:03 PM | Permalink | Reply

    As a merchant marine officer of twenty years, including sailing tankers, I’ve had my dealings with the Coast Guard. While I have nothing against them, they are largely a bureaucracy once you get past ice-breaking and rescue at sea. The expertise is compartmentalized and most often not actually available for local events. Another words; the guy you’re dealing with may have a check-list of items while possessing no real knowledge about the items. He’ll check that your cargo gear has been tested and certificated but has no idea how any of that was done.

    Now, given their overall responsibilities, one would think that they might have a rapid deployment force similar to what the armed forces (largely the USMC and merchant ships) have. You’d think that there would be a few C-130′s, a pile of containment and burn booms, and trained personnel available to respond anywhere CONUS on short notice. It might be too much to expect them to own actual skimmers, though the cost seems reasonable to me compared to their air wing expenses, but they should certainly have a local contingency plan for the acquisition and commandeering of local vessels for boom deployment. It boggles the mind to consider that local fishermen and shrimpers would not sign up in advance for the emergency chartering of their crews and vessels for oil containment. There is no such plan. Not even close.

    The Coast Guard does not have the expertise to pump out an undamaged tanker alongside the dock; let alone one aground. From within the industry it is easy to assume that, in the event of an incident, their primary job is to see that everyone involved gets a blood test for drugs and alcohol. In short, they ain’t gonna put the fire out on your ship, they’re not even going to even help, but they’ll make sure that no one involved had been drinking. You’ll rely on the NYC fire department or other private concerns to do that work.

    I’m not criticizing the USCG. It’s just that they are neither mandated nor funded to perform operations that one might logically think a coast guard would perform. And their knowledge of merchant ships and operations is of a magnitude far greater than oil drilling rigs.

    In this case, if there was a master plan somewhere in a filing cabinet it really doesn’t matter since there were no resources or assets to back it up. One can make the valid claim that containment booms and fire booms are of limited utility, particularly offshore, but one is still left with the fact that they are of absolutely no utility if you don’t have any.

    Even more incomprehensible is that the various bureaucracies have never bothered to getting around to mandating that the oil industry have such assets available regionally. But hey, everybody got drug tested, right?

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:40 PM | Permalink | Reply

      they are neither mandated

      No? Then who does the Act mandate? I thought this was settled already by jim edwards?

      • Capt G
        Posted Jun 8, 2010 at 11:03 AM | Permalink | Reply

        They are not mandated to possess or operate clean-up gear or even containment gear. What you’ve got now is a bunch of coordinators. Yeah, all chiefs and no indians.

  33. Kenneth Fritsch
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Does this proposal have any merit?

    Even so, an environmental catastrophe may have been quickly and easily averted if the administration had implemented a federal oil spill response plan drawn up by the Clinton administration in 1994. The Clinton administration formulated an “In-Situ Burn” plan calling for the immediate use of fire booms to contain major spills in the Gulf of Mexico.


    I have yet to hear what is being done for containment of the “escaped oil”. The governor of LA seems to think that booms and barriers would have provided relief for his state. I have not heard much discussion of the validity of what he has proposed.

    • bender
      Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Well, we have heard an assertion that “containment booms no good on choppy water” and one that “containment booms not available”. So there is SOME discussion.

  34. mccall
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I believe the EPA oil spill contingency plan and related 1994 law screw-ups have been covered extensively by both FNC, and their the commentary shows from day ~10 on. I believe it was linked to on Drudge, as well.

  35. R.M. Lansford
    Posted Jun 2, 2010 at 11:38 PM | Permalink | Reply

    First clue I had that there might be a Gulf-wide plan was from this interview:
    http://blog.al.com/live/2010/04/burning_should_have_started_a.html dated April 29.

    Read somewhere (can’t find it now) that none of the necessary siphons were actually available in the Gulf at the time of the spill.


  36. Geoff Sherrington
    Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 5:59 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The following contribution provides observations but no solutions.

    Countries like GB, USA, Canada, Australia have engaged in a number of international treaties over the years, some multilateral, some unilateral, some now ceased, some yet to be ratified. The teaty makers are getting coy and it is hard to count how many treaties Australia has but I would guess between 3,000 and 4,000.

    One has to ask how many of these are a public display of lip service to a concept at one time appealing to the voter; how many are vital to the conduct of international relations; and most interestingly, what would happen if all were required to be operated simultaneously. There would be so much conflict of unintended consequences that the treaty process would paralyse overnight. My private feeling is that most of our treaties can be safely eradicated.

    So it seems to be with the USA EPA. It has been prominent in doing things designed to appeal to the green movement, and has enacted regulations that are in the class of “popular reading, but practically unworkable”. It is far easier to make a new law or regulation than it is to cancel one, even with sunset clauses. I suspect the EPA response in the present matter is past window dressing with no capability and that’s the way it will stay – it keeps the apparent employment rate lower, even if it engages people in useless work.

  37. jg
    Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 7:56 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Any oil spill that create a “sheen” must be reported.

    The National Response Center (NRC) is the sole federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills. If you have a spill to report, contact us via our toll-free number or check out our Web Site for additional information on reporting requirements and procedures. For those without 800 access, please contact us at 202.267.2675. The NRC operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.


    The National Response System (NRS) is the government’s mechanism for emergency response to discharges of oil and the release of chemicals into the navigable waters or environment of the United States and its territories. Initially, this system focused on oil spills and selected hazardous polluting substances discharged into the environment. It has since been expanded by other legislation to include hazardous substances and wastes released to all types of media.

    The NRS functions through a network of interagency and inter-government relationships which were formally established and described in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP). The NCP establishes three high level organizations and four special force components which are described below.

    Federal On-Scene Coordinators (FOSC)
    The FOSC is a federal official, pre-designated by EPA for inland areas and by the Coast Guard for coastal or major navigable waterways. These individuals coordinate all federal containment, removal, disposal efforts, and resources during an incident. The FOSC also coordinates federal efforts with the local community’s response. Anyone responsible for reporting releases should be aware of which FOSC has responsibility for the affected area. For locations near the coast or a major waterway, there may be both a Coast Guard and EPA FOSC with assigned responsibilities within jurisdictional boundaries of various state or local entities.

    National Response Team (NRT)
    The National Response Team’s membership consists of 16 federal agencies with interest and expertise in various aspects of emergency response to pollution incidents. The NRT is a planning, policy, and coordinating body; providing national level policy guidance prior to an incident and does not respond directly to an incident. They can provide assistance to an FOSC during an incident, usually in the form of technical advice or access to additional resources and equipment at the national level.

    Regional Response Team (RRT)
    The RRT’s are the next organizational level in the federal response system. Currently, there are 13 RRTs, one for each of the ten federal regions, plus one each for Alaska, the Caribbean and the Pacific Basin. Each team maintains a Regional Contingency Plan and both the state and federal governments are represented. The RRTs are primarily planning, policy and coordinating bodies. They provide guidance to FOSCs through the Regional Contingency Plans and work to locate assistance requested by the FOSC during an incident. RRTs may also provide assistance to state and local governments in preparing, planning or training for emergency response.
    The four special force components are;
    Coast Guard National Strike Force (NSF)
    The NSF is composed of three strategically located strike teams and a coordination center. The strike teams have specially trained personnel and are equipped to respond to major oil spills and chemical releases. The coordination center maintains a national inventory listing of spill response equipment and assists with the development and implementation of an exercise and training program for the National Response System. NSF capabilities are especially suited to incidents occurring in the marine environment, but also include site assessments, safety, action plan development and documentation for both inland and coastal zone incidents.

    Coast Guard Public Information Assist Team (PIAT)
    The PIAT is a highly skilled unit of public affairs specialists prepared to complement the existing public information capabilities of the Federal On-Scene Coordinator.
    EPA Environmental Response Team (ERT)
    The ERT is a group of specially trained scientists and engineers based in Edison, NJ and Cincinnati, OH. Its capabilities include multimedia sampling and analysis, hazard assessment, cleanup techniques and technical support.

    Scientific Support Coordinators (SSC)
    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides SSC in coastal and marine areas. The SSC serves on the FOSC staff as the lead of a scientific team. This support team provides expertise in environmental chemistry, oil slick tracking, pollutant transport modeling, natural resources at risk, environmental tradeoffs of countermeasures and cleanup, information management, contingency planning and liaison to the scientific community and the natural resource trustees.

  38. jg
    Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 8:21 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Our spill response goal, at the federal facilities where I worked, was to respond to a spill in such a way that the Coast Guard or EPA would judge, when they arrived, that our response was appropriate and effective and there was no need for them to take the control of the response away from us.

    In that case they would still continue to monitor the response until the cleanup was complete.

    Their first question was always who is the on-scene commander. The OSC would then be asked for the all the information about the spill (size, location, the plan for response, current situation, etc).

    My experience with the Coast Guard was that they were expert in operation on the water, trained and experienced in oil spill response (oil spills, defined as creating a sheen on the water, happen every day, every where), very well organized due to the military type chain of command structure and appreciated the expertise that oil spill response contractors brought to the action since most of the actual response to contain and collect the oil is always accomplished by contractors.

    I am surprised that the Coast Guard did not immediately assume control of this spill. BP would remain as primary responder but report and obtain approval for actions from Coast Guard.

    BP would naturally desire to stay as involved in the planning and execution of the response to insure efficiency since they are financially responsible either way.

    If BP response was not sufficient, the Coast Guard would call other experts to help not replace BP but BP would pay for it all. They would of course be other oil companies not movie directors.

  39. QBeamus
    Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 1:18 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “I don’t see any role for BP or any private company in the language of the National Contingency Plan.”

    Steve, the general structure of the plan is very much a public-private collaboration. See section 300.211, which says that owners/operators of facilities that pose a potential spill threat must prepare a plan for that possibility, and identifies 30 CFR sec. 254 as codifying these obligations. The CFR, in turn, explicitly states that the private owner/operator is obliged to implement these plans in the event of a spill.

    Steve: don’t these clauses seem to pertain to the preparation of an Area Contingency Plan? I’m not saying that individual operators do not have important responsibilities – they obviously do. ALl I’m saying is that it seems to me that federal agencies, including EPA, are responsible for the National Contingency Plan, and they are charged to be ready regardless of the private operator.

    • QBeamus
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 1:39 PM | Permalink | Reply

      See also section 300.305, which lays out the steps the OCS is supposed to take in the event of a spill, and especially subpart (d). It states that “exept in a case when the OSC is required to direct the response” (the conditions defining such cases not yet being clear to me), the OSC “may allow the responsible party to voluntarily and promptly perform removal actions.” It goes on to say that, if the responsible party isn’t taking “effective actions,” or if removal is not being “properly done,” the next step is for the OSC to “so advise” the responsible party. If the responsible party does not “respond properly” to being so advised, the OSC is to “take appropriate actions and should notify the responsible party of the potential liability for federal response costs incurred by the OSC pursuant to the OPA and CWA.”

      In case that isn’t clear enough, the paragraph ends by stating, “Where practicable, continuing efforst should be made to encourage response by responsible parties.”

      In other words, the general strategy of the national response plan is pretty clearly aimed at having the owner/operators of the facilities perform as the first responder to any spills; the function of the national response assets is as a second line of defense, for cases where the responsible party turns out to be irresponsible.

      Which explains why the Coast Guard has been saying what it’s been saying to the media. They’re not stepping in, because, while BP’s response so far can’t be called “effective,” it’s not because BP is failing to do anything the government thinks ought to be done. Under the rule, that’s the condition for the government to take over.

      Steve: you’ve missed the essential exception here. This case obviously meets criteria for national significance and the On-Site Coordinator was required to take charge.

      But again, there are two aspects to this – the preparation of a National COntingency Plan and the management of the incident – and they need to be carefully distinguished.

      • QBeamus
        Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 2:01 PM | Permalink | Reply

        P.S. Why, oh why, can’t we edit our posts? Please forgive my frequent typos and misspellings.

    • QBeamus
      Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 1:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

      The key legal issue that I notice, reading the rule, is whether the OSC has abused its discretion by failing to declare this spill “a substantial threat to the public health or welfare,” especially considering that the rule explicitly recites fish and wildlife as things which might constitute the public welfare. The OSC is supposed to make this determination, and, if it finds the substantial threat exists, it’s supposed to take control, and promptly inform everyone that it is taking control. (See sections 300.322; 300.305(d)(2)). As far as I know, this hasn’t happened.

      This might seem ludicrous, given the ordinary meaning of “a substantial threat,” but, as a matter of American administrative law, this would be regarded as a technical question regarding which the administrative agency would be given great deference.

  40. QBeamus
    Posted Jun 3, 2010 at 2:19 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “Don’t these clauses seem to pertain to the preparation of an Area Contingency Plan?”

    No, not exactly. The “facility” plans are required to be “consistent with” the NCP and the appropriate ACP (30 CFR sec. 254.5(b)), but they’re clearly not a part of either, per se.

    “This case obviously meets criteria for national significance and the On-Site Coordinator was required to take charge.”

    Well, I certainly agree that this case “meets the criteria,” meaning that it was within the authority of the OSC to take charge, if it chose to do so, but I think it’s at least an interesting question whether the OSC was “required” to take charge. As I said above, as a matter of American administrative law, a court would be extremely unlikely to second-guess an administrative agency on a question like this. Even if the requirement were in a statute, rather than an administrative agency’s own rule, courts are extremely deferential to an administrative agency’s interpretation. (Google “Chevron deference”.) In this case, the rule you believe is creating the mandate was written by the agency itself. I’m not saying a court wouldn’t find this abuse of discretion, but I am saying it might not.

    This is expecially true given that it appears that the reason the agency has chosen not to make this declaration is because they don’t really believe they’re capable of doing a better job than BP has. That’s exactly the kind of fact-based rationale that agencies are supposed to be able to act on, and upon which the great deference they’re given is based.

    • Kenneth Fritsch
      Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 11:12 AM | Permalink | Reply

      QBeamus, you are diligently and conscientiously attempting to explain what the law says, much as Jim Edwards has done here, but I wonder if you realize just how funny those excellent explanations come across to someone who sees these laws as a public relations process (stunt) and not really meant or worded to spell out any specifics of what is required of the government agencies involved and mentioned in the law. Like the FOIA these laws appear to be “at the discretion” of those tasked with implementing the laws and whatever they do or not do can be rationalized after the fact.

      After all this discussion of the act in question, I have the feeling that we have two separate issues at hand. We have the leak in the Gulf and then we have the containment of the oil from that leak that can eventually contaminate the water and land areas. Obviously, BP is uniquely suited to deal with the leak, but what about the containment question. In the end I would suppose that BP will be legally required to pay for the private/public operations of that containment – although we have a law that limits liability.

      My understanding of the law, as explained on this thread, would seem to indicate that it was built around a leak/spill that could be repaired in a relatively timely fashion and a containment operation then becomes a bounded operation. I suspect that the governments involved (and BP) were not prepared for a leak that is not bounded by a relatively quick fix. It would appear that “special” cases such as the financial meltdown make the laws to prevent and mitigate the consequences seem rather uninformed and a process that is inherently flawed.

      It would appear that the Coast Guard and our federal government were concentrating on reporting the status of the plugging of the leak by BP and the containment of the escaped oil was given secondary or lower priority. Certainly the MSM has concentrated on the plugging of the leak and much less to the Jingal jangle.

      • QBeamus
        Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 1:20 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Well, I think it’s a bit harsh to call the NCP a “public relations stunt.” The truth is, the EPA is in a bit of an impossible position, which is the natural result of the internal tension in the very concept of American administrative law. The problem is that, on the one hand, the entire reason administrative agencies exist is so that the government can make ad hoc, fact sensitive decisions requiring technical expertise. On the other hand, ad hoc decisionmaking is inherently of suspect legitimacy in our legal tradition.

        The result is that, with morbid predictability, you get rules like this one. Read charitably, the NCP is about as good an effort as one might expect to lay out the principles and process by which those case-by-case decisions will be made. But, as a practical matter, what’s the point of that exercise if the agency just chucks the whole thing when it would produce inconvenient results?

        Incidentally, you’ve put your finger on something important, regarding the distinction between fixing the leak and cleaning up the spill. It’s useful context to know the risk of spills is, or at least historically has been, dominated by tanker accidents, rather than blow outs. And even as blow outs go, this is something of a black swan event.

        • justbeau
          Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 4:45 PM | Permalink

          Lots of good points by jg and QBeamus.

          The responsible corporation, one with lots of technical expertise, is tending to the foremost priority, plugging the blowout.
          It is surprising the oil sector did not have ready to use, on the shelf technologies for capping the well, as a final precaution.
          Its great if BP can adjust on the fly and come up with solutions that work, but next time, they need to pre-stage capping equipment for the possible next time a blow-out preventer fails.

  41. Geoff Sherrington
    Posted Jun 4, 2010 at 6:23 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Pyjamasmedia here


    suggest pushing increasing numbers of lawyers into the hole until it stops flowing. Unfortunately, I can see where they are coming from and why.

  42. jg
    Posted Jun 5, 2010 at 9:48 AM | Permalink | Reply

    This administration is approaching spill containment just like they are approaching the need for creating new jobs; they are expending massive amounts of valuable resources in way that will not accomplish the goal in any significant way.

    Oil containment is a very primitive process. It relies upon the simple principal that oil floats. However, this is only effective for surface spills, as explained below, which is not the case here.

    In quiet conditions, oil spilled onto water will remain in a layer on the surface. The primary tool, the “boom”, is just a vertical surface to block the movement of the oil. It is weighted on bottom so it extends below the surface for a distance greater than the depth of the oil layer and sufficiently buoyant on top so that it floats higher than the surface so the oil will not escape over the top.
    If the boom can be placed around the leaking source or downstream, the oil can be surrounded by the boom and then skimmed off the top of the water inside the boom.

    Now consider our case where the oil is introduced into the water as a high velocity stream 5000 feet below the surface. The oil must rise to the surface before it can be contained. But the velocity of its rise is proportional to the square of diameter of the oil globule (lets ignore the temperature, specific gravity, etc for now). Big globules rise fast, but if the globules are very small enough they will rise very slowly.

    It’s possible that introducing the oil at high pressure into the water mixes the oil with the water into an persistent emulsion which may also have such a small buoyancy that it will not reach the surface for a very long time. By then it has traveled a great distance on the currents.

    So where do you put the booms? Where will the oil be when it finally reaches the surface? The oil must rise 5000 feet. Until then the booms are ineffective.

    If booms are used to keep oil OUT, it will take a lot of boom. I think the Governor of LA has asked for 1000 miles (5 million feet). But booms are not effective very in open water due to the sea conditions (currents, winds, anchorage issues, etc) so oil at the surface can get past and oil that is not very buoyant can go under.

    So the benefit of this enormous containment effort is very small (except to the politician who apparently must be seen to be doing something regardless of the expense).

  43. David Watt
    Posted Jun 13, 2010 at 5:49 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Does anyone have any idea what Admiral James Watson is up to?. Is his 48 hour ultimatum a belated attempt by his bosses in the EPA to assert that after all they are somehow in control? What happened to the “unified command” which I thought till now was calling the shots.

    Why did the USGS move the error band on its flow estimates and why was this used so widely to suggest that flow estimates have doubled?

    Half the flow is of gas(which it appears doesn’t count) rather than oil, but lots more of the oil which is now being captured is highly volatile and would have evaporated within a very short time if left in the sea. Why is this counted if its environmental effect in reality is no different from that of gas?

    Clearly anything that is highly volatile will not figure in any estimates based on the size and thickness of the slick. Is this perhaps the reason why since siphoning started everyone’s estimates of the quantities has gone up?

    How does the Clean Water Act apply? Some of the press appear to be suggesting that based on this Act that BP could be charged $4,300 per barrel spilled. But this clause in the Act was I thought was specifically intended to prevent shipowners from emptying their bilges at sea. How can it apply here?.

    If there is the slightest risk it could be applied or in any event why hasn’t BP declared Force Majeure?. A mining company would have done this months ago.

    So many questions. This thread appears to be stuffed full of knowledgeable people. Is there anyone knows the answers to any of them?

  44. dave
    Posted Jul 9, 2010 at 9:02 PM | Permalink | Reply

    So, am I wrong in my understanding that the EPA has no jurisdiction off the us mainland beyond three miles?

    This has been reported int he past, is it not true?

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  6. [...] The “National Contingency Plan” as described in the EPA manual: “WHEN A MAJOR oil spill occurs in the United States, coordinated teams of local, state, and national personnel are called upon to help contain the spill, clean it up, and ensure that damage to human health and the environment is minimized.  Without careful planning and clear organization, efforts to deal with large oil spills could be slow, ineffective and potentially harmful to response personnel and the environment .  In the United States, the system for organizing responses to major oil spills is called the National Response System.”    http://climateaudit.org/2010/06/02/epa-and-the-national-contingency-plan/  [...]

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