Pressure grows for action by BP

An array of government officials in Louisiana speak at a news conference, with the governor of Louisiana saying the oil company responsible for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico may not be doing enough.
By Steven Mufson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Federal and state officials pushed oil giant BP to intensify its efforts to cap a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and to contain the slick that is threatening the shores and livelihoods of people in five states.

As crude oil began to come ashore in Louisiana, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met with the company's top executives and engineers. He said later that he urged them to "work harder and faster and smarter to get the job done."

"We cannot rest and we will not rest until BP permanently seals the wellhead and until they clean up every drop of oil," Salazar said.

Heavy winds and high tides impeded efforts to contain the growing slick on Friday, and oil continued to gush from the damaged exploration well in the Gulf, sending pungent odors through neighborhoods near New Orleans. Governors from the region expressed frustration at the company's inability to get the situation under control.

The crisis began April 20, when Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig owned by Transocean and leased by BP, caught fire and sank, killing 11 people. Ten days later, coastal residents, state officials and environmental groups are questioning whether the oil industry and Interior Department regulators had done enough to prepare for such a catastrophic accident.

BP's own exploration plan, submitted to federal regulators in February 2009, minimized the danger of a spill. The company said "it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill release would occur from the proposed activities." While it acknowledged that a spill could "cause impacts to wetlands" and to beaches, it added that "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected." It said any effects on fish or shellfish would be "sub-lethal."

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said in an interview Friday that the company's plans for responding to oil spills did not address the complete failure of equipment on the seafloor designed to prevent a blowout of the sort that took place on the massive drilling rig.

"We're breaking new ground here. It's hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was," Allen said, defending the company against not writing a response for "what could never be in a plan, what you couldn't anticipate."

Hammond Eve, who did environmental impact studies of offshore drilling for the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, said the federal agency never planned for response to an oil spill of this size. "We never imagined that it would happen because the safety measures were supposed to work and prevent it from happening," he said.

He added that the MMS began from the "premise that if something like this happened, that it would be shut down fairly soon and a discrete amount of oil would be released and these cleanup measures would begin and you would never end up with a situation like this."

Eve, who lives on the water 20 miles east of New Orleans, said strong oil fumes were engulfing his neighborhood. "You can't breathe the air comfortably," he said. "It bites you right in the back of the throat and your eyeballs burn."

Obama administration officials fanned out across the Gulf states pledging attention and assistance. In an already troubled economy, the oil slick threatened to damage the region's fishing and tourism industries as well as disrupt shipping along the Mississippi River. On Friday, Louisiana's departments of Health and Hospitals and Wildlife and Fisheries announced severe restrictions on fishing and oyster harvesting east of the Mississippi River.

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