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After delays, U.S. begins to tap foreign aid for gulf oil spill

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

"This is different," Crowley said of the oil spill. "We are and will be drawing on the foreign assistance."

In many cases, this equipment is being provided by private companies -- at BP's expense. And like other elements of the joint response, decision-making has been complicated because federal officials must consult with the oil giant before signing off on any offer.

"The coordination on this side of the ocean was not completely clear," said Floris van Hovell, press counselor for the Dutch Embassy in Washington, adding that when a Dutch official was seeking to broker an aid agreement last month, "it was for a long time unclear on where he should go to and who should take the decision."

According to government sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to the White House several weeks ago, suggesting that it needed some foreign aid for practical and diplomatic reasons.

BP declined to comment.

'We want to help'

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Christopher T. O'Neil wrote in an e-mail that decisions on foreign assistance are made between the top federal official on the scene, BP and "other represented agencies including state and local governments." The Coast Guard has a 51 percent "overriding vote in cases where consensus is not possible," he wrote. "All qualifying offers of assistance have been accepted."

In some cases, the administration rejected offers because they failed to meet U.S. specifications: The private consortium that serves as Norway's spill-response team uses a chemical dispersant that the Environmental Protection Agency has not approved.

In other cases, domestic politics are at play. Dutch authorities have worked in Louisiana since Katrina hit and were among the first to offer to help. After some hesitation, BP has obtained the state-of-the-art Dutch skimmers, two of which are in operation. Meanwhile, a massive sand-dredging operation is moving slowly.

A plan by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to create sand berms to keep oil from reaching the coastline originally came from the marine contractor Van Oord and the research institute Deltares, both in the Netherlands. BP pledged $360 million for the plan, but U.S. dredging companies -- which have less than one-fifth of the capacity of Dutch dredging firms -- have objected to foreign companies' participation.

Garret Graves, who chairs Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, wrote in an e-mail that state officials "have made it clear to our contractors from the beginning that we want to use American dredges to complete this sand berm as quickly as possible . . . Ultimately, any effort to expedite these berms will be fully considered, but we remain committed to our American companies."

In the meantime, governments around the world are mobilizing help. In addition to boom, Canada has dispatched an aircraft for surveillance flights as well as several technical experts. Japan is still offering to send boom; the Swedish Coast Guard said it can send three ships that can each collect 370 barrels of oil an hour, but it is waiting to hear from the U.S. government or BP.

The Norwegian Coastal Authority has approved sending nearly a third of the nation's spill response equipment to the gulf if asked.

"We want to help the U.S. with whatever they need," said Espen Myhra, energy counselor at the Norwegian Embassy. "But of course, it's up to the U.S. and BP to decide what they need, and we will respond to that."

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