Oil industry cleanup organization swamped by BP spill

By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 9:57 PM

For the past two decades, companies that produce and transport oil have channeled tens of millions of dollars a year into an organization they set up to provide cleanup equipment and personnel if a catastrophic offshore spill were ever to hit the United States.

But when that spill occurred two months ago, it soon swamped the Marine Spill Response Corp.

MSRC "has never had to deal with anything even remotely this large and chaotic," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing BP for damages under the Clean Water Act.

MSRC officials say they expect to be in the spotlight as Congress investigates whether the industry and the nation should have been better prepared for a disaster on the scale of the one playing out in the Gulf of Mexico. Congress also is likely to look into whether the tax-exempt company's equipment -- much of it two decades old -- is up to the current challenge, as wells move farther out to sea and deeper below the ocean.

"Should the industry's capacity have been greater than it is? That's a fair question," said Steve Benz, MSRC president and a former BP executive. He stressed that the U.S. Coast Guard set benchmarks for how much equipment and manpower large oil-recovery companies should have. Also, he said, any standing operation would have difficulty immediately capturing the volume of oil gushing from the Gulf well.

"If this happened again, should we already have in place 20,000 people and 1,000 boats?" Benz asked. "You can't build a firehouse that big and have it make any reasonable economic sense. You need to prevent the fire in the first place."

Congress has been here before. Twenty years ago, after the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, lawmakers angrily reacted -- much as they have today -- by vowing to ensure that such devastation would never happen again. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, requiring companies transporting oil over water to have ready access to clean-up equipment adequate for the worst possible spill. Big oil companies banded together to form MSRC.

Far from the coast, the nonprofit is run out of nondescript offices in Herndon, Va., sharing a building with a credit union and a title company. The company, which calls itself the nation's largest oil spill recovery organization, remained low-profile while growing to more than $100 million in assets. Its resources include 400 employees and 15 large oil-recovery ships dubbed "Big Blues" and positioned in the lower 48 states and Hawaii. It and its contractors have responded to 700 spills, none approaching the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

State and regional officials familiar with MSRC's past work say it does a good job handling more contained environmental challenges. But now MSRC finds itself leading the charge in a much different battle.

"There is no asset MSRC has that is designed to collect oil 5,000 feet under the seas," said Brett G. Drewry, chief executive of the industry-backed organization that funds MSRC.

That fact did not stop BP and other companies from citing MSRC, alone or alongside for-profit cleanup companies, as their first responder for massive spills. Oil companies, Congress and regulators point to MSRC as evidence of lessons learned from Valdez. Suckling said safeguarding the coasts should not be left to private industry.

"It seems to me there is a real significant conflict of interest here," he said. "When you are dealing with an issue that has such enormous stakes for public health and safety, it should be in the government's hands."

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