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Oil spill shows difficulty the Coast Guard faces as it balances traditional tasks with post-9/11 missions

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Juggling diverse missions is far from the only challenge the Coast Guard faces. Its maritime fleet is aging, and a long-delayed fleet- modernization plan has suffered design flaws and cost overruns; it is now under Justice Department scrutiny. The White House has recommended budget cuts. And the Coast Guard's marine-safety programs have suffered a drain as personnel sought higher-profile assignments.

Senior Coast Guard officials said the agency's many missions make it stronger because ships patrolling for terrorists might happen across drug smugglers or an oil slick. They said that crews develop complementary skills and that combining missions saves money.

Coast Guard officials point out that until April, oil spills had decreased dramatically. They said mission statistics do not reflect the division of labor at sea, where crews are ready for whatever comes their way.

"The Coast Guard takes its role as an environmental-response agency seriously," said Capt. Anthony Lloyd, chief of the Office of Incident Management and Preparedness.

But even some defenders of the Coast Guard fear that it is edging toward crisis.

"It's basically at the breaking point," former commander Stephen Flynn said.

Community policing

Federal regulation of offshore drilling grew over the years into a patchwork. The MMS leased offshore drilling rights to private companies, approved emergency response plans and inspected drilling equipment. The Coast Guard ensured the seaworthiness of mobile drilling units.

Today, Coast Guard inspectors examine navigational equipment, lifesaving apparatus and fire protection systems, and look after day-to-day worker safety. The agency also oversees containment of oil and major spill cleanup.

The most rigorous Coast Guard inspections occur on U.S.-flagged oil rigs; they last for days. Rigs registered in other countries, such as the Marshall Islands-flagged Deepwater Horizon, get a six-hour review. A three-person Coast Guard team last visited Deepwater Horizon in July 2009, found no major deficiencies and issued a two-year compliance certificate.

When inspectors show up, they often spot-check paperwork produced by private companies, which the Coast Guard refers to as "stakeholders."

"It's more of a community policing kind of approach: get to know the neighbors, help an old lady cross the street," said Flynn, the former Coast Guard commander, who heads the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank. "You build a level of collaboration, rather than an 'us-vs.-them' kind of approach."

Two months before the gulf blowout, the Obama administration proposed a 3 percent cut in Coast Guard funding and active-duty personnel. The plan would slash 1,100 military personnel and decommission the National Strike Force Coordination Center, which manages oil-spill response. "Not a good idea," Oberstar said.

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