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

By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 13, 2010; A01

The U.S. Coast Guard in recent years has fought international terrorism, defended Iraqi pipelines and patrolled for pirates in the Arabian Sea.

Its work in such high-visibility missions accelerated after Sept. 11, 2001, when Congress swept the Coast Guard into the Homeland Security Department. More funding followed.

But the changes had the unintended consequence of lowering the profile of the Coast Guard's vital programs related to oil. "Priorities changed," a 2002 Coast Guard budget report said.

Internal and congressional studies highlighted the difficulty the agency faces in balancing its many added responsibilities. "Oil-spill issues were not at the top of the list," said retired Capt. Lawson Brigham, a former strategic planner for the Coast Guard.

When Coast Guard inspectors board offshore drilling rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and killed 11 workers in April, they rely on regulations put in place three decades ago, when offshore drilling operations were far less sophisticated, records show. The Coast Guard acknowledged 11 years ago in a little-noticed disclosure that its regulations had "not kept pace with the changing offshore technology or the safety problems it creates."

Since the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, investigations into oversight gaps have focused on systemic problems within the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which in recent weeks has been renamed and revamped.

But the Coast Guard, which shared oversight with MMS, has largely escaped scrutiny. While the MMS inspected drilling equipment, the Coast Guard inspected rigs for worker safety. It also set standards for companies that clean up spills, and has coordinated the joint response to the spill in the gulf.

Some analysts said the spill highlights the need to rethink Coast Guard priorities. In the past 35 years, Congress has handed the agency at least 27 new responsibilities, according to a tally by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"They just don't have enough personnel to carry out all those missions," said Oberstar, who favors severing the Coast Guard from the Homeland Security Department. "That's just not possible."

Coast Guard officials said they did not have budget figures to compare how much is spent on oil-related programs now and before Sept. 11, 2001. Even current budget numbers for these programs are unclear because spending falls into two categories that encompass many other activities, including fighting invasive species and oversight of recreational boating. Marine environmental protection was allotted 2 percent of this year's operating expenses, marine safety 8 percent.

The Coast Guard said that before 2001, the agency was organized differently. A private study in 2003 by one Coast Guard officer calculated that, before the attacks, marine environmental programs accounted for 11 percent of operating funds and marine safety accounted for 14 percent.

Congressional staffers said the lack of reliable figures has complicated their efforts to ensure that vital programs are not neglected.

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.

Coast Guard officials have long acknowledged strained resources, especially with ships and aircraft.

In February, Adm. Thad Allen, then Coast Guard commandant, said in a speech that the Coast Guard operates one of the world's oldest fleets, with high-endurance cutters averaging 41 years of age, compared to 14 for the U.S. Navy.

"No amount of maintenance can outpace the ravages of age," Allen said, describing the sputtering performance of cutters assigned to Haiti relief work. "The condition of our fleet continues to deteriorate, putting our crews at risk, jeopardizing our ability to do the job."

During the initial gulf response, Coast Guard logs show that three aircraft and one cutter suffered mechanical problems that delayed or scuttled their missions, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity.

Alarming stories

In 2007, at Allen's request, Vice Admiral James C. Card interviewed 170 civilian mariners and Coast Guard personnel about marine safety operations. He found consensus that programs were deteriorating.

The biggest concern, Card wrote in his report, "was that the Coast Guard no longer considered Marine Safety an important mission."

The Coast Guard had become a "fundamentally different" organization, Card was told. New editions of the official "U.S. Coast Guard Strategy," a 54-page manual, contained a single page discussing marine safety, agency personnel said.

Many experienced inspectors have left the service or have transferred to more "career-enhancing" assignments, leaving behind a significant number who are seen as unqualified, the report said. In one service division, marine inspectors spent only about 40 percent of their time on inspections.

"Every Marine Safety professional I talked to in the Coast Guard, both at Headquarters and in the field, said they didn't have enough people to do the job," Card wrote. "Some stories were alarming."

Officers feared that choosing to work in marine safety for the long term could damage their careers because senior officials were unsupportive. The report did not address environmental-response programs, but said many people interviewed expressed similar concerns about those programs losing "experience, resources, knowledge and focus."

The report's findings were underscored this year at a hearing on the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Lt. Commander Michael Odom, head of the team that inspected the rig in July 2009, testified that Coast Guard regulations are outdated.

"The pace of the technology has definitely outrun the current regulations," Odom testified.

In fact, qualifications for inspectors assigned to mobile offshore drilling units, such as Deepwater, have not been updated since 2007. Although offshore inspectors are supposed to receive annual specialized training, that has occurred sporadically, officers testified in May. Even with training, they said, it takes a year for an inspector to comprehend the technologically complex rigs.

Others in the field fear that an overemphasis on homeland security could actually make the United States less safe, by drawing funding and attention away from other programs

"Spending so little on this just makes no sense," Flynn said. "I can't come up with any terrorism scenario, short of perhaps a nuclear weapon launched near a city, that could produce nearly as much destruction as we're seeing with this man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico."

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