AP IMPACT: BP’s error-prone spill response plans overstate preparedness, understate dangers

By Tamara Lush, AP
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

AP IMPACT: BP spill response plans severely flawed

NEW ORLEANS — Glaring errors and omissions in BP’s oil spill response plans have exposed a slapdash effort to follow environmental rules, outraging Gulf Coast residents who can see on their beaches how unprepared the company was.

BP PLC’s 582-page regional spill plan for the Gulf, and its 52-page, site-specific plan for the Deepwater Horizon rig vastly understate the dangers posed by an uncontrolled leak and vastly overstate the company’s preparedness to deal with one, according to an Associated Press analysis. The lengthy plans were approved by the federal government last year before BP drilled its ill-fated well.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was incensed Wednesday after reading the AP story and said BP has been reactive — not proactive — all along.

“Look, it’s obvious to everybody in south Louisiana that they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have an adequate plan to deal with this spill,” Jindal said. “They didn’t anticipate the BOP (blowout preventer) failure. They didn’t anticipate this much oil hitting our coast. From the very first days, they kept telling us, ‘Don’t worry, the oil’s not going to make it to your coast.’”

Among the glaring errors in the report: A professor is listed in BP’s 2009 response plan for a Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a national wildlife expert. He died in 2005.

The plan lists cold-water marine mammals including walruses, sea otters, sea lions and seals as “sensitive biological resources.” None of those animals live anywhere near the Gulf.

Also, names and phone numbers of several Texas A&M University marine life specialists are wrong. So are the numbers for marine mammal stranding network offices in Louisiana and Florida, which are disconnected.

“The AP report paints a picture of a company that was making it up as it went along, while telling regulators it had the full capability to deal with a major spill,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote in an e-mail to the AP. “We know that wasn’t true.”

Nelson said he and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have asked for a criminal investigation into some of the company’s claims.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced criminal and civil investigations into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Attorney General Eric Holder has not said who might be targeted in the probes into the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Legal experts say that to file criminal charges, the Justice Department will have to find evidence that BP or other companies involved in the deadly oil rig explosion and subsequent spill orchestrated a coverup, destroyed key documents or lied to government agents. Charges and civil penalties can be brought under a variety of environmental protection laws.

In its Deepwater Horizon plan, the British oil giant stated: “BP Exploration and Production Inc. has the capability to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge, resulting from the activities proposed in our Exploration Plan.”

In the spill scenarios detailed in the documents, fish, marine mammals and birds escape serious harm; beaches remain pristine; water quality is only a temporary problem. And those are the projections for a leak about 10 times worse than what has been calculated for the ongoing disaster.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, is investigating failures by the federal Minerals Management Service, which regulates oil rigs. He said Wednesday that if there had been a serious effort to reform the agency, the “mistakes” in BP’s report would have been caught.

“This is yet another example of MMS acting as a rubber stamp for industry, and industry settling for the lowest possible standard of safety at the expense the environment and economic vitality of the Gulf region,” he said.

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said the response plans will be reviewed “so that we can determine what worked well and what needs improvement.”

“Thus far we have implemented the largest spill response in history and many, many elements of it have worked well. However, we are greatly disappointed that oil has made landfall and impacted shorelines and marshes. The situation we are dealing with is clearly complex, unprecedented and will offer us much to learn from,” Beaudo said.

The plans contain wildly false assumptions about oil spills. BP’s proposed method to calculate spill volume judging by the darkness of the oil sheen is way off. The internationally accepted formula would produce estimates 100 times higher.

The Gulf’s loop current, which is projected to help eventually send oil hundreds of miles around Florida’s southern tip and up the Atlantic coast, isn’t mentioned in either plan.

The website listed for Marine Spill Response Corp. — one of two firms that BP relies on for equipment to clean a spill — links to a defunct Japanese-language page.

In early May, at least 80 Louisiana state prisoners were trained to clean birds by listening to a presentation and watching a video. It was a work force never envisioned in the plans, which contain no detailed references to how birds would be cleansed of oil.

And while BP officials and the federal government have insisted that they have attacked the problem as if it were a much larger spill, that isn’t apparent from the constantly evolving nature of the response.

Asked if he was angry about the inadequate plans, Jindal said: “Absolutely. Absolutely. You can’t just assume the best. Your plan can’t be, well, the BOP is going to work. Your plan can’t be, well, the oil is not going to travel more than 50 miles and reach our coast. Your plan can’t be that if the BOP doesn’t work, then the junk shot is going to work, then the mud kill shot is going to work.”

This week, after BP reported the seemingly good news that a containment cap installed on the wellhead was funneling some of the gushing crude to a tanker on the surface, BP introduced a whole new set of plans mostly aimed at capturing more oil.

The latest incarnation calls for building a larger cap, using a special incinerator to burn off some of the recaptured oil and bringing in a floating platform to process the oil being sucked away from the gushing well.

In other words, the on-the-fly planning continues.

One of the most glaring errors in BP’s plans involves Dr. Peter Lutz, a Florida professor, one of several dozen experts recommended as resources to be contacted in the event of a spill.

Lutz is listed as a go-to wildlife specialist at the University of Miami. But Lutz, an eminent sea turtle expert, left Miami almost 20 years ago to chair the marine biology department at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He died four years before the plan was published.

Molly Lutcavage, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who worked closely with Lutz on a groundbreaking report on the effects of oil on sea turtles, was dismayed to hear that Lutz was still listed in the response plan.

“It’s horribly depressing and shocking that so little attention is paid to a bona fide contingency plan,” she said. “What would Peter think? Oh, boy. I think he would think it was typical of bureaucracy.”

There are other examples of how BP’s plans have fallen short:

— Beaches where oil washed up within weeks of a spill were supposed to be safe from contamination because BP promised it could marshal more than enough boats to scoop up all the oil before any deepwater spill could reach shore — a claim that in retrospect seems absurd.

“The vessels in question maintain the necessary spill containment and recovery equipment to respond effectively,” one of the documents says.

BP asserts that the combined response could skim, suck up or otherwise remove 20 million gallons of oil each day from the water. But that is about how much has leaked in the past six weeks — and the slick now covers about 3,300 square miles, according to Hans Graber, director of the University of Miami’s satellite sensing facility. Only a small fraction of the spill has been successfully skimmed. Plus, an undetermined portion has sunk to the bottom of the Gulf or is suspended somewhere in between.

The plan uses computer modeling to project a 21 percent chance of oil reaching the Louisiana coast within a month of a spill. In reality, an oily sheen reached the Mississippi River delta just nine days after the April 20 explosion. Heavy globs soon followed. Other locales where oil washed up within weeks of the explosion were characterized in BP’s regional plan as safely out of the way of any oil danger.

— BP’s site plan regarding birds, sea turtles or endangered marine mammals (”no adverse impacts”) also have proved far too optimistic.

While the exact toll on the Gulf’s wildlife may never be known, the effects clearly have been devastating.

More than 400 oiled birds have been treated, while dozens have been found dead and covered in crude, mainly in Louisiana but also in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. More than 200 lifeless turtles, several dolphins and countless fish also have washed ashore.

The response plans anticipate nothing on this scale. There weren’t supposed to be any coastline problems because the site was far offshore.

“Due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected,” the site plan says.

But that distance has failed to protect precious resources. And last week, a group of environmental research center scientists released a computer model that suggested oil could ride ocean currents around Florida and up to North Carolina by summer.

— Perhaps the starkest example of BP’s planning failures: The company has insisted that the size of the leak doesn’t matter because it has been reacting to a worst-case scenario all along.

Yet each step of the way, as the estimated size of the daily leak has grown from 42,000 gallons to 210,000 gallons to perhaps 1.8 million gallons, BP has been forced to scramble — to create potential solutions on the fly, to add more boats, more boom, more skimmers, more workers. And containment domes, top kills, top hats.

While a disaster as devastating as a major oil spill will create unforeseen problems, BP’s plans do not anticipate even the most obvious issues, and use mountains of words to dismiss problems that have proven overwhelming.

In responses to lengthy lists of questions from AP, the Interior Department, which oversees the MMS, appears to concede there were problems with the two oil spill response plans.

“Many of the questions you raise are exactly those questions that will be examined and answered by the presidential commission as well as other investigations into BP’s oil spill,” said Kendra Barkoff, spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. She added that Salazar has undertaken reforms of MMS.

A key failure of the plan’s cleanup provisions was the scarcity of boom — floating lines of plastic or absorbent material placed around sensitive areas to deflect oil.

From the start, local officials all along the Gulf Coast have complained about a lack of supplies, particularly the heavier, so-called ocean boom. But even BP says in its regional plan that boom isn’t effective in seas more than three to four feet; waves in the Gulf are often bigger. And even in calmer waters, oil has swamped vital wildlife breeding grounds in places supposedly sequestered by multiple layers of boom.

The BP plans speak of thorough resources for all; there’s no talk of a need to share. Still, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said his shores were left vulnerable by Coast Guard decisions to shift boom to Louisiana when the oil threatened landfall there.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, some have complained that miles of the boom now in the water were not properly anchored. AP reporters saw evidence they’re right — some lines of boom were so broken up they hardly impeded the slick’s push to shore.

Some out-of-state contractors misplaced boom because they didn’t know local waters, yet disorganization has dogged efforts to use local boats. In Venice, La., near where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf, a large group of charter captains have been known to spend their days sitting around at the marina, earning $2,000 a day without ever attacking the oil.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Ted Bridis and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Brian Skoloff in Grand Isle, La., Harry R. Weber in Houston, and Jason Bronis in New Orleans. Mohr reported from Venice, La. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles.

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