Determining Who's In Charge Of Gulf Cleanup

The technique used by crews in Louisiana may be harming the marshes. Who is ultimately responsible for setting — and enforcing — the guidelines for cleaning up the Gulf?

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DON GONYEA, host:

We're going to follow up now on a story you heard here yesterday. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren was following a clean up crew in the marshes of Louisiana. And she found that the technique the crew was using might actually harm the marshes more than the oil does. So we wondered who was ultimately responsible for setting and enforcing the guidelines for cleaning up the Gulf.

Elizabeth joins us now to discuss this.

Good morning.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Good morning.

GONYEA: So remind us what you found while following a BP clean up crew.

SHOGREN: So what I saw was about 25 workers standing on the bows of their boats, stretching out their arms with huge boat hooks and pulling across the marshes some of the white boom material you might've seen on the television. It was like using a makeshift mop to try to sop up the oil from the marsh.

GONYEA: And what was your reaction when you saw that?

SHOGREN: Well, I saw that and I thought that I've never heard anything about this clean up before. And I wanted to understand, you know, are they using this clean up technique other places? And so I called Jacqueline Michel. She's a contractor with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and I sent her a video of the technique. And she was flabbergasted by it.

GONYEA: Let's hear her reaction.

Dr. JACQUELINE MICHEL (NOAA): That's definitely not a technique that we have ever recommended. We told everybody to stay out of the marsh. You know, you crush the vegetation doing that.

GONYEA: She's pretty unequivocal in saying this shouldn't be done. So what does BP say about all of this?

SHOGREN: Well, at first, the BP contractor I was talking to was defending the clean up technique. But more recently, I spoke with BP spokesman Tom Mueller, and this is what he had to say.

Mr. TOM MUELLER (Spokesman, BP): You know, there's a lot of crews out there working, and everybody has good intentions and they're looking for creative ways to help. But it is not an approved technique that, you know, was approved by BP or taught by BP.

GONYEA: OK. So BP admits this shouldn't have been done. How are they going to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future?

SHOGREN: Well, in this specific instance, they say that they've already sent a message to the operation where this was taking place to say cease and desist. Don't do this anymore. This is wrong.

But that doesn't address the bigger problem, which is that there is not adequate oversight from the scientific experts on the clean up crews. And nobody says that there's a solution to this problem - not the BP contractors, not BP itself and not the NOAA contractors. They all say that, in fact, this spill is so large, that mistakes are going to happen, and more mistakes than usual. They'll try to improve communications, but they don't have a fix for this.

GONYEA: So overall, who is supposed to be in charge of setting these kinds of standard and communicating?

SHOGREN: Well, like a lot of things going on with this spill, there's a joint response. In includes NOAA. It includes the Fish and Wildlife Service. It includes people from BP. They got together and they wrote guidelines. And then they sent these guidelines out to all the crews that are supposed to be doing the cleanup.

GONYEA: And if they're BP crews, it's up to BP to get the guidelines to the crews?

SHOGREN: Yes. And, in fact, BP is in charge of the clean up. and if it fails to clean up where it's supposed to clean up, or if it does more harm than good, then BP is left holding the responsibility to pay the - restore marshes in some way to try to make up for this.

GONYEA: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. Thanks for joining us.

SHOGREN: Thank you.

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