One Year After Oil Spill, Admiral Reflects on Continued Impacts

It's been nearly a year since the BP oil spill began. But to this day, it's difficult to measure the environmental impact of the disaster. As the National Incident Commander for the federal response to the oil spill, Admiral Thad Allen has intimate knowledge of what became one of the largest spills in U.S. history. Host Michel Martin speaks with him about the aftermath of the spill and the lessons the U.S. can learn from the experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

We turn now to the man who led the federal government's response to the crisis, retired Admiral Thad Allen. He's a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. He was the national incident commander in the Gulf. He's currently a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation. That's a nonpartisan think tank, and he's with us from the Rand Corporation's headquarters in Santa Monica, California. Thank you so much for joining us, Admiral. We appreciate it.

THAD ALLEN: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify that we are not asking you about the financial arrangements that we were talking about earlier. We earlier spoke with Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the BP fund. That's who Mr. Encalade was referring to. But you do hear the - kind of the frustration and the fear, I think, in Mr. Encalade's voice.

And I did want to ask you, just looking at the state of the Gulf right now, do you envision a time when he will be able to resume his livelihood in the manner that he was accustomed to?

ALLEN: Oh, I think we would hope so. I think one of the things that's not well understood is - just as this spill was very complex in its origin and what we had to do to cap the well and deal with the well on the water, the interim recovery and the long-term recovery is going to be very complex as well. And depending on where you're at, what kind of resources are involved, it's going to be a very, very different type of recovery, and I think we're starting to see that. Whether you're involved in fin fish or shrimp or oyster fishing for a living and where you live on the coast and how it was impacted, it's a very, very complicated recovery.

MARTIN: Now, of course this - the crisis led initially to a moratorium on offshore drilling. Now that the moratorium has (unintelligible) and you can see, you know, what the pressure is, given that oil prices are rising, or gas prices are rising and people are feeling the economic pressure of that, do you have an opinion of the new federal safeguards that have been put into place? Do you think they're sufficient to minimize the risk of another, similar incident?

ALLEN: Well, the major safeguards that have been put in place are the ability to contain oil and cap a well if you need to do that. There are two different companies that have been formed that have that equipment in the Gulf. The other are a set of regulations that require third party inspections of blowout preventers and things like that.

Many of these rules and regulations will have to go through either legislation or a formal rule making process. But in the interim, the Department of Interior is looking at processes where they can certify that these capabilities are available as a condition of granting the permits. And as I understand it, up to today, I think 10 permits have been granted. And the process is starting to move forward.

MARTIN: Now, of course(ph) this is the question that anybody who's been brought in to handle a crisis always hates, but I do feel I want to ask it. If you knew now - if you knew now what you knew then, or rather, if you knew then what you know now, is there something that you would like to have done differently or that you feel should have been done differently?

ALLEN: Oh, I think so. When you deal with a newer novel event, and you're adapting at the time, you don't have the luxury of hindsight, nor do you have all the complete information you would like to have when you make decisions. I think a couple things we would look at a little more closely if we had to do it this time, I think one is the number of vessels of opportunity that we brought on.

BP attempted to bring shrimpers into the effort to mitigate the economic impact. But the requirement to train these folks adequately, to create a command and control system to actually be able to make them effective in their employment, and then the ability to actually have a reconnaissance system where you can find out where the oil is at and put them on top of the oil, was a very daunting task, something that had never been tried in this country before.

And I think moving forward, if we want to have local watermen available to respond to these type of events, I think we need to look at advance training and certification. And then there needs to be a way to actually coordinate what they're doing at the time. What we were dealing with was a huge influx of volunteer vessels. And I don't think there was any planning to deal with that large number because it was never envisioned we would have to do that.

MARTIN: I took - we took control of the airspace in mid-June during the response, to increased aviation safety, but also do a better job of coordinating our surveillance and reconnaissance and putting information in the hands of the people that needed it. We had done that in Haiti, to manage the landing slots after the earthquake there. Looking back on it, I would've taken the airspace on the first day.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask you this: Would you do it again if you had to? Obviously we hope that this will never happen again and you'll never called upon to do something like this again, but would you?

ALLEN: Well, you know, this is a conversation my wife and I have had on several occasions, including when I was asked to go down and take over the response on Hurricane Katrina. One of my favorite definitions of leadership is the ability to reconcile opportunity and competency. And every time I had been presented with one of these opportunities or choices, if you will, my wife has reminded me of that. And in the long run, I think you do what you can for your country.

MARTIN: Admiral Thad Allen is a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation. That's a nonpartisan research institute. He served as the national incident commander for the federal government's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and he joined us from Rand's headquarters in Santa Monica, California. Admiral, thank you so much for joining us. And if I may, thank you for your service over the course of the years.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

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