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The Coast Guard has been thrust into a lead role in the Gulf oil spill. It's charged with coordinating the response to the spill, working with BP on one side and countless state and local officials and commercial interests on the other. It's a huge job for an agency many say is already spread too thin.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen stands over a small map of the Gulf. We're in a tiny conference room at the Department of Homeland Security's Washington headquarters.
BLOCK: We're looking at the current representation of satellite imagery on the limits of the spill. As you can see, it's very irregular. There's oil aggregated in some places and then spread out over very long distances. You can actually find a concentration of 10 or 12 miles of oil, and then have 15 or 20 miles of clear, blue ocean and then find another one.
NAYLOR: Allen, as the national incident commander, is the face of the government's spill response. It requires coordinating, listening, cajoling and patience. Needless to say, it's a challenge.
BLOCK: You have a lot of federal agencies out there, all of which have legitimate roles, missions, and mandates operating in the same battle space, if you will. And the question is: How do you bring all those together?
NAYLOR: The Coast Guard has over a thousand personnel in the Gulf, along with dozens of boats and ships - the exact number is classified. They do everything from conducting hearings on the spill to flying journalists over it.
(SOUNDBITE OF A PLANE)
U: There you go. You see a little bit of the rainbow sheening. See how it's going on in ribbons there?
NAYLOR: They've also occasionally tangled with journalists over access to oil-damaged marshes and beaches. And it's an example of the service's muddled line of authority. The Coast Guard is responsible for coordinating a lot, but is directly in charge of relatively little.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, Congress and the EPA ruled the party responsible for a spill, in this case BP, would work alongside the Coast Guard to clean the oil up. Allen admits the unprecedented size and scope of the Gulf spill exposed the plan's weaknesses.
BLOCK: Undoubtedly, the traditional national contingency plan model that was created in 1990 just doesn't quite fit on this response.
NAYLOR: There are questions, too, about the Coast Guard's role before the blowout. It's charged with conducting inspections of drill rigs. Here again, the Coast Guard shares responsibility, this time with the Minerals Management Service - the infamous MMS. The MMS is responsible for the drilling part of the rigs, the Coast Guard the rigs' seaworthiness.
Former Coast Guard Commander Steven Flynn is president of the Center for National Policy.
D: Largely these platforms are self-regulated by the companies who own and manage them, and the Coast Guard is doing an element of spot checking.
NAYLOR: The Coast Guard has admitted that, in the words of one officer, the pace of the technology has outrun the current regulations. A bigger problem may be integrating the Coast Guard's responsibility for oil with all of its other jobs.
BLOCK: They're really this multi- mission maritime agency that has responsibility for everything from drugs and migration law enforcement to safety, search and rescue and response and oil spill response.
NAYLOR: That's David Helvarg, author of "Rescue Warriors," a book about the Coast Guard, what Helvarg calls America's forgotten heroes. There are some 40,000 enlisted personnel in the Coast Guard, far fewer than the service needs, according to Helvarg.
BLOCK: We really need to double their size this decade and double it again by 2030, so they're closer in size to the Marine Corps than the New York police.
NAYLOR: The Coast Guard, which had been part of the Transportation Department, was integrated into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. The Coast Guard's maritime safety functions soon were eclipsed by its role in providing port security and capturing drug runners. As the service's responsibilities have increased, its staffing levels have not. And this year the Obama administration has proposed reducing the Coast Guard's budget.
Robbin Laird is a defense analyst. He says spending on the Coast Guard needs to be increased if the service is to succeed in its many missions.
D: Otherwise what happens is that you squeeze them every year, and puts them in the position of, well, am I doing safety or security or am I doing oil prevention? We don't want to be, as a nation, in that situation. We want this properly funded. If we're going to do this, we want it properly funded.
NAYLOR: The Coast Guard is proud of its ability to carry out its varied responsibilities. Admiral Allen, who's stepped down as Coast Guard commandant, but whose scheduled retirement has been indefinitely postponed by the Gulf spill, says while doing more with less is the service's unofficial mantra...
BLOCK: It's a balance, but I would tell you right now we could use more.
NAYLOR: And members of Congress from both parties seem to agree and hope to boost the service's budget, as it struggles to meet its varying responsibilities.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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