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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee's in Afghanistan. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

Much of the oil from the BP spill seems to have disappeared from view. But the oil isn't really gone, and neither are the questions about the spill.

INSKEEP: A presidential commission has begun asking what happened and why and they want to know why the government and industry officials were not better prepared.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has this report.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Retired Admiral Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard was the government's point man on the spill, but sometimes it wasn't clear who was actually in charge - the Feds or well operator BP.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard, Retired): First of all, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible party is, who they are.

JOYCE: BP insists that the government was always in charge. Allen doesnt dispute that. But he told the commission that what the public saw was the polluter as an equal partner in the effort. Allen says for a future spill it might be better to have an independent executive, rather than someone from the polluter's camp, running the industry's effort.

Another problem: The national plan for responding to an oil spill was something of a mystery to a lot of people.

Adm. ALLEN: Without a clear understanding of the national contingency plan, what was intended by the legislation, in advance of the event, trying to explain that to the American public, local government leaders and even national leaders became very, very challenging.

JOYCE: Very challenging is putting it mildly, according to William Nungesser. Nungesser is president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, which was hit hard by the spill. He told the commission that it was a battle just getting booms to stop the oil from coming ashore and fouling coastal marshes.

WILLIAM NUNGESSER (President, Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish): We couldn't get an answer. BP would say it was the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard would say it's BP, and it became a joke that the command - it was the Wizard of Oz, some guy behind a curtain, because we never got a name, we never got a person in charge that we could call and say, hey, are we going to get it or not?

JOYCE: That's not what Captain Edwin Stanton of the Coast Guard remembers. He said he talked with Nungesser about booms and boats to stop the oil. He added that it was sometimes difficult to obtain enough equipment to protect the huge areas that were threatened.

Captain EDWIN STANTON (U.S. Coast Guard): To say that we did not attempt to protect the marshes, I realize it's a tempting thing to say. We certainly didnt protect it completely. But it's not because of lack of effort.

JOYCE: The commission also called on a panel of Gulf scientists to report what kind of damage has been done biologically. The scientists said it's hard to tell, in part because there hasn't been much money or leadership to organize research. They said any new oil plan should provide for a scientific SWAT team ready to deploy on short notice. In the meantime, the scientists agreed, it could take 10 years to find out the damage to the Gulf.

Ian MacDonald is an oceanographer at Florida State University.

Dr. IAN MACDONALD (Florida State University): And I think that the way to track that over time is to consider the species which are dependent upon a healthy eco-system - species like sperm whales, bluefin tuna, sea turtles - which are large, charismatic animals.

JOYCE: And also humble organisms like periwinkles and clams, at the base of the marine food chain. McDonald said by his calculations half the oil that escaped the broken well is still out there somewhere. He says much of it may be on the bottom. Even there, it's still a threat to sensitive marshes and beaches if rough weather churns it up and returns it to the whims of wind and unpredictable currents.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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