BP Disaster Puts Coast Guard at Risk

08/22/2010 10:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Imagine if the New York police had been running the BP disaster response in the Gulf of Mexico for the past four months while still expected to keep the streets of the Big Apple safe. With 41,000 active duty personnel the U.S. Coast Guard is only slightly larger than the NYPD.

"We've never had to confront sustaining something like this," says the service's new Commandant Admiral Robert Papp who replaced Admiral Thad Allen, now the National Incident Commander for the Gulf who's organizing the final kill of BP's wellhead. While maintaining the Department of Homeland Security's position that the Coast Guard can continue to do the task at hand with the resources it has, Admiral Papp has also told Congress that in order to do what it's done over the last months the Coast Guard has had to accept risk elsewhere. The consequences of that risk-taking may already be playing out on America's waters.

Since the spring the Coast Guard has maintained some 2,000 people in the Gulf including five admirals, two-dozen aircraft and twenty ships.

During Hurricane Katrina five years ago the service was able to save 33,5000 lives in the first week following the storm as I documented in my book, Rescue Warriors -- The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes. But even for that brief time it was overextended with the Canadian Coast Guard having to take on some search and rescue functions in New England.

For a period this spring the Coast Guard tried to keep secret how many ships and aircraft it had responding to the BP blow out. Eight of the Coast Guard's 16 large multi-mission Buoy Tenders have been working as oil skimmers in the Gulf. The 210-foot Resolute I sailed on the day the well was capped in July is one of a dozen cutters that have been on scene. The Resolute was at the site of the disaster for weeks rather than doing its normal drug and migrant interdiction and fisheries enforcement patrols in the Caribbean and the Gulf.

Among the first sea turtles to wash ashore dead necropsies (animal autopsies) showed that many were not killed by ingesting oil but had sediment in their lungs suggesting they'd drowned in fishing nets. The suspicion is that shrimp boats being allowed to fish in the Gulf have been removing their Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to increase their take, knowing the Coast Guard is not patrolling to enforce the law. And what fishermen in the Gulf know has also been common knowledge among Columbian drug cartels with their semi-submersible submarines and illegal migrant smugglers.

Some of the service's most skilled disaster responders were also diverted to the BP response. The Captain overseeing Thad Allen's Interagency Group since mid-June would otherwise be overseeing the safety and security of America's ports, a job now being done by someone with a second full-time job. Another Captain in charge of the Incident Command Center in Houma Louisiana (run out of a BP facility newer, larger and more expensive than anything I've seen owned by the Coast Guard) is also the Sector Commander, the officer responsible for safety, security and navigation, for the Port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the nation.

Other Sector Commanders from Alabama, Delaware Bay and New England (along with 90 Coast Guardsmen from Maine) have been redeployed to the Gulf during this crisis. The hope among the 'Coasties' as they call themselves is for a rapid reduction of the service's role now that the well is permanently sealed (from above and soon from below).

Still, even if the Coast Guard survives its BP experience without an institutional breakdown as seems increasingly likely (thanks to the lack of say, a major hurricane so far this season) the stresses and deferred maintenance, training, etc. of the last months reflect a more serious problem.

"The military used to talk about being able to fight two wars at once," says one of the service's leaders. "We've never been fully resourced for our day to day operations."

The Coast Guard, unlike the four other military services slated for funding increases in 2011, was set to take a three percent hit in President Obama's 2011 budget despite an aging fleet -- the average age of its high endurance cutters is 41 years compared to 14 years for Navy ships -- and understaffed commands. The budget would have required reducing their active duty roster by 1,100 people and eliminating the coordinating office for oil spill response. A joint House Senate committee has restored that lost funding and added a few million dollars more. That leaves the Coast Guard budget at around $10 billion (The Navy Budget is around $160 billion, BP's 2009 profits were $13 billion).

The real question is with increased threats of industrial disasters like BP's, a new blue water coastline emerging in the Arctic, increased population along an increasingly vulnerable coastline and ongoing security threats from terrorism, piracy, climate change and other sources, how much larger ought our Coast Guard be to meet the many challenges facing America's public seas?

Congress might want to begin a serious discussion with the Coast Guard about what its realistic needs and capabilities for growth are. Unfortunately they'll have to wait. The Coast Guard's Congressional Liaison officer is also working in the Gulf.