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Ernest Istook Headshot

Pressure Prods Feds to Loosen Regulations, Aiding Oil Spill Cleanup

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Pressure from Senator George LeMieux (R, FL) and others has paid off with an emergency federal rule to permit more oil cleanup vessels to leave their posts elsewhere along America's coastline and finally head to the Gulf of Mexico to provide help.

The Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency are to publish the formal rule Wednesday (June 30), LeMieux announced. Normally, large amounts of ships and equipment are required by law to be kept in standby reserve to handle possible spills in harbors, drilling areas, etc. Those federal dictates have prevented them from joining the under-supplied oil spill cleanup.

The situation is analogous to a major fire--when units are called in from neighboring jurisdictions after one area is overwhelmed by a major blaze.

LeMieux responded by expressing thanks--and wondering why it took so long:

"We are at day 71 of this crisis and just now the bureaucracy is clearing a path for more skimmers. After waves of oil, tar and sludge-stained beaches, after families have lost their jobs, their business, and their way of life, we are finally beginning to see a sense of urgency from the federal government. I am glad the rule has been issued, but I wish this determination had been made weeks ago, when the oil could have been skimmed before it hit our coastlines."

Still, the additional American ships will continue to be inadequate for the vast job. Of 2,000 skimming-capable vessels in the U.S., Lemieux says only 400 are being used in the Gulf. But all of them have only minor capacity compared to a huge foreign ship that has just arrived in the Gulf, but has not been approved for use.

Might the newfound urgency lead to a quick acceptance of the largest help that's been offered so far? That would mean authorizing use of the giant A Whale tanker ship that its Taiwanese owners have equipped to collect 500,000 barrels of oil per day--250 times the capacity of most vessels now being used to skim oil from the Gulf. The Coast Guard reportedly will test the ship's capabilities this week, but has not said how long its review will take.

Putting the ship to work will require approval by the Coast Guard and the EPA, and may or may not require a Jones Act waiver. The EPA is involved because the skimming process picks up about seven times as much water as oil. Without EPA permission, skimming ships may be prohibited from discharging the water which they separate from the oil. The discharged water is significantly cleaned but not purified to the extent EPA desires.

Using a giant tanker to suck up the oil is a strategy that Saudi Arabia successfully employed in 1993 to clean up a 700-million gallon spill off its coast. Yet Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen just a few weeks ago claimed no such ship was available to help in the Gulf of Mexico. The arrival of the A Whale hopefully will change his mind. Meantime, keeping up the pressure may help.