So far, the effort to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been pathetic. Oil washes up, and after a while a truck arrives with a cleaning crew hired from distant states, which mops up or shovels it into plastic bags that may or may not get picked up later.
The crews then return to sit under a tent until the next call comes or, as has happened in a few cases, a sheriff arrives to arrest them on outstanding warrants.
Meanwhile, fleets of college kids using daddy’s fishing boat are being paid up to $2,000 a day to tool around looking for oil.
Each morning seems to bring a new fool’s errand. On June 18, for example, the Coast Guard apprehended a dozen oil-skimming barges in the midst of performing their duty and shut down their operations for the rest of the day in order to determine if they were carrying the proper number of life preservers and fire extinguishers. If the Coast Guard was so worried about safety, why not simply take a big pile of life preservers and fire extinguishers out to these craft and hand them around so the skimmers could keep at their essential job?
But that’s not the way government operates — at least not this government, which has created a perfect storm of bureaucratic and regulatory gridlock around the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Whatever is done to prevent the oil from coming ashore must be approved by the EPA, OSHA, Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard and a host of lesser bureaucracies.
But the most egregious scandal of all is the lack of skimmer boats to remove the oil from the water before it hits land. A few weeks ago, at the height of tourist season, as oil began washing up on beaches in Alabama, the Coast Guard announced that the best way to deal with the problem was to let the oil wash ashore and then clean up the beaches once the tide went out.
That tactic has proved wrong.
Right after the disaster struck, 13 oil-producing nations around the world, plus the U.N., offered the services of their dredges and large skimming ships, capable of removing hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. They were turned down by the Obama administration because of the Jones Act, a piece of labor union-inspired legislation that forbids foreign vessels or foreign crews from working in U.S. waters. Republicans have called for President Barack Obama to waive the act — as President George W. Bush did during the Hurricane Katrina disaster — but so far he has declined.
The lack of skimmer vessels becomes more critical each day. All the booms in the world cannot contain an oil spill without something to quickly skim it up. Waves, wind and current soon push the oil over or under the boom.
According to the Coast Guard, there are 400 skimmer vessels working along the affected coast, which, depending on how it’s
measured, is somewhere between 500 miles (the linear measure) and 5,000 (if you measure every cove and creek). There are said to be 2,000 skimmers available in the U.S. Gulf Coast residents are wondering just what the other 1,600 are doing.
Apparently, many of them are required by government regulation to remain right where they are in case of emergency.
The mayors of a number of small towns along the coast are seeking to purchase their own skimmers instead of relying on the effort by BP and the government, but that leaves open the danger of government regulators insisting on weeks of training and testing before they can be put to use.
The cleanup effort is drowning in a proverbial sea of red tape. The interesting contradiction here is that the entire response is turning into one of the greatest arguments against government regulation that could possibly be imagined.
Winston Groom is the author of numerous novels and histories, including “ Forrest Gump.” This article is excerpted from The Weekly Standard.