Legal Conflicts re BP Oil Spill Disaster Plans and Response

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Lawmakers Question Coordination of Federal, Local Responses to Emergencies
by Rob Margetta, CQ Today, September 22, 2010 [Subscription service.]

Two of the major issues that emerged in a recent House hearing on the SP Spill are ( 1) conflicts between state and federal laws, and (2) which federal dept. should have the lead for disaster planning and response.

After hearing descriptions of a disconnect between Louisiana officials and the Coast Guard during the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, members of the House Homeland Security Committee said they may have to re-examine the laws that connect the state to the federal government during emergencies. Craig Paul Taffaro Jr., president of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, told the committee that his state has different authorizing legislation for response efforts than other Gulf Coast states.
“Louisiana law specifically grants emergency powers to local authorities . . . during times of declared disasters,” he said. “This construct seemed to create a bureaucratic obstacle that has plagued the coordination of the response effort throughout.”

The problem, Taffaro said, is that the Clean Air Act (PL 101-549) and other federal statutes governing emergency response do not recognize or mesh well with the Louisiana system. Local authority was met with “resistance, exclusion and power struggles” after the spill, he said.

The Homeland Security Department (DHS) was expected to take a leadership role after the spill, Thompson said. “Yet, as we all now know, the department did not have a role in reviewing or assessing the plans for the response and recovery of this type of disaster,” he added. Instead, the agency in charge of regulating offshore platforms — then known as the Minerals Management Service, a bureau within the Interior Department — was responsible for the plan. Coast Guard officials testified that their agency had no role in overseeing the Deepwater Horizon emergency procedures.

With regard to which federal agency/department should have the lead role,

Sheila Jackson Lee, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, said DHS needs to be at the center of all response planning, adding that DHS would have been more appropriate than Interior in the case of Deepwater Horizon. “The backbone of response has to be Homeland Security,” the Texas Democrat said.

The situation reflects other regulatory issues that affect DHS, Thompson said, including the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency plays a role in reviewing the nuclear power plant emergency response plans required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. FEMA is unclear on whether it should be working with the NRC, plant owners or local authoritiesThe Homeland Security Department (DHS) was expected to take a leadership role after the spill, Thompson said. “Yet, as we all now know, the department did not have a role in reviewing or assessing the plans for the response and recovery of this type of disaster,” he added.

Instead, the agency in charge of regulating offshore platforms — then known as the Minerals Management Service, a bureau within the Interior Department — was responsible for the plan. Coast Guard officials testified that their agency had no role in overseeing the Deepwater Horizon emergency procedures.

One thought on “Legal Conflicts re BP Oil Spill Disaster Plans and Response

  1. It’s not just Louisiana. Many of the same problems arose during recent oil spills in the San Francisco Bay.

    Part of the problem seems to be with incidents that are “born federal” and thus confound the traditional assumption that incidents begin locally and then escalate upward through the tiers of government. Turns out we aren’t nearly as good at building communication and collaboration downward when an incident originates in federal jurisdiction.

    There are aspects of this that are peculiar to the national oil spill response plan, but the deeper structural issue arises in any incident that either arises under federal jurisdiction (e.g., on navigable waterways) or is deemed an incident of national significance (e.g., terrorism.)

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