Bureaucracy Standing In The Way Of Oil Spill Clean Up Efforts

One of the most frequently heard stories coming out of the Gulf Region over the past two months is the extent to which bureaucracy is standing in the way of efforts to cleanup the oil spill and prevent it from causing further damage to coast areas. The most recent example of that can be seen in the Coast Guard’s order barring ships designed to suck the oil off the water from sailing:

Eight days ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered barges to begin vacuuming crude oil out of his state’s oil-soaked waters. Today, against the governor’s wishes, those barges sat idle, even as more oil flowed toward the Louisiana shore.

“It’s the most frustrating thing,” the Republican governor said today in Buras, La. “Literally, yesterday morning we found out that they were halting all of these barges.”

Sixteen barges sat stationary today, although they were sucking up thousands of gallons of BP’s oil as recently as Tuesday. Workers in hazmat suits and gas masks pumped the oil out of the Louisiana waters and into steel tanks. It was a homegrown idea that seemed to be effective at collecting the thick gunk.

“These barges work. You’ve seen them work. You’ve seen them suck oil out of the water,” said Jindal.

So why stop now?

“The Coast Guard came and shut them down,” Jindal said. “You got men on the barges in the oil, and they have been told by the Coast Guard, ‘Cease and desist. Stop sucking up that oil.'”

A Coast Guard representative told ABC News today that it shares the same goal as the governor.

“We are all in this together. The enemy is the oil,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Dan Lauer.

But the Coast Guard ordered the stoppage because of reasons that Jindal found frustrating. The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.

I’m not against martime safety, of course, but it strikes me as more than a little absurd that the Coast Guard it worry about life vests and fire extinguishers while the Governor of Louisiana is worrying about stopping the oil from entering the Louisiana marshes. At the very least, it would seem reasonable that, in an emergency situation such as the one the Gulf Coast has been in since April 20th, the enforcement of rules like these could be modified so that they don’t interfere with actual productive work.

If there is a reason to fault the Federal response to the oil spill, I think it can be found in actions like this where the blind adherence to rules stands in the way of reasonable efforts to get the job done.

FILED UNDER: Environment, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    From the other side of the coin, we hear this:

    At least two more oil spill cleanup workers have been hospitalized after feeling ill on the job, according to local shrimpers who are assisting in the recovery effort along the Gulf Coast.

    The workers were taken to West Jefferson Hospital in suburban New Orleans on Saturday after complaining of nausea, headaches and dizziness after low-flying planes applied chemical dispersants within one mile of operating cleanup vessels, according to Louisiana Shrimpers Association acting President Clint Guidry.

    “”My shrimpers can do this job,” Guidry told the reporters. “They just need the air quality monitored and they need the proper protective equipment, which is not being done.””


    Tricky stuff, this “appropriate precaution.”

  2. “The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.”

    How long does it take for the Coast Guard to inspect the ship and see if there were life vests and fire extinguishers? 30 minutes?

    And why did they need to contact the people that built the barges to do that?

  3. john personna says:

    “And why did they need to contact the people that built the barges to do that?”

    Probably to see if they were offshore rated, and not river rated, or whatever.

  4. Banjo says:

    Bureaucracy is the enemy and political correctness is its voice. Two truths we must never lose sight of.

  5. Simmer says:

    Why did they need to contact the people who built the ships? To see if they were built in the United States. It’s one of the federal rules getting in the way. The Jones Act of 1920 requires that ships carrying “goods” in our coastal waters are built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens.

    Progressives portray the Constitution as a relic from that past that doesn’t deal with the realities of today’s world. I disagree, but isn’t it funny? The Jones Act is a relic from the Progressive past that the current Progressive President is bound by…yet he ignores the Constitution (which he supposedly studied and taught) with such regularity.

    Where do you put your faith…in the Constitution or in the Jones Act?

  6. JKB says:

    Funny if oil is the common enemy then it would seem the Captain of the Port would call the District Commander who would then fill a plane with Marine Safety Inspectors who would swarm the barges and complete the verifications. You know deploy reserves to prevent a successful campaign from being delayed or stalled.

    Or the Coasties can run about worrying about their TPS reports.

    I had a commanding officer once. A consummate bureaucrat. Man loved his paperwork. Actually commented once how he like meetings. We called him the Paper Captain.

  7. GreyOne says:

    The ships would have papers, easily checked. The safety gear is easily checked on site.
    Why were all of them told to stop sucking oil, and held in port. Has the Coast Guard become incapable of boarding and checking a vessel at sea, or were they ordered to do this by higher level bureaucrats trying to frustrate Gov.Jindal’s _effective_response measure ?

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    I’m trying and failing to see how verifying that the boats have proper safety equipment is a bad thing. I mean, the response time appears to be incredibly slow, and that’s a problem, but ensuring that a barge pumping thousands of gallons of crude oil has fire safety equipment in case, you know, the oil catches on fire doesn’t strike me as being unreasonable…

  9. alphonse says:

    “At least two more oil spill cleanup workers have been hospitalized after feeling ill on the job…”

    Union guys, were they?

  10. Cattle Baron says:

    Tricky stuff, this “appropriate precaution.”

    And just how would the presence of life vests and fire extinguishers prevent people on the boats from becoming ill?

    …but ensuring that a barge pumping thousands of gallons of crude oil has fire safety equipment in case, you know, the oil catches on fire doesn’t strike me as being unreasonable…

    If any of that oil catches on fire, they’re going to need more than hand-held fire extinguishers.

  11. Kim du Toit says:

    All this shows is that the Federal Government is NOT treating this as the crisis they claim it is.

    As an example of a government addressing a crisis as a true problem, and ignoring the details: the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940.

    How many of the “little ships” would have been prevented by today’s Coast Guard from sailing across the Channel, and how would that have affected the numbers of soldiers brought home?

    Bureaucracy: the final refuge of the fearful.

  12. Pug says:

    <i<Union guys, were they?

    Probably not. Louisiana is a right to work state and unions have very little prescence there.
    Union men were also not on the Deepwater Horizon and it still blew up and killed eleven men.

    I guess you’ll have to look for another boogey man.

  13. Squid says:

    In an emergency, the question isn’t “Do you have enough life jackets and fire extinguishers?” It’s “How many do you need?”

    For just this week, would it kill the authorities to be helpful?

  14. Mkelley says:

    In Washington, they cut red tape lengthways.

  15. john personna says:

    I guess that required you to connect too many dots, Cattle Barron. The question is whether you are going to pick and choose. Are you going to blame the Coasties when they don’t protect lives at sea, and then also blame them when they do?

    If there is a legitimate claim here it would be about the _pace_ of inspection, not that they should suspend their responsibility.

    (Dunkirk? Do you think anyone who sank on the way sued their government? Do you think a barge worker sunk off a barge would sue ours? Different times. Let me guess, you same guys would be on the side of the worker against the government, because the government didn’t do its job …)

  16. PD Shaw says:

    The coast guard could have inspected the barges for safety equipment while oil was being removed.

    It seems to me that the coast guard doesn’t like this operation. This is probably mostly about jurisdictional rivalries. Is the coast guard stopping everybody to check for safety equipment?

  17. Texan says:

    Governor Jindal, you have a national guard for a reason. Use it.

  18. kwo says:

    If there is a legitimate claim here it would be about the _pace_ of inspection, not that they should suspend their responsibility.

    Exactly. No one objects to the inspection, only to the apparently undue delay. I suspect the life preserver/fire extinguisher angle is a red herring, and had nothing to do with the real reason for the delay. The question is why the Coast Guard felt it needed to dock the barges until the owners had been contacted.

  19. Mercutio says:

    OK_ I may be guilty of violating Napoleon’s dictem about never ascribing to malice what can be perfectly well explained by incompetence, but given the background and recent history of the Lurker in the White House, it seems more than likely that this is both malice and incompetence. Gov Bobby embarrassed the Prez and this is the payback.

  20. john personna says:

    I really doubt the White House’s incentives would get that turned around, Mercutio. Obama would be far better off a year from now if the spill gets cleaned up sooner, even if Jindal helps.

    It would require “malice and incompetence” and self-destructive tendencies.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    “…the Lurker in the White House…”

    Oh that’s really good! I can just picture him skulking about at night, in dark robes…maybe conducting a Voodoo ceremony with dead chickens and pictures of GOP enemies…don’t worry, though, you only have to deal with him for two and a half more years, right? Hey, maybe even less than that if the Republicans win control of Congress in November and manage to impeach and remove him from office for some kind of reason…

  22. LarryD says:

    “…Obama would be far better off a year from now if the spill gets cleaned up sooner, even if Jindal helps.”

    Except we have seen The One be so petty before. Narcissists, by normal people’s standards, over-react to any slight. And Obama seems more interested in exploiting the spill to push his green agenda than doing anything to stop it.

  23. john personna says:

    “conducting a Voodoo ceremony with dead chickens and pictures of GOP enemies”

    zombies would be so good at oil cleanup!

  24. PD Shaw says:

    Zombies lack proof that they are natural born citizens; INS would have to taser them and send them to Haiti. Because obviously some things are more important than removing oil.

  25. setnaffa says:

    Why does the Obama Administration seem bent on destroying the Gulf in spite of the heroic eforts of Americans to protect their country?

  26. sol vason says:

    Obama wants a catastrophe in the Gulf so that he can shutdown all oil drilling in the united states and force everyone to stop using petro fuels. He has ordered the bureaucracy to stop the clean up by every meands possible

  27. Lester says:

    The Coast Guard could load up a cutter or two and a few helos with life jackets and fire extinguishers and send them out to supply the barges if they were under equipped.

  28. Jack of Spades says:

    Imagine if these people had been involved in Dunkirk.

  29. Rick Caird says:

    I cannot understand your complaint. Are you not aware the Coast Guard’s ISO9000 certificate could have been in jeopardy? The process must be adhered to. Process is always more important than any result. We don’t need no stinkin’ result.

  30. Wamphyr says:

    As some others have commented, getting the boats out and running is far more important. If they were actually ‘short’ on these, I would have been more than happy to go down to Big 5 or Home Depot and buy a bunch. The Coast Guard could have helo’d them out (that’s called ‘helping’) Everybody wins.

    This sounds like the same bureaucratic shinola we had in San Diego during the Cedar wildfires; we had military firefighting planes and helo’s grounded during the fire because they weren’t ‘certified’ by the Department of Forestry — even through they did tons of practice runs on the local bases here. As a result a bunch of homes burned (including one of the local congressmen’s) because these birds sat idle.

  31. PapayaSF says:

    john personna: do you really think these boats are working without life jackets and fire extinguishers, which are standard equipment on all such boats, and that they need the Coast Guard to remind them and make sure they didn’t forget? At a time like this?

  32. Ralph Thayer says:

    I, for one, will be giving Admiral Allen and the men and women of the US Coast Guard the benefit of the doubt in these matters. The Coast Guard has 220 years of experience and an excellent record of doing its duty. That’s more in years than the 130 times Obama voted “present.”

    The Coast Guard has an unofficial motto first voiced a century ago by Surfman Patrick Etheridge just before going out on a rescue in stormy seas: “The Book says we’ve go to go out and it doesn’t say a damn thing about having to come back.”

    I submit that Admiral Allen has been set-up Chicago-style to be a “fall-guy,” and that he is savvy enough to have seen this hazard to his reputation going in.

    Of course, he White House has an unofficial motto, too, voiced by Rahm Emanuel just after Election Day 2008: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

    Coast Guardsmen and their families are not surprised by the admiral’s faithful attention to duty in spite of the hazards posted by a mendacious White House.


  33. john personna says:

    PapayaSF, I’m kind of doubting the story that this is just “life preservers and fire extinguishers.”

  34. Pat Moffitt says:

    Following the Gulf war in 1991 there were 650 wells ablaze and 11 million barrels of oil deliberately spilled into the surrounding waters. Bechtel was hired- mobilized 16000 engineers, scientists, and tradesmen. In less than 2.5 years all the fires had been put out, the wells and production facilities back in operation the coast line cleaned up, the reefs were protected, the wetlands cleaned up and the fishing industry started to returned within months of project startup.

    Note that Obama has just appointed a new committee to investigate and recommend with respect to the spill. Absent from this “expert” assemblage is a single engineer or anyone with oil technology experience. The White House panel however does have rabidly anti-oil experience. And Congress attacking the problem in a laser like fashion has turned to Kevin Costner.

    My understanding is EPA is not allowing the separated water from the oil skimming operations to be discharged on site which is the reason there is insufficient tanker capacity. If true this is a far greater abuse than the Jones Act. Anyone have info on whether this is correct?

  35. john personna says:

    Yeah, let’s compare a 2.5 year result to … what is this, day 60?

    (Costner’s centrifuges actually work, apparently. That’s better than I would have expected, but if they do, they do.)

  36. PapayaSF says:

    Pat Moffitt: I read that EPA rules say that discharged water must be 100% oil-free, so they are rejecting anything that’s less than perfect.

  37. Pat Moffitt says:

    john personna- There is nothing magical about oil water separation. There are any number of tried and true technologies (API and DAF)— the issue here is what do you do with the separated water. If EPA is not allowing the water to be discharged back to the Gulf following the separation phase then you must have vessels large enough to store the recovered oil and rejected water. It tremendously slows down if not stops the entire process.

    According to a quote attributed to the Chairman of the Dutch Spill Response Group http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/dutch-oil-spill-response-team-standby-us-oil-disaster

    “The Americans don’t have spill response vessels with skimmers because their environment regulations do not allow it. With the Dutch method seawater is sucked up with the oil by the skimmer. The oil is stored in the tanker and the superfluous water is pumped overboard. But the water does contain some oil residue, and that is too much according to US environment regulations.”

    If this is correct then the actions of EPA border on the criminally insane and it is the EPA not the Jones Act that is the problem because the Dutch offered to send the oil skimmers so they could be mounted on US ships.

    Lets look at it this way – you are in an accident and need an immediate tracheotomy to survive. A doctor rushes to the scene is about to make a cut in your neck with a pen knife and insert a Bic pen tube so you can breathe. How happy do you think your survivors would be that a bureaucrat stopped the doctor because it did not comply with all medical requirements?

    (Costner’s technology also has the reject water problem – so don’t know why his technology is acceptable. And I’m not sure why we should be testing out his centrifuges when there are technologies known to work. In fact if it was my money at stake I would never look at a centrifuge- give me an API separator with next to no moving parts.)

  38. Swen Swenson says:

    PapayaSF is right, you can’t operate a canoe in US waters without life vests, fire extinguishers, horn, lights, etc. Everyone who operates anything that floats is aware of these regulations. The Coast Guard does occasionally inspect but not very often, they mostly just put up signs with the regs listed. So this smells. At the least it’s certainly not normal procedure.

    I recently read somewhere that this is the same reason given for keeping the Dutch oil skimmers out. Not that they’re not wanted, it’s just that the Coast Guard hasn’t had time to inspect them yet — eight weeks after they were offered.

    An interesting development in any regard. I hope Jindal screams his head off.

  39. Pat Moffitt says:

    So in the midst of the “greatest environmental disaster in US history” and our “declaration of war” on the spill we are to believe that the Coast Guard is diverting resources to do life jacket inspections on front line troops? If this is indeed a war -we need to fire the general (or Admiral).

  40. Juneau: says:

    “PapayaSF, I’m kind of doubting the story that this is just “life preservers and fire extinguishers.”

    Doesn’t matter what it was, unless operating them was going to endanger human life. Get the damn things back to work – as in yesterday. Your Federal Government at work. We’re in the best of hands…

  41. john personna says:

    “unless operating them was going to endanger human life”


    “Get the damn things back to work”

    sure, but don’t forget your first part.

  42. Tom Poole says:

    Please folks, don’t come down on Adm. Chad Allen too hard. Obama set him (and the CG by extension) to be he fall guys for this CIVILIAN catastrophy. Allen is technically not in the CG anymore, just on extended active duty for the crisis.
    The guardsman who are doing the bureaucrat bounce are under the ‘Homeland Security” banner. They get their orders from Napolitano and her useful idiots. Allen is more an advisor than a controller, all the responsibility, none of the authority, and recovery by committee will be long, hard and expensive.
    More and more I wonder, should we reconstitute the Federation as Franklin saw it. Texas, the gulf coast states, Arizona, how many others will join in to demand a constitutuinal convention. It only takes 17 states.

  43. Tom Poole says:

    Sorry, brain slip, 34 states to force a convention.