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Should the government take over oil spill cleanup from BP?

As Louisiana officials took reporters to see how a black tide of toxic chemicals has washed across 65 miles of their state's coastal wetlands this weekend, oil-coated pelicans flopped helplessly in the reeds.

"We need a leader and so far we don't have one," Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, complained.

Frustration continued mounting Monday over BP's failure to stop the millions of gallons of oil billowing out of pipes miles beneath the Gulf of Mexico's surface after 34 days of trying. People from both political parties were asking: Why is President Barack Obama leaving the effort to stop the spill in the hands of the people who are responsible for the mess?

The law on oil spills spells out that it's the president's job to make sure everything gets cleaned up.

"The president shall . . . ensure effective and immediate removal of a discharge, and mitigation or prevention of a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance," the Clean Water Act states.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink — the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor — sent Obama a letter Monday demanding he push BP aside and take charge because "they have failed us at every turn."

"We are now more than a month out from this disaster, and Floridians want to know: Where is the federal government's leadership?" she wrote.

However, whenever there's a spill of any toxic waste, the government routinely requires the company responsible for the pollution to take charge of cleaning it up, pointed out Paul Boudreaux, an environmental law professor at Stetson University's College of Law. Oil is no different.

"Certainly the government could take over" the oil cleanup, he said. "But I'm not sure if the Coast Guard would have any more resources to deal with this than BP does."

Obama administration officials rejected the idea of a government takeover of the effort.

"To push BP out of the way would raise the question: to replace them with what?" Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said at a White House briefing. Right now BP is "exhausting every technical means possible" to deal with the spill, he said.

Obama administration officials continued to insist that the cleanup is BP's responsibility and that the federal government's job is to oversee BP's efforts.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters that "this is a BP mess. It is a horrible mess. We will not rest until their job is done."

But officials said the law does give them the power to push BP to do the right thing.

BP seemed headed for a showdown with the Environmental Protection Agency after administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the company to look for less toxic chemical dispersants to spray on the spill, and BP responded by saying it would stick with the ones it already had on hand.

Jackson said Monday that the Clean Water Act gives the government the authority to order BP to stop spraying chemical dispersants on the spewing oil — but at this point she's not doing that.

Instead, she said she has told BP officials to cut back their dispersant use and to redouble their efforts to look for a less toxic version. She said BP has now agreed to take those steps.

And she promised the EPA will now begin doing its own tests, at a laboratory in the Florida Panhandle, to look for less toxic alternatives.

Without the unprecedented use of 700,000 gallons of dispersants, both on the surface and at the wellhead, a lot more oil would be washing ashore in Louisiana now, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is the on-scene coordinator in charge of the cleanup.

But Landry acknowledged that it's a "troublesome" trade-off using the chemicals to protect beaches and marshes without knowing exactly what they might do to marine life in the gulf.

"We live in a world where we make tough decisions based on little science," Jackson said.

But it's not just how BP is dealing with the spill that is drawing criticism of the Obama administration for being too deferential.

In her letter, Sink noted that some Panhandle hotels that have seen a decrease of more than 50 percent in occupancy are having trouble filing claims for damages through BP.

"Why must a small business owner looking for assistance through this crisis have to work through BP — why isn't the federal government handling claims of lost income and revenue?" she wrote.

The bottom line, she said in an interview, is that "BP is an oil drilling company. It's not a company that knows much about cleaning up an oil spill."

Information from McClatchy Newspapers, the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

Should the government take over oil spill cleanup from BP? 05/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 12:13am]

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