Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard commandant who is the federal government's point man in the BP oil disaster, makes an important point: The nation has a responsibility to not only clean up the spill but to learn from it. In a teleconference Monday with the Times' editorial board, Allen pointed out several areas where the government needs to strengthen its response. These reforms should be pursued now even as the cleanup continues and the government decides how to cap the wellhead for good.
Allen is examining how to kill the well permanently. (It was plugged temporarily last month.) Yet even as he brings the crisis stage of this disaster to a close, he has some useful ideas for better preparing the nation to handle a major spill. The Obama administration and Congress should not wait on a postmortem of the accident to design a stronger safety net for coastal communities, and Allen offers a useful first-draft agenda:
Better modeling. The oil spread rapidly in all directions across a vast area, complicating the containment effort. Better computer modeling could have enabled the Coast Guard and other emergency responders to deploy skimming boats, boom and other resources sooner and more effectively to oiled waters and shorelines. Better tracking of the oil could reduce widespread rumor and fear, which could keep fishing and tourism alive.
Get better estimates of the size of the leak. Federal officials had no idea how much oil was leaking in the days immediately following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and it turned out the initial estimates where way off. The extent of the spill helps determine what resources are deployed, how much money the operator is fined and other critical matters. Getting the spill estimate right is also important to establish the government's credibility and instill public confidence. Allen would create a standing, independent process for estimating the flow of any future spill.
More coordination. Allen described the chaos of the first days of the response as aircraft and boats rushed to the scene approximately 50 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana. The effort has involved 30,000 personnel, more than 4,200 vessels and equipment and technical assistance from some two dozen countries. Allen said the United States had never fielded so many private-sector players to respond to a national disaster. The government needs a stronger command system to mobilize this private force in the future.
Test the chemicals. The nation's worst environmental disaster relied upon the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil. Allen recognizes the practice was controversial and deserves much more scientific scrutiny. Before this accident, the nation had no dispersants preapproved for subsea application. Yet more than 40 percent of the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant used was applied under the surface, where it is considered more effective because it reaches the oil before it weathers. Allen said the United States needs to continue monitoring and testing to ensure dispersants do not do more harm than good.
It could take months to get a fuller picture of how to make the industry safer and better protect the coasts. But Allen's sensible ideas — to improve technology, keep testing and build on the command structure already in place — should be pursued now while the spill is on the nation's radar, and while federal, state and local officials still have lines of communications.