A Times Editorial

Two years later, spill's dangers linger

The second anniversary of America's worst environmental disaster on Friday should serve as a reminder to the nation that there remains much work to be done. There has been progress in the two years since the explosion of the BP-leased drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. The federal government has imposed new standards to make offshore oil drilling safer. BP, after an inexcusable start, has begun cleaning up the environmental and economic damage. And scientists are beginning to discern the long-term impacts to the Gulf of Mexico. But many of these efforts still exist only on paper. And, amid the rapid expansion of gulf drilling, more reform is needed to ensure the next oil spill does not wreak the same damage on people, the economy and the environment. Three areas in particular need attention.

Safety

The government still trusts the drilling industry to self-police.

The Obama administration ordered a number of safety and regulatory reforms in response to the deaths of 11 workers on the Deepwater rig and the release of more than 200 million gallons of oil. All operators — regardless of water depth — must demonstrate they can deal with a worst-case blowout. Wells and casings must have stronger designs. Deepwater rigs must be able to contain a blowout under the harsh conditions thousands of feet below the sea's surface. The measures also require that rig operators be better trained, and that the industry share its knowledge and equipment in an emergency.

But many safety standards are industry-driven, and the government is taking it on faith that operators can contain blowouts in the growing sector of deepwater drilling. Leading agencies such as the Interior Department, which oversees offshore drilling, and the Coast Guard, which would respond to any crisis, are still struggling to carry out their new responsibilities. Inspectors have tested so few containment caps, congressional auditors reported in February, that "there is limited assurance that operators are prepared to respond to a subsea blowout." Yet in the last year the government approved some 360 deepwater permits.

Environment

The desire to move on can't come at the expense of the gulf's long-term health.

The spill caused the closure of 88,000 square miles of federal waters to fishing. Four million feet of oil boom were deployed. Hundreds of miles of gulf coast shoreline required cleaning by machine or by hand. Researchers are still reporting tar mats buried in the sand. Louisiana's oyster beds were hard hit. So were coastal marshes. Dead dolphins have washed up in unusually high numbers. Marine scientists are finding diseased fish and dead deep-sea coral. Then there is the unknown impact of putting 1.8 million gallons of dispersant in the water in an effort to keep the oil from the surface and the shore.

The federal government has already produced two overarching plans for restoring the gulf, which provides the nation 90 percent of its offshore oil and gas and one-third of its seafood. A long-term damage assessment is ongoing that will prioritize spending and keep states and local communities on track. And BP has pledged $1 billion toward early restoration projects in four gulf states, including Florida. Some work — rebuilding marshes, dunes and oyster habitat — will be straightforward. But scientists won't know the larger ecological impact to the gulf for another 20 years. That's why Congress needs to increase the paltry fines on any spill, which currently range from $1,100 to $4,300 per 42-gallon barrel, and dedicate the vast majority of that money to repairing the very water bodies that are harmed.

Damages

BP's victims still need to be made whole, and the government should increase the $75 million damage cap for future spills.

It took a nudge by the federal government for BP to put serious money on the table, and putting the claims to bed quickly and fairly may require more prodding. BP has paid more than $8 billion in mostly private claims (with the biggest chunk in Florida) and $14 billion on the cleanup. It pledged another $180 million for tourist promotion in the gulf states ($62 million for Florida) and an additional $82 million to test and market gulf seafood. These are substantial down payments. The company cannot be allowed to slide on its commitments as images from the disaster fade from the front pages.

BP is scheduled to roll out the terms this week of a proposed settlement to resolve the vast majority of private claims for monetary and medical losses. The federal judge overseeing the case will need to ensure the deal, valued at an additional $8 billion, is fair and has the flexibility to cover legitimate damages that emerge later. The coverage for medical care must cover the long arc that can exist before health problems arise. And claimants will need help in navigating what could be three separate processes for getting their money.

And while BP waived its limits under the current $75 million cap in fines for an offshore spill, a company with smaller pockets might not have the same wherewithal or self-interest to act similarly to repair the company brand. That would frustrate the victims of any future spill even more, and make it harder for the federal government and the states to begin the long road to recovery.

Two years later, spill's dangers linger 04/15/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 16, 2012 9:24am]

    

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