Inspector General Recommends Changes To National Response Plan After Gulf Spill

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The national plan to clean up oil spills in navigable waters needs to be revised, including provisions on documentation and funding practices, to respond to concerns raised in the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to two reports released Aug. 26 by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general.

In one report, the inspector general recommends that EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response take steps to revise a provision of the plan to incorporate the most appropriate testing protocol for oil dispersants. The second says EPA needs additional management controls to track and recover its Gulf Coast oil spill response costs.

The first report, Revisions Needed to National Contingency Plan Based on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, is based on two hotline complaints the EPA inspector general received on the use of dispersants in response to the spill.

The second report, EPA's Gulf Coast Oil Spill Response Shows Need for Improved Documentation and Funding Practices, is based on a review the inspector general conducted to determine whether EPA has controls in place to recover its Gulf Coast oil spill response costs.

In the first report, the inspector general said the National Contingency Plan, as authorized by the Clean Water Act, serves as the government's blueprint for responding to oil spills and hazardous release substances. It lists chemicals that responders can use to mitigate a spill, including dispersants that emulsify, disperse, or solubilize oil into the water column.

At issue is the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon unit in the Gulf of Mexico, which exploded, caught fire, and then sank two days later. The spill lasted 87 days and released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, making it the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, the first report said.

More Reliable Testing Procedure

EPA and the manufacturer of the oil dispersant Corexit completed the required steps to include Corexit products on the National Contingency Plan “product schedule,” which means the product may be authorized for use during a spill response by the designated on-scene coordinator, the first report said. Corexit became the primary dispersant used during the spill.

However, at the time of the spill, EPA had not yet revised Subpart J of the contingency plan to include the most appropriate testing protocol, known as the “swirling flask test,” the inspector general said.

If the protocol had been in Subpart J, which lists testing methods to demonstrate a dispersant's effectiveness, more reliable data on the effectiveness of Corexit would have been available during the spill, the report said.

Therefore, the inspector general recommended that the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response take steps to revise Subpart J to incorporate the most appropriate testing protocol.

Clarification of Roles Needed

In another area, responders could have used other dispersants, but not within the window of time allowed by an existing directive, the report said.

The Coast Guard was the lead agency for the oil spill, and it authorized EPA to monitor and respond to potential public health and environmental concerns.

EPA involved senior officials in the response because the agency was not prepared for the unprecedented volume and duration of dispersant use and subsea application, and additional clarity was needed on roles and responsibilities in responding to such a significant spill. The involvement of EPA officials created confusion as to who was leading EPA response efforts for dispersant use, the report said.

Therefore, the inspector general recommended that OSWER establish policies to review and update contingency plans using lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon and clarify roles and responsibilities for spills of national significance.

Finally, the inspector general recommended that EPA's Office of Research and Development come up with a research plan on long-term health and environmental effects of dispersants.

EPA generally agreed with the report's recommendations.

New Funding Approach

In the second report on documentation and funding practices, the inspector general said EPA needs additional management controls to track and recover its Gulf Coast oil spill response costs.

As of Dec. 31, 2010, the Coast Guard had authorized EPA to spend about $61.9 million on response costs, the report said. EPA bills its costs and receives reimbursement from the Coast Guard.

In the report's first recommendation, the inspector general said EPA's chief financial officer should implement controls to ensure the agency consistently generates response activity documentation that provides a clear audit trail linking response work performed to response work billed. The report said it was unable to determine specific tasks associated with certain costs to ensure they were related to authorized activities.

EPA disagreed with this recommendation, saying it believes the necessary controls are already in place, the report said.

Clear Documentation to Coast Guard

The inspector general also recommended that EPA's chief financial officer put in place controls to ensure that bills and supporting cost documentation packages submitted to the Coast Guard are clear and complete, and that they comply with cost documentation requirements.

In another recommendation, the inspector general said EPA's deputy administrator should work with Coast Guard counterparts to reach agreement regarding the sharing of contractor-designated confidential business information. The impasse caused by the lack of such an agreement has affected reimbursement of EPA's response costs, the report said. EPA contract costs represent more than 67 percent of its total response costs, it said.

In a final recommendation, the report said EPA's chief financial officer should seek new or additional emergency response funding authority for oil spills. During the cleanup, EPA had limited cash on hand to fund its work, the report said.

EPA agreed with the last three recommendations, the report said.

By Pat Ware

The report, Revisions Needed to National Contingency Plan Based on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, is available at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2011/20110825-11-P-0534.pdf .

The report, EPA's Gulf Coast Oil Spill Response Shows Need for Improved Documentation and Funding Practices, is available at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2011/20110825-11-P-0527.pdf  

Fraud, waste, or abuse can be reported on the EPA inspector general's hotline at http://www.epa.gov/oig/hotline.htm .