Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The pathologies of the federal bureaucracy

Dick Morris reports from Alabama how, every time the state came up with plans to protect its coast, the federal government stepped in to block what they were trying to do.
According to state disaster relief officials, Alabama conceived a plan — early on — to erect huge booms offshore to shield the approximately 200 miles of the state’s coastline from oil. Rather than install the relatively light and shallow booms in use elsewhere, the state (with assistance from the Coast Guard) canvassed the world and located enough huge, heavy booms — some weighing tons and seven meters high — to guard their coast.

But … no sooner were the booms in place than the Coast Guard, perhaps under pressure from the public comments of James Carville, uprooted them and moved them to guard the Louisiana coastline instead.

So Alabama decided on a backup plan. It would buy snare booms to catch the oil as it began to wash up on the beaches.

But … the Fish and Wildlife Administration vetoed the plan, saying it would endanger sea turtles that nest on the beaches.

So Alabama — ever resourceful — decided to hire 400 workers to patrol the beaches in person, scooping up oil that had washed ashore.

But … OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) refused to allow them to work more than 20 minutes out of every hour and required an hourlong break after 40 minutes of work, so the cleanup proceeded at a very slow pace.

The short answer is that every agency — each with its own particular bureaucratic agenda — was able to veto each aspect of any plan to fight the spill, with the unintended consequence that nothing stopped the oil from destroying hundreds of miles of wetlands, habitats, beaches, fisheries and recreational facilities.
Remember that President Obama tells us that he wakes up and goes to bed thinking of the spill. His daughter is worried about the spill. Yet he can't stir himself to provide the leadership to cut through all this typical bureaucratic craziness so that people can act like this is a real emergency. But somehow the bureaucracy can never shed its normal torpor even in such a crisis.

Add in this story of the opportunity missed because the administration turned down the help from the Dutch because of absurd environmental regulations.
Three days after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, the Netherlands offered the U.S. government ships equipped to handle a major spill, one much larger than the BP spill that then appeared to be underway. "Our system can handle 400 cubic metres per hour," Weird Koops, the chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, giving each Dutch ship more cleanup capacity than all the ships that the U.S. was then employing in the Gulf to combat the spill.

To protect against the possibility that its equipment wouldn't capture all the oil gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch also offered to prepare for the U.S. a contingency plan to protect Louisiana's marshlands with sand barriers. One Dutch research institute specializing in deltas, coastal areas and rivers, in fact, developed a strategy to begin building 60-mile-long sand dikes within three weeks.

The Dutch know how to handle maritime emergencies. In the event of an oil spill, The Netherlands government, which owns its own ships and high-tech skimmers, gives an oil company 12 hours to demonstrate it has the spill in hand. If the company shows signs of unpreparedness, the government dispatches its own ships at the oil company's expense. "If there's a country that's experienced with building dikes and managing water, it's the Netherlands," says Geert Visser, the Dutch consul general in Houston.

In sharp contrast to Dutch preparedness before the fact and the Dutch instinct to dive into action once an emergency becomes apparent, witness the American reaction to the Dutch offer of help. The U.S. government responded with "Thanks but no thanks," remarked Visser, despite BP's desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer --the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge. Even after the U.S. refused, the Dutch kept their vessels on standby, hoping the Americans would come round. By May 5, the U.S. had not come round. To the contrary, the U.S. had also turned down offers of help from 12 other governments, most of them with superior expertise and equipment --unlike the U.S., Europe has robust fleets of Oil Spill Response Vessels that sail circles around their make-shift U.S. counterparts.

Why does neither the U.S. government nor U.S. energy companies have on hand the cleanup technology available in Europe? Ironically, the superior European technology runs afoul of U.S. environmental rules. The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water. Nearly oil-free isn't good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per million -- if water isn't at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

When ships in U.S. waters take in oil-contaminated water, they are forced to store it. As U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the official in charge of the clean-up operation, explained in a press briefing on June 11, "We have skimmed, to date, about 18 million gallons of oily water--the oil has to be decanted from that [and] our yield is usually somewhere around 10% or 15% on that." In other words, U.S. ships have mostly been removing water from the Gulf, requiring them to make up to 10 times as many trips to storage facilities where they off-load their oil-water mixture, an approach Koops calls "crazy."

The Americans, overwhelmed by the catastrophic consequences of the BP spill, finally relented and took the Dutch up on their offer -- but only partly. Because the U.S. didn't want Dutch ships working the Gulf, the U.S. airlifted the Dutch equipment to the Gulf and then retrofitted it to U.S. vessels. And rather than have experienced Dutch crews immediately operate the oil-skimming equipment, to appease labour unions the U.S. postponed the clean-up operation to allow U.S. crews to be trained.
Think of that - the regulations require the skimmers to be purer than Ivory soap! The EPA can worry about that 0.0015% contamination that the skimmers might release we have instead the hundreds of thousands of tons of oil streaming out mostly unchecked.

This all reminds me of the story from Katrina when we heard similar stories of people trying to help out but being blocked by the federal government.
FEMA issued a sternly worded release on August 29, the same day the hurricane made landfall along the Gulf Coast, titled "First Responders Urged Not to Respond to Hurricane Impact Areas." FEMA wanted all the responders to be coordinated and to come when they were called. And that was one plan they followed. As the New York Times reported September 5:
When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, [Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard] said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish's emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.
Those weren't the only examples. The city declined Amtrak's offer to carry evacuees out of the city before the storm. On September 2, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, "Up to 500 Florida airboat pilots have volunteered to rescue Hurricane Katrina survivors, transport relief workers and ferry supplies. But they aren't being allowed in." Hundreds of firefighters responding to a call for help were held in Atlanta by FEMA for several days of training on community relations and sexual harassment.
When we have a crisis like the BP spill or Katrina, we start to see up close how difficult it is for a leviathan government to have the speed and flexibility to respond appropriately. A well-run state (think Jindal's Louisiana, not Blanco's Louisiana) might have the ability to respond more appropriately.

We can see all this when there is such a crisis and the media focuses on a story day after day. Imagine what goes on day by day across the entire bureaucracy of the federal government. One shudders to think what we'd see if we had the same sort of reporting on all the nooks and crannies of how the government is acting.

2 comments:

tfhr said...

Heckuva job, Barry.

Stan said...

But they will do a great job on our health care.