Facing South

Obama administration promises swift investigation into Gulf oil disaster

At the first gathering of the federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force that took place yesterday in Pensacola, Fla., the U.S. Justice Department pledged to launch swift criminal and civil investigations into the parties responsible for the Gulf oil disaster that killed 11 workers and spilled more than 200 million gallons of oil into the region's ecosystem.

Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the department's Environment and Natural Resources division, said the investigations would "lead to important restoration actions in the Gulf," the Associated Press reported.

The DOJ's announcement came the same day that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill said its own investigation found no evidence that decisions were made to put profits ahead of safety on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. That revelation came at the commission's final meeting in Washington, which continues today and is being streamed live here.

"We certainly found no evidence that anyone had scrimped on safety, for example, to save money," William Reilly, the commission's co-chair, told reporters yesterday.

Not everyone agrees with the commission's conclusion, however.

"Why cut corners if it is not for money?" Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's hard-hit Plaquemines Parish, told the AP.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released a statement pointing to BP's "long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits." BP was $60 million over budget on the project at the time the well exploded. The company's long history of safety violations -- often resulting from an unwillingness to slow production for maintenance -- has been well-documented.

Stuart Smith, a New Orleans attorney representing clients seeking compensation for the spill, said the commission's report is "not going to change anything" since it won't be admissible at trial. He maintains that engineers' reviews of the documents indicate that profit motives did indeed play a role.

An understanding of the full impact of the oil disaster is still emerging. Last month, test results released by an independent environmental health advocacy group found that Gulf residents' blood was contaminated with toxins from the spilled oil and the petroleum-based dispersants BP sprayed on the gusher, and scientists have tracked contaminants from the spill entering the food chain.

And last week, news emerged that scientists had discovered dead and dying coral reefs seven miles from the spill site. The discovery was the first indication that living organisms in the deepwater area near the spill site were impacted by the oil.

Speaking at yesterday's Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said the body's work would go beyond addressing the immediate disaster to look at what the region needs to become more resilient, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported:

"It's not just spilling oil," Jackson said. "It's hypoxia and the nutrients in our system that are creating dead zones. It's just the fact that we have so many people who want to live in the Gulf of Mexico (region).

"We have all those issues that we can begin to deal with through coastal restoration," she said, including rebuilding wetlands in Louisiana, and making sure residual oil doesn't return to Florida beaches in advance of the state's next tourism season.

In the meantime, a push is underway to give the oil spill commission subpoena power when Congress returns next week for its lame duck session.

"They alone have the power to provide subpoena power to the Commission," writes Johanna F. Polsenberg at the Gulf Restoration Network's blog. "Without it, the Commission's report, due to the President on January 11, 2011, will, literally, not have been able to get to the bottom of this disaster."

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