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Coast Guard Flagged Potential Problems With Spill Response in 2004

Although much has been made of problems with BP, rig-owner Transocean and drilling regulators, the Coast Guard has largely been described as a helper in the Gulf cleanup, even if in doing so it hasn't exactly helped the cause of transparency.

But the Wall Street Journal, the Alabama Press-Register and others have raised points about the Coast Guard that I think are worth flagging.

Today, the Alabama Press-Register noted that Coast Guard officials have known for years about potential problems with federal and industry response to an oil spill. In 2004, the Coast Guard produced a report after a training exercise that came to some damning conclusions about preparations for a big spill. For example, according to the Press-Register, the report noted, "Oil spill response personnel did not appear to have even a basic knowledge of the equipment required to support salvage or spill clean up operations." (Unfortunately, the Press-Register doesn't seem to have posted the report itself.) 

Such exercises are conducted every two or three years by the Coast Guard and other agencies. The Coast Guard did not respond to the Press-Register's questions about whether later reports on spill response reflected any progress.

Meanwhile, yesterday's Journal brought up the fact that Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig -- which was leased by BP -- was registered under the flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which meant it received less rigorous examinations by the Coast Guard.

"The Pacific small island nation has less stringent requirements than the United States, but still follows international safety standards," reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune last week. "Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, is particularly fond of flying the Marshall Islands' flag on its vessels, with 35 registered with the country."

According to testimony by Coast Guard Capt. Vern Gifford last week, annual inspections of drilling vessels with U.S. flags can go on for several weeks, compared with the "four- to eight-hour 'examinations'" undergone by vessels with foreign flags. Gifford also said the Coast Guard may change its policies after the Deepwater Horizon investigation is finished.