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Foreign Help in the Gulf: The Facts Are Murky

New articles have painted a sometimes inaccurate picture of a federal bureaucracy getting in the way of foreign help in the Gulf. The misinformation and an obsession with a few extra skimmers seem to be obscuring real questions about the oil cleanup.

First, there was the outcry about the Jones Act, which was hardly the obstacle it was made out to be. Then, there were a number of stories about how the EPA was standing in the way of putting foreign skimmers into use. The sourcing--or lack thereof--on some of these stories about foreign vessels and federal bureaucracy is striking.

On the subject of the EPA, I keep reading—particularly from the right but also from mainstream news outlets--that U.S. regulators have prevented foreign cleanup technology from being put to work because those vessels extract oil but release water with some oily residue. It’s baffling why this isn’t being checked with the relevant agencies.

When I asked the EPA, it told me that “the decision to use skimmers is made by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator,” which in this case is the Coast Guard. “Discharges from oil/water decanting operations that are in compliance with the instructions of the [On-Scene Coordinator] are exempted” from Clean Water Act standards, according to the agency.

The same thing goes for the giant “Whale” skimmer from Taiwan, which has until Thursday to prove it lives up to its hype. The EPA said that “despite previous news reports, the Environmental Protection Agency has no authority over the vessel and will not decide if it [is] used in the response.” The Coast Guard continues to evaluate the Whale skimmer on a basis of performance.

The issue of a few wonder-working foreign vessels aside, the better question still seems to be why the more than 570 skimmers already deployed in the Gulf have fallen short of BP’s promises about how well they would work.

Or, for that matter, how the government and BP plan to clean up crude oil that we all know has penetrated into the deep waters of the Gulf.

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