As Gulf Faces Tropical Storm Threat, Shutdown Keeps Oil Spill Experts Off the Job

Heading into the weekend, there are three very disturbing realities coming together that make those of us who care about the ocean very uncomfortable:

  1. Tropical Storm Karen is making its way through the Gulf of Mexico and heading straight towards a vast field of offshore oil rigs and pipelines. Parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are already under tropical storm watches and warnings.
  2. When tropical storms and hurricanes hit this region, they can cause a lot of oil spills. For example, the damage that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused to rigs and pipelines resulted in  spills totaling 17, 652 barrels (or roughly three-quarters of a million gallons) of petroleum products. Even more oil was spilled from on-shore facilities. Not to mention the fact that a major storm might also churn up submerged oil from the BP oil spill, sending it back onto our shores and beaches.
  3. Because of the government shutdown, many of NOAA’s oil spill experts – employees of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration – are furloughed and off the job.

Talk about bad timing.

Based on the Department of Commerce’s contingency plan for the government shutdown, it appears that NOAA’s division that deals with oil spills only kept a small handful of employees on duty to “maintain minimal on-hand response activities.” This means that many of NOAA’s oil spill experts are locked out of their offices and unable to even check their government email accounts. The number that remain at work is very small – so few, in fact, that they could probably split a pizza for lunch. So for all oil spills across the entire country… that’s it. That’s all that’s left. There’s nobody else.

Now don’t completely panic. It’s possible that in light of the approaching storm, the government may recall NOAA’s oil spill experts and deem them “essential” in light of a disaster. They still wouldn’t get paid, but we could have those experts on hand to map the spills, determine the spills’ trajectories, and provide the scientific support that the Coast Guard and other first responders will need.

But is this really any way to run a government or protect the environment?

Imagine if your local town or city experienced a shutdown that closed the police and firefighting departments, sent all of the officers and firefighters home – furloughed indefinitely without pay – but then said: “Don’t worry, we’ll call them back into work if a building catches fire or someone commits a crime.” No mayor would dream of running a city like that.

A local community deserves better, and so do the ocean and the environment.

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