USF scientist not happy with federal oil response

08/16/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Like any catastrophe, the Gulf oil disaster laid bare the shortcomings of those charged with responding. One of these is the disconnect between government and academia, which came through loud and clear at a conference earlier today.

USF physical oceanographer Bob Weisberg is the go-to guy for all things loop current. This summer, as fears of oil washing up the East Coast persisted, he was quoted by media outlets around the world. But for some reason, the US Coast Guard won’t sit on an expert panel with Weisberg or anyone on his team. He said they even tried to tell them to stop their work.

“We, actually, were visited. No, not me, but my unit was actually visited, on a couple of occasions, by the coast guard, telling us to bug out.”

Today Weisberg gave a presentation on the oil disaster response at a meeting of the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida. Though he was sharing a panel with two state officials, he plainly said he was not thrilled with the government’s response effort.

“I have to admit, up front… that I’ve lost a lot of faith in both my federal government and my state government, in responding to crisis.”

Weisberg said he and his colleagues began researching the effects of the well blowout immediately out of professional responsibility. For example, he said, USF deployed surface drifters, which study ocean currents, before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had.

“NOAA got into the current kind of late. You know, they woke up one day and kind of said, 'Oh, we got to do this.' But, the academic scientists had already done it. Again, I’m not saying this to be nasty, but we didn’t have the best response possible, from the federal government.”

As Weisberg plainly stated his criticisms, the commissioners, many of whom are elected officials at state and local levels, seemed to squirm in their seats. After Weisberg’s presentation, State Sen. Mike Bennett, a Republican from Sarasota, sternly told Weisberg to remember who funds his work. Weisberg said being honest shouldn’t cost somebody their job.

Lee Edmiston is Director of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He told the commission the response was sluggish at first, but it’s all about lessons learned.

“One of the struggles, early on with this response, was the federalized response. You have a responsible party. It took a while for me to really comprehend what that meant. Normally, when we have an emergency response in the state of Florida, for instance, a hurricane, the emergency operations center is there to support the counties. They listen to the counties, what they need, and provide the assistance they need. This…was done in the sense that it was almost like planting a vacuum.”

Despite the tension, the commissioners agreed that responding to disasters on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon blowout requires input from all sectors. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker chairs the commission. He said a little conflict can be healthy.

“I think an open dialogue is a great thing; an open, honest dialogue by all parties. That’s why we invite all the public to give comments, if they want to, the commission members as well as the speakers to give comments. I think you have to do that, or you can’t get to where you want to go. If you don’t have a discussion, sometimes a little friction occurs. You know, being mayor of a city for nine years, I’ve had a little experience with friction and that process, but I think ultimately, it results in a better product.”

Before the well blowout, the Collins Center for Public Policy produced a report for the Century Commission on the safety of offshore drilling. This was done at the request of Senate President Jeff Atwater. Baker said the commission is seeking input from those charged with responding to the disaster to add to what’s in the report.

“How do we look at what we’ve learned from this incident combined with the oil study that actually, the Collins Center did for us before this incident occurred? What can we make recommendations to the legislature and the governor, from a policy perspective?”

The Century Commission’s stated goal is to promote environmental, social, and economic sustainability in Florida. Baker said the impacts of the well blowout are a vital piece of the puzzle.

“We’re not quite sure what the impact is going to be on our fisheries, our fishing systems, our recreational fishing industry, our commercial fishing industries are critical to the economies of our state, to the quality of life of our state. Somebody needs to be monitoring the food chain, and what the impact of this incident is going to have on the food chain.”

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