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Ron Gouget, who formerly managed the oil spill cleanup department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as a similar unit for the state of Louisiana, is criticizing the Obama White House’s failure to act according to existing government plans in the event of an  Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an interview with a Mobile Alabama Register, Gouget reported the feds have had an oil spill clean up since 1994 that should have been implemented as soon as possible after crude began pumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Gouget said when he was at NOAA, the agency created a plan that required burning off an oil spill in the region in its earliest stage, if the prevailing winds would not push the smoke and soot from the operation inland. The plan hasn’t changed, but the NOAA did not implement the plan. Gouget said federal officials missed a narrow window of opportunity to gain control of the spill by burning last week, before the spill spread hundreds of miles across the Gulf, and before winds began blowing toward shore.

“They had pre-approval. The whole reason the plan was created was so we could pull the trigger right away instead of waiting ten days to get permission, If you read the pre-approval plan, it speaks about Grand Isle, where the spill is. When the wind is blowing offshore out of the north, you have preapproval to burn in that region. If the wind is coming onshore, like it is now, you can’t burn at Grand Isle. They waited to do the test burn until the wind started coming onshore.” 

Asked why officials waited for a week before conducting even a test burn, Gouget said, “Good question. Maybe complacency was the biggest issue. They probably didn’t have the materials on hand to conduct the burn, which is unconscionable.”  

The former NOAA official hinted that the slow response may have been caused by a bit of skittishness by the higher ups in the federal government.

He said the NOAA officials involved at the Unified Command Center in Louisiana know how to respond to spills, and know burning should have started as soon as possible after the initial release was detected. Gouget said they may have been overruled.

“It may have been a political issue. The burn would make a big big plume and lots of soot. Like Valdez, the decisions to get the resources mobilized may not have occurred until it was too late,” Gouget said. “This whole thing has been a daily strip tease. At first they thought it was just the diesel, then they said the well wasn’t leaking. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get the burning going right away. They could have gotten 90 percent of the oil before it spread.”

Gouget wonders why they aren’t burning the oil newly leaked from the well.

“I keep reading that burning will only get a small portion of the oil. Not true. This one is a continuing release,” Gouget said, with lots of “bright, fresh oil” that should burn fairly easily.

“The bottom line, the limiting factor on burning is can you get it to burn. If it gets too thin, like a sheen, it won’t burn because you don’t have a fuel,” Gouget said. “Generally, it’s got to be thick enough, and it can’t be too weathered. This stuff is weathering immediately coming out of the pipe, losing the volatiles that burn most easily. They’ve got to get to it right away.”

Gouget said officials could still make a big dent in the amount of oil that will hit seashores over the next several months by burning.

If they set up multiple boat/fire boom sets & begin a ‘bucket brigade’ grabbing fresh oil, they can set up a production system to remove huge amounts,” Gouget said. “They’ve got to ramp up the burn program. It’s one of the most important tools they have to limit the damage.”

Keep in mind these comments are not coming from a newspaper editorial board supposing that this may be Obama’s Katrina.  Since the Obama administration came into office in January of 2009, they have made a point of rejecting the advice of the people who have come before him, and procedures already put into place. In many cases, he ends up going back to the old policies that worked before (such as Afghanistan). Is the ecological disaster happening in the Gulf of Mexico the result of an act of hubris? The scenario Gouget is describing has the President circling around for an answer, just because his ego will not let him use the scenario that was left in place for him.

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