Home > Uncategorized > NJ Parallels to Gulf Disaster – Monday Oversight Hearing

NJ Parallels to Gulf Disaster – Monday Oversight Hearing

[Update: Asbury Park Press set up story: Shore plans to be ready for BP oil – let’s hope Kirk Moore and Todd Bates really dig into the substance before and after the hearing. They know the shore and did a good job on the shellfish/oyster closure  program story.]

On Monday, the Asssembly Environment Committee will conduct oversight of DEP Commissioner Martin’s Plan to protect NJ from any impacts from the Gulf oil blowout (see announcement for details).

It is vital that the Committee engage in substantive oversight, and not political kabuki (we note for the record that Martin was never asked to respond to these Ten Questions or make commitments to performance Metrics he touts as the cornerstone of his private sector management orientation).

The Committee’s focus needs to be on 3 issues – let’s take them one by one (please hit the links for important information):

I) Content of the DEP’s prevention and response plans – better than BP and MMS efforts?

There was little content to the BP plan – and lots of what was there was flat out wrong (see PEER’s analysis).

As Grist wrote:

Oil companies are supposed to have spill-response plans prepared before they begin drilling in American offshore waters. Minerals Management Service safety regulators are supposed to scrutinize those plans before signing off on them. But it’s looking more and more like no one bothered to read BP’s backup plan before the Deepwater Horizon rig began drilling 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.

The nearly 600 pages of the “plan” consist largely of lists, phone numbers and blank forms, according to PEER Board Member Rick Steiner, a marine professor and conservationist who tracked the Exxon Valdez spill.

This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on,” Steiner said in a prepared statement. “Incredibly, this voluminous document never once discusses how to stop a deep water blowout even though BP has significant deep water operations in the Gulf.”

Even if BP tried to craft a decent plan, all such contingency plans are basically “fantasy documents,” according to Rutgers sociologist Lee Clarke, who studies disasters. “These documents let everybody get through the day,” he told Grist. “They provide comfort that risks are under control. The plans are based on assumptions that you can control the uncontrollable, and the truth is there’s nothing much that can be done.”

If you read just one thing about the Gulf, you must read Rolling Stone magazine’s killer article on the factors that led to the Gulf blowout (see The Spill, The Scandal and the President) – this excerpt absolutely nails it:

It’s tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill. “Bush owns eight years of the mess,” says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. “But after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too.” […]

“The oil companies were running MMS during those years,” Bobby Maxwell, a former top auditor with the agency, told Rolling Stone last year. “Whatever they wanted, they got. Nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS.”

Salazar took over Interior in January 2009, vowing to restore the department’s “respect for scientific integrity.” He immediately traveled to MMS headquarters outside Denver and delivered a beat-down to staffers for their “blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing” that had “set one of the worst examples of corruption and abuse in government.” Promising to “set the standard for reform,” Salazar declared, “The American people will know the Minerals Management Service as a defender of the taxpayer. You are the ones who will make special interests play by the rules.” Dressed in his trademark Stetson and bolo tie, Salazar boldly proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Salazar was far less aggressive, however, when it came to making good on his promise to fix MMS. Though he criticized the actions of “a few rotten apples” at the agency, he left long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge. “The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks,” says a marine biologist who left the agency over the way science was tampered with by top officials. “In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro-development oil culture.” One of the Bush-era managers whom Salazar left in place was John Goll, the agency’s director for Alaska. Shortly after, the Interior secretary announced a reorganization of MMS in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Goll called a staff meeting and served cake decorated with the words “Drill, baby, drill.”

“Employees describe being in Interior, not just MMS, but the other agencies as “the third Bush term,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. “They’re working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?”

II) Parallels between the factors that led to BP’s gulf blowout and Christie regulatory policy.  

a) Lack of experience in leadership:

The New York Times reported that the head of MMS had no experience: Crisis Places Focus on Beleaguered Agency’s Chief

Before she took the job at the minerals agency , Ms. Birnbaum, 52, had virtually no experience with the oil and gas industry

We have written critically about the fact that Bob Martin has no environmental experience or acedemic or professional credentials (see: Burden on Christie DEP Nominee to Show Senate He’s Qualified).

b) Inadequate resources

DEP recently admitted they lacked adequate staff resources to protect shellfish beds. According to the June 7, 2010 Asbury Park Press:DEP orders halt to oyster efforts

The agency said its staffing problems are a big part of the issue” there are not enough conservation officers to adequately patrol the oyster sites. It’s a position that worries commercial shellfishermen too, because the federal Food and Drug Administration has already questioned if the DEP has adequate enforcement.

“The conservation groups and nonprofits have said, “We’ll put volunteers out there,’ but the FDA has basically said you need to have qualified, trained people,” said Lawrence Ragonese, a DEP spokesman. “The DEP is working to get more people and more patrols out there” just to keep the commercial industry covered, he said.

If DEP can’t monitor shellfish beds, how can they respond to a coast-wide disaster?

c) Culture of lax oversight and promotion of oil industry economics – “Agency Capture

Commissioner Martin has repeatedly said DEP culture is “broken” and that DEP needs to embrace a less adversarial relationship with industry, promote economic development, and treat industry as “customers”. This can only lead to lax oversight and the same kind of cozy relationships that MMS had with BP. The pro-industry culture Martin seeks is deadly!

d) political pressures to expedite and waive environmental reviews – cutting corners to save industry money

e) weak regulations and enforcement

f) false perceptions that “red tape” environmental regulations impede economic development

For explanations of how the above factors d); e) and f) that led to the Gulf blowout are replicated right here in NJ under Governor Christie’s policies, read the Rolling Stone expose in light of the following:

1. Lessons of Gulf lost on Martin (May 25, 2010); Did Gulf Blowout Cloud Martin’s Vision? (June 3, 2010); and BP Got Environmental Waiver (May 6, 2010)

2. Executive Order #2 -“Common  Senese Principles” – specifically include new “waivers” to provide “regulatory relief“.

3. Red Tape Review Group Report (this Report was issued on April 29, ONE DAY before the Gulf blowout!).

4. DEP Transition Report: “DEP Must Do Less with Less” – less DEP oversight and more self monitoring by industry.

5. Martin Memo to DEP staff on the need to fix DEP’s “broken” culture (1/27/10)

At the same time, in the face of a collapsed economy, we need to play a key role in the economic growth of this State.

I want to empower decision making down through our chain of command and have all who come before us for service treated as valued customers.

6. Martin wants to create a “Customer” Culture (press release)

7. Martin’s emphasis of economics at DEP and a new DEP role to promote economic development

8. Christie budget slashed over $400 million of renewable energy funds (see this and this)

III) NJ’s risks and vulnerabilities from oil refineries and chemical plants.

NJ and surrounding NY Harbor and Delaware Bays have a large infrastructure of petrochemical facilities that present huge risks to the region’s dense population and sensitive environment. These facilities require strict regulatory oversight and credible response plans in the event of a catastrophic event – from fire, explosion, to terrorism. But, DEP oversight is eroding. For examples, see: The Fatal Fifteen.

Key components of chemical plant safety in NJ is voluntary (see NY Times coverage and this post).

The Legislature needs to conduct strict oversight of these serious threats to NJ’s environment, public safety, and economy.

Rigorous oversight is warranted, particularly in light of the lessons from the Gulf and the Christie deregulatory policy agenda.

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