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Where Were Oil Watchdogs?

GUY RAZ, host:

Clean and safe energy may be a goal for the future, but for now, federal and state investigators want to find out why they missed so many warning signs about the safety problems on that oil platform leased to BP in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists and environmentalists are also doing some soul-searching.

And as NPR's Brian Mann reports, many are wondering why they didn't ask more questions before the disaster on April 20th.

BRIAN MANN: Natalie Roshto's husband Shane was one of 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion April 20th. Last week, she told a congressional panel meeting at St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana that Shane knew things on the rig just weren't right.

Ms. NATALIE ROSHTO: We had many detailed conversations of the wrongs that was going on out there, the high pressure situations they were in.

MANN: Roshto told lawmakers that federal agencies seemed oblivious. They also missed the fact that an oil spill response plan filed by BP for the Gulf of Mexico last year included obvious factual errors and glaring omissions. The results of that breakdown have been devastating.

Dr. RICK STEINER (Conservation Specialist, Greenpeace): There, you could see the oil line right there, right where the white pelicans are. It's heavy oil just beneath them.

MANN: Rick Steiner is a biologist and an environmental activist from Alaska. He's collecting sludgy water samples near Queen Bess Island, a bird sanctuary in southern Louisiana. Steiner says he saw the same scenario play out before the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago.

Dr. STEINER: What we found is government and industry left together grow very cozy with one another.

MANN: Organizations and activists along the Gulf Coast say they suspected for a long time that federal officials weren't scrutinizing BP closely enough, but Casi Callaway, head of a green group called Mobile Baykeeper in Alabama, says organizations like hers also became complacent.

Ms. CASI CALLAWAY (Executive Director, Mobile Baykeeper): I guess I have to say that I feel like I was asleep at the switch.

MANN: The oil industry has been a fixture in the Gulf for decades, providing jobs, paying taxes and donating money to civic and environmental groups.

Callaway says she saw permit applications for offshore projects that raised serious questions about safety standards and environmental protections, but she lacked the staff and money to follow up.

Ms. CALLAWAY: The big bells are going off. If their permit applications are this bad, I probably need to be looking at them a whole lot more closely. But we had storm water, and we had sewer, and we had all these other inshore things.

MANN: Monitoring the offshore oil industry isn't easy. Oil companies are often reluctant to share information that they view as proprietary. What's more, the vast majority of oil and gas companies on the Gulf Coast aren't unionized.

Mike Sawyer, an industry safety consultant in Houston, Texas, says workers with safety or environmental concerns often keep silent.

Mr. MIKE SAWYER: Once you're designated as a whistleblower, your life becomes very difficult. You run the risk of never working in the industry again.

MANN: Still, some activists say they did try to raise alarms. Last year, environmentalists held a press conference after a whistleblower leaked documents questioning safety on another BP rig in the Gulf. But in the wake of this spill, some groups are discussing ways to provide more meaningful oversight.

Mr. STAN JONES (Spokesman, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council): It's difficult and it's expensive. It requires continuous focus and a considerable amount of technical expertise.

MANN: Stan Jones is a former reporter with the Anchorage Daily News, who covered the Exxon Valdez spill. He works now for a watchdog group called the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, known as RCAC. It was created by Congress in 1990.

The nonprofit coalition is made up of local governments, fisherman's groups, environmentalists and native tribes. Oil companies have no say over RCAC's monitoring activities, Jones says. But in a twist, lawmakers required the industry to foot the bill.

Mr. JONES: The bottom line for this is that what we do costs money. And if you don't have the money, you probably can't do it. Our budget is around $3 million a year.

MANN: The RCAC is widely credited with pressuring the government and the oil industry to beef up safety standards in Alaska. As oil from Deepwater Horizon's broken well spreads, Jones says he's received a flood of phone calls and emails from community groups and government leaders. They're asking if the watchdog system established in Alaska might work here in the Gulf.

Brian Mann, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.