Government Workers Tasked With Gulf Oil Industry Oversight Accepted Gifts

WASHINGTON, DC, May 25, 2010 (ENS) – Staffers in the the Lake Charles, Louisiana district office of the Minerals Management Service accepted sport event tickets, lunches, and other gifts from oil and gas production companies and used government computers to view pornography, finds a report by the Department of the Interior Inspector General released today.

Some of these same staffers were tasked with inspections of offshore drilling platforms located in the Gulf of Mexico, states the report on ethical lapses at the MMS between 2000 and 2008 written by Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall.

Interior Dept. Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall (Photo courtesy DOI)

Several of the people mentioned in the Inspector General’s report have resigned, been terminated, or referred for prosecution. Those mentioned in the Inspector General’s report for questionable behavior who are still with MMS will be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a personnel review, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“The Inspector General report describes reprehensible activities of employees of MMS between 2000 and 2008,” said Secretary Salazar. “This deeply disturbing report is further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry.”

“That is why during the first 10 days of becoming Secretary of the Interior I directed a strong ethics reform agenda to clean house of these ethical lapses at MMS,” Salazar said.

“I appreciate and fully support the Inspector General’s strong work to root out the bad apples in MMS and we will follow through on her recommendations, including taking any and all appropriate personnel actions including termination, discipline, and referrals of any wrongdoing for criminal prosecution,” he said.

“In addition,” Salazar said, “I have asked the Inspector General to expand her investigation to determine whether any of this reprehensible behavior persisted after the new ethics rules I implemented in 2009.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico. April 21, 2010. (Photo courtesy Dept. of Energy)

Salazar has also asked the Inspector General to investigate whether there was a failure of MMS personnel to adequately enforce standards or inspect the Deepwater Horizon offshore facility and look into whether there are deficiencies in MMS policies or practices that need to be addressed to ensure that operations on the Outer Continental Shelf are conducted in a safe and environmentally sensitive manner.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents government workers in natural resource agencies questions whether anyone in a responsible capacity even read BP’s official response plan for oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan is “studded with patently inaccurate and inapplicable information but was nonetheless approved by the federal government,” PEER said today, suggesting that no regulator ever read it.

The “BP Regional Oil Spill Response Plan – Gulf of Mexico” dated June 30, 2009 covers all of the company’s operations in the Gulf, not just the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and caught fire April 20 and sank two days later, leaving the well it had been drilling open and gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunlight illuminates the Deepwater Horizon oil slick near the Mississippi Delta. May 24, 2010. (Photo courtesy NASA)

The plan lists “Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters” and “Walruses” and “Otter, Beaver” and “Mink” as “Sensitive Biological Resources” in the Gulf of Mexico. While none of these animals live in the gulf, they do live in the Arctic, so PEER suggests that this portion of the BP plan was “cribbed from previous Arctic exploratory planning.”

In fact, according to Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries 600 animal species are at risk from the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill – 445 species of fish, 45 mammals, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 134 bird species.

BP’s oil spill response plan gives a website for a Japanese home shopping site as the link to one of its “primary equipment providers for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, seven days a week basis.”

The BP plan directs its media spokespeople not to make “promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal.”

The plan does not contain information about tracking sub-surface oil plumes from deepwater blowouts. It lacks any oceanographic or meteorological information, despite the relevance of this data to spill response.

“This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on,” said PEER Board Member Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska marine professor and conservationist who tracked the Exxon Valdez spill.

In 2009, Steiner lost a $10,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for being an outspoken critic of the oil industry’s activities in the Bristol Bay region. Steiner filed a grievance and, in October, lost. He then resigned from the university.

Oil fouls the marsh lands of Louisiana’s Pass a L’ Outre Wildlife Management Area (Photo courtesy Office of Governor Jindal)

Steiner observes that the BP plan is almost 600 pages largely consisting of lists, phone numbers and blank forms. “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,” he said.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke Monday declared a “fishery disaster” in the Gulf of Mexico as oil continues to leak from the wellhead.

Political anger is rising over consequences of the oil spill. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal calls the response effort “disjointed” and says Deepwater Horizon oil is damaging his state while he pleads for the resources to fight it.

“Yesterday, we went out on a boat to Cat Island in Plaquemines Parish and we saw islands covered in oil where our brown pelicans nest. Many of the birds we could see were oiled, some to the point where they could not fly,” governor Jindal said.

“The brown pelican, of course, is our Louisiana state bird – and it was just recently removed from the Endangered Species List. The oil on those islands yesterday may kill off much of the island in addition to damaging the bird population.”

“Just a few days ago, we took a boat out to Pass a L’Outre and saw thick black and brown colored oil covering much of the perimeter of the marsh out there. Again, wildlife experts tell us this marsh may die in five to seven days after the oil hits it.”

“It is clear that the resources needed to protect our coast are not here,” Governor Jindal said. “Boom, skimmers, vacuums, and jack up barges are all in short supply. Every day oil sits and waits for clean up more of our marsh dies.”

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