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Coast Guard, BP Work To Ease Tensions In Gulf

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

BP and the U.S. Coast Guard form a joint command together, coordinating the response to the spill, but residents and elected officials alike complain bitterly that the two entities are creating a bureaucratic nightmare.

Now, as NPR's Brian Mann reports, Coast Guard and BP officials are visiting struggling communities trying to ease the tensions of frustrated residents.

BRIAN MANN: Mid afternoon, the joint oil spill command center in Houma, Louisiana, is packed with people sitting at computers. They monitor huge overhead screens that show maps of the Gulf coastline. This is where the Coast Guard and BP make hour-to-hour decisions that shape this massive effort: Where should oil boom go? Where should skimmers be directed? Which beaches should cleanup crews scour next?

But the command center sits inside BP's corporate headquarters in Houma, and there's growing anger in Louisiana over the basic question of who's in charge. This is the kind of exchange that's common on WWL, New Orleans' talk radio station.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The problem is that both of them say they don't know who's in charge. There's still...

Unidentified Man #2: I agree.

Unidentified Man #1: ...too many barriers to get through to get these things done.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, too many cooks spoil the...

Unidentified Man #1: That's right.

Unidentified Man #2: ...spoil the dinner.

Unidentified Man #1: That's right.

MANN: Late last week on a steamy hot evening, the Coast Guard and BP held a joint forum in Plaquemines Parish to try to explain how their partnership is working. Captain Meredith Austin is deputy incident commander for the spill response. She says the effort in the Gulf changes almost daily as new problems and conditions arise.

Captain MEREDITH AUSTIN (U.S. Coast Guard): Last week, there was several days where, because of thunderstorms, we couldn't fly, so we had to kind of dead reckon, as it were, where the oil was coming and so that caused us to on the fly to make some changes in some of our tactics.

MANN: Plaquemines Parish is one of the hardest hit areas in the Gulf. Captain Austin came to this packed high school gym to meet one on one with local residents, urging them to be patient.

Capt. AUSTIN: The coordination is actually working very well. I mean, the Coast Guard is directing this response. Well, quite honestly, we all have the same goal of getting the oil, you know, removing as much of the oil from the surface as possible.

MANN: That message was echoed by Hugh Depland, the government affairs representative for BP, who says his company is answering people's questions as fast as possible.

Mr. HUGH DEPLAND (Public Affairs Manager, BP): When you look at an event of this scope and scale, it takes a while to ramp up to the level that you need to be. You know, maybe we're not answering them as quickly as people would like, but I believe we're doing a pretty good job.

MANN: Despite public doubts, Depland says BP knows who's in charge of the spill response.

Mr. DEPLAND: We work together as a unit. But at the end of the day, if a vote has to be taken, the Coast Guard has the golden vote.

MANN: People at this session weren't convinced. Stanley Borden, a shrimper and tugboat captain, says he signed up to help with the cleanup in mid May but is still waiting onshore.

Mr. STANLEY BORDEN (Shrimper and Tugboat Captain): What's taking so long to put more boats to work?

MANN: So you've been a contactor that time, but you've never been called up.

Mr. BORDEN: I've never been called. I've never heard from anybody with BP.

MANN: So you were here tonight, did you get any clear answers to that question?

Mr. BORDEN: I'm saying I'm going to be on another list, that I'll be called again.

MANN: Reverend Tyrone Edwards runs a community center in the parish. He says people here expect more from the federal government and more from President Obama.

Reverend TYRONE EDWARDS (Pastor, Zion Travelers Baptist Church): How is it that the government could figure a way out to bail out the bankers of America and can't figure out how to help little people at the bottom? How can they come out with that and can't figure this out?

MANN: The people working this problem on the ground, like Coast Guard Captain Meredith Austin, say the reality is that this spill is bigger and more complicated than anything they've seen. Even the feedback and suggestions raised at meetings like this one have been overwhelming.

Capt. AUSTIN: The biggest thing we want to do is we want to make sure that any of these - any of these methods that are - people have come up with, do not do more harm to the environment. It takes a little bit of time. And we're working as fast as we can.

MANN: But as oil hits more beaches and local anger grows, the pressure to speed up this response is rising.

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

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