Panel: Spill estimates eroded trust

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's repeated low estimates of the huge BP oil spill undermined public confidence in the government's entire cleanup effort, leaders of a White House-appointed commission declared at an investigatory hearing Monday.

As the commission focused on who was in charge and how much oil spewed out of the well into the Gulf of Mexico, government and university scientists and a local official contended that federal officials botched the government's response.

Eventually, U.S. officials said the spill was about 60 times bigger than originally estimated. Instead of 42,000 gallons a day, the volume of leaking oil was closer to 2.4 million gallons a day.

"It's a lot like Custer," said panel co-chairman Bob Graham, a former Florida senator and governor, referring to the battle that killed Gen. George Armstrong Custer and wiped out most of the Army's 7th Cavalry in 1876. "He underestimated the number of Indians on the other side of the hill and paid the ultimate price."

Who was in charge?

"It became a joke," said Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, one of the coastal areas most affected by the spill. "The Houma command was the Wizard of Oz, some guy behind the curtain."

Mistakes in the information that was being given out sapped confidence in the government, Graham and co-chairman William Reilly said at a news conference. Reilly described "repeated wrong numbers" on the amount of oil that was spilling.

Retired Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the government's response, told commissioners that the low estimates didn't hamper government efforts to deal with the spill. But Reilly, former chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said that contradicted common sense.

A senior government scientist, Bill Lehr of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said once the NOAA realized the spill was much larger than estimated, things changed tremendously. Vacations were canceled, retirees were called in and oil response staff was "given a blank check," he said.

Allen acknowledged that the public and even political leaders were confused about who was in charge. He blamed a 20-year-old law that he said may need to be changed to allow a third party from the oil industry to coordinate cleanup.

By law, BP had a major role in responding and cleaning up — and paying for it. But it also remains responsible to its shareholders not to spend too much, Allen said. He proposed allowing a third party from industry that would not be beholden to the polluter's profit margins to run the cleanup.

As for the future, Graham said the government should take a stronger role regulating oil wells in the Gulf.

"There is a tendency to forget the fact that this property out in the Gulf of Mexico where all this is happening belongs to all of us," he said. "We are the landlord. They are the lessees. And we need to start acting like a landlord."