The National Guard has a long record of supporting first responders when there is a problem on U.S. soil. It has recently been deployed to respond to domestic emergencies such as tornados in the Midwest, last summer’s forest fires in California, and security at the Southwest border. And all of this occurred while the military was fighting two wars in faraway lands. The National Guard’s next big mission—along with other branches of the military—ought to be taking charge of cleaning up the BP oil disaster.
The tragic BP disaster is unfolding in slow motion unlike the aforementioned catastrophes and many others that arrive suddenly and without warning. Since April 22, oil has flowed from the bottom of the ocean at the rate of 1.6 million to 4 million gallons per day. (The Exxon Valdez oil spill, in contrast, was 11 million gallons total.) After efforts to contain the oil flood failed over this past weekend, it appears likely that this horrendous oil cascade could continue until August when the relief wells BP is digging are finished. This could mean 400 million barrels of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico by August, with a large portion fouling marshes, poisoning spawning areas, blackening beaches, and destroying other fragile coastal areas from Texas to Florida.
In short, it is crystal clear that this disaster is much too big for BP to handle on its own.
The National Guard has already been mobilized to help clean up BP’s mess. The Obama administration has authorized 17,500 National Guard troops from the Gulf Coast states to respond to the disaster. Louisiana’s National Guard in particular has sprung into action and contributed the vast majority of troops and technical cleanup assistance to date. For instance, Louisiana’s “769th Engineer Battalion and the State Aviation Command completed sandbag drop operations filling a 115-foot area in the vicinity of Trinity Island on May 27.” In Alabama, too, video footage shows the National Guard is working on “putting up barriers protecting the shore from oil.”
According to Sgt. Carmen Gibson, the National Guard is preparing for the worst in Florida and the coastal Gulf states near Louisiana where much oil damage is predicted:
As of May 18, six Florida Army National Guard Soldiers were supporting the incident response by serving as liaisons in incident command centers in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Also, members of the Florida Air National Guard’s 601st Air Operations Group were supporting 1st Air Force response efforts in Louisiana.
In the event that this disaster proves catastrophic, up to 2,500 Florida National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have been approved by the federal government and may be activated to provide additional aid and clean-up support around the state. The Florida National Guard stands ready to support any state emergency at the direction of the governor and the State Emergency Response Team.
Although Florida’s coastline has had minimal impact from the oil spill disaster, division representatives continue planning and preparing for the worst.
Former Secretary of State and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell also suggested that the military could play a unique and valuable role in minimizing damage from the BP oil disaster above and beyond what the National Guard has already done. Powell noted that:
The military brings organization, it brings control. It brings assets…Whether it’s Army, Coast Guard, local forces, it is time for a comprehensive, total attack on this problem to protect the shoreline, to protect the livestock, to protect the wetlands, but most of all to give the people in that part of our country a sense of hope that this is going to be solved.
Gen. Powell is right to suggest that the U.S. Armed Forces play a leadership role in the cleanup. A first step would be fully mobilizing the National Guard immediately in the most vulnerable Gulf states—Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. This would provide guard units time to get organized and prepare for a truly calamitous event such as a tropical storm or hurricane in the gulf that could carry oil from the middle of the sea onto land. These troops could also lead efforts to minimize the destruction of vital coastal wetlands from oil contamination.
The U.S. Coast Guard—which is already leading efforts to contain oil still in the gulf—should also assist other federal, state, and community agencies in containing the oil flow’s impact before it hits land and destroys beaches, estuaries, and other fragile ecosystems. They could deploy their ships to place booms and skimmers that collect oil before it flows ashore. And they could expand the areas where controlled burns occur, which are designed to combust oil before it blackens beaches.
The Coast Guard should also lead a federal task force to respond to the BP oil disaster. The task force could form a “blue team” to lead training exercises for a government response to a severe storm or other extreme event linked to the oil disaster. As pointed out earlier, a severe tropical storm in the gulf could carry oil from the sea to the land, contaminating homes, businesses, farms, and even drinking water. Preparations for such a drastic event must begin now so that every step to safeguard people and their communities can be undertaken. This includes preparing for food or water contamination, disrupted commerce or agriculture, and other impacts of gallons of oil raining from the sky. This effort must not wait until a tropical storm is days away from landfall because it will be too late.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is quite concerned about BP oil washing ashore in Florida. He wrote to President Barack Obama on June 1 to reiterate his suggestion that the military take charge of the cleanup mission:
It is my belief that the broader assets and command and control capability of the Department of Defense could better translate your directives into prompt, effective action.
Americans have relied on their military forces to accomplish tough missions—whether it’s pursuing terrorists in Afghanistan, helping tidal wave victims in Indonesia, or aiding Floridians recovering from a hurricane. Responding to the BP oil disaster undoubtedly falls in the tough mission category: Assistant to the President Carol Browner notes that the BP oil disaster is “probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country.” It’s time to put America’s skillful and dedicated forces in command of responding to this horrific oil catastrophe.
Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy.
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