Local environmental officials throughout the Gulf Coast are feverishly collecting water, sediment and marine animal tissue samples that will be used in the coming months to help track pollution levels resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, since those readings will be used by the federal government and courts to establish liability claims against BP. But the laboratory that officials have chosen to process virtually all of the samples is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients.
Some people are questioning the independence of the Texas lab. Taylor Kirschenfeld, an environmental official for Escambia County, Fla., rebuffed instructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send water samples to the lab, which is based at TDI-Brooks International in College Station, Tex. He opted instead to get a waiver so he could send his county’s samples to a local laboratory that is licensed to do the same tests.
Mr. Kirschenfeld said he was also troubled by another rule. Local animal rescue workers have volunteered to help treat birds affected by the slick and to collect data that would also be used to help calculate penalties for the spill. But federal officials have told the volunteers that the work must be done by a company hired by BP.
“Everywhere you look, if you look, you start seeing these conflicts of interest in how this disaster is getting handled,” Mr. Kirschenfeld said. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there is just too much overlap between these people.”
The deadly explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig last month has drawn attention to the ties between regulators and the oil and gas industry. Last week, President Obama said he intended to end their “cozy relationship,” partly by separating the safety function of regulators from their role in permitting drilling and collecting royalties. “That way, there’s no conflict of interest, real or perceived,” he said.
Critics say a “revolving door” between industry and government is another area of concern. As one example, they point to the deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Interior Department, Sylvia V. Baca, who helps oversee the Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling
She came to that post after eight years at BP, in a variety of senior positions, ranging from a focus on environmental initiatives to developing health, safety and emergency response programs. She also served in the Interior Department in the Clinton administration...
The official line is still there's nothing to see here, no matter what the science types say.