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Government Spill Numbers Too Good To Be True

When, on August 4th, President Obama’s chief environmental adviser Carol Browner put the White House stamp of approval on stats claiming “74 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf” had already been cleaned up, captured, burned, dispersed, evaporated, degraded or dissolved in the water … most of the people I know living along the coastline of Louisiana rolled their collective eyes.

Mike Roberts, a shrimper who lives on Barataria Bay – the hard-hit marshlands leading to the Gulf – said, “they obviously haven’t been to my backyard recently, which is still caked with oil.”

His wife Tracy Kuhns, Louisiana Bayoukeeper and director of the local family fishermen’s association, has been outspoken about BP and the government’s math since the gushing began. “They haven’t gotten it right from the very beginning when they told us only a few hundred rather than a few thousand barrels were leaking a day … why should we trust them now?”

On the other side of the estuary, P.J. Hahn, a Republican politician whose job it is to look after the future of the coastline of Plaquemines Parish and has been out on the water virtually every day since the gusher first began, said of the federal government numbers “they sound just too good to be true.”

One thing those “too good to be true” stats helped produce were some very optimistic news reports. “Sunshine is evaporating the oil, and bacteria are rapidly digesting it,” reported Bloomberg Businessweek.

“In a year or two we can forget this ever happened,” Roger Sassen, an adjunct professor of geology and geophysics at Texas A&M, told Bloomberg. “The fact that the Mississippi is the drainage ditch for the fertilizers and nasty agricultural chemicals of the entire central U.S. is much worse than this transient spill.”

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Is Carol Browner …

I’ve been thinking about Carol Browner a lot these days. As President Obama’s     first-of-a-kind in-house czarina for energy policy, she’s got a big task, coordinating both energy and environmental policy among the myriad federal agencies and simultaneously leading the new National Energy Council. A rotting economy doesn’t help; despite all the good rhetoric and sincere intent finding new investment dollars for solar and wind, etc., will assuredly be tough during the next couple years.

I revisited a profile I’d written of Browner just after she was named head of the Environmental Protection Agency by Bill Clinton, in 1993.  She’d been running Florida’s environmental agency when chosen – at 37 – to run the 17,500 employee, $7 billion agency. The story I wrote, which ran in Audubon magazine, was headlined “Is Carol Browner In Over Her Head” … a title I did not choose, and which she was understandably not pleased with. The reality is, whether head of a cabinet level agency or even President, who does have previous experience at that level? Very, very few.

When I sat with her in her D.C. office, a child’s toys were scattered about. Her son is now twenty. Here’s what she said then, about the difficulties of her new job: “I’m optimistic. I have a five-year-old, and when I went to his kindergarten class to tell them about my job – I told them, ‘I save things’ – I was amazed that each of them new about recycling, and most could name an endangered species. It means that all our efforts are working, that there is hope, and that our job is worth doing.”

Browner is still the longest serving EPA chief ever, lasting the entirety of the Clinton Administration. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she’ll be able to maintain that same level of optimism during these next four years.