SOUTH PORTLAND – U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe praised Coast Guard officials Tuesday for their oil-spill preparations in Maine, while criticizing the preparations for and response to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Maine Republican made her comments during a visit to the Coast Guard base here, which included a tour of Portland Harbor and a close-up look at a giant tanker off-loading crude oil.

Snowe said the ruptured BP well that’s spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico has revealed a lack of preparation and oversight by federal agencies, which took too long to declare the spill a national emergency. “It was just a lax response, frankly,” she said.

Snowe, who serves on the Senate subcommittee that oversees oceans, fisheries and the Coast Guard, said she plans to look deeper into preparations and the initial response by BP and federal agencies.

“The worst-case scenario was vastly underestimated by the industry,” which then underestimated the amount of spilled oil, she said, compromising the response.

“It’s a horrific event,” Snowe said of the accident, “and I can’t even imagine the calamity it would inflict on our region” if it happened off the Maine coast.

Snowe said she wants the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have more oversight of drilling plans, among other changes.

On the other hand, Snowe thanked leaders of the Coast Guard in Maine and the state Department of Environmental Protection for the oil spill training and preparations that have been completed here. “You’ve put us in a proactive position,” she told them.

Coast Guard officials assured Snowe that a national-disaster exercise that was held in Portland in March helped improve preparations for a spill here and is helping responders fight the spill off the coast of Louisiana.

The “Spill of National Significance” exercise is held every two to three years in a different part of the country. Local officials worked hard to bring it to Portland because of the additional training and planning it provides, said Capt. Jim McPherson, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, which is based in South Portland.

McPherson said the response systems that were practiced here in March are getting their first use now in the Gulf of Mexico. “Everything we tested during the (Portland) exercise, we’re actually using right now,” he said.

McPherson said he has sent 25 people and oil spill cleanup equipment to help fight the Gulf spill, and that more personnel may go soon. Meanwhile, he said, enough people and equipment remain here to fight a worst-case spill, such as a collision between two tankers loaded with 1 million barrels of oil apiece.

“The challenge for us is to manage the risk here but fully support the effort there,” McPherson told Snowe.

The Maine DEP has sent containment boom to the Gulf of Mexico, and has assigned one expert to advise NOAA on the spill, said Barbara Parker, the DEP’s spill response coordinator.

But the agency is still waiting for an official request so it can send a team of eight to 10 spill responders along with vessels and other cleanup equipment, Parker told Snowe.

Snowe told Parker that her staff will contact Louisiana’s governor about Maine’s offer.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]