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Gulf Oil Spill Point Man Calls for Changes to Law for Future Response

President Barack Obama's point man for the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, is suggesting changes in legislation on how oil spills are handled. Allen said Monday that he called for the changes to ease public concerns about possible conflicts of interest in a future oil spill response.

Allen spoke at a public hearing of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The commission, created by President Obama, is investigating the events surrounding the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in history.

Allen said that having the oil company that is involved in a spill, responsible for the response, as is the case under current U.S. law, might raise concerns about whether the firm is taking all steps possible to clean up the spill and safeguard the environment.

"Something we might want to consider is the creation of a qualified individual that would represent the industry, oversee the response, have access to the resources, but basically would be firewalled from any fiduciary link back to the shareholders, almost putting the resources in trust, and having them executed by an industry expert," said Allen.

Allen said response plans didn't foresee the scope of a spill like the one that occurred this year in the Gulf of Mexico. He said responders faced challenges with the uncertainty of the spill, its shifting direction and the vast area it covered.

"What we had were hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over different periods of time that moved significantly beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan and basically put the entire Gulf Coast at risk," he said.

Billy Nungesser, a local parish [district] leader in coastal Louisiana, expressed frustration at the BP oil company and the federal government, saying they were ill-prepared and uncoordinated, and that the leadership structure of the response is unclear.

"Sitting here today, I still can't tell you who is in charge," said Nungesser.

BP stopped the flow of oil from the ruptured well in July and has since permanently sealed the well.

But scientist Ian MacDonald of Florida State University told the panel that the long-term effect on the environment might not be known for some time, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. MacDonald called for careful attention to be paid to the marine life in the northern Gulf.

"In many cases, we don't know what the baseline levels of these populations are," said MacDonald. "Nonetheless, we should track them very closely over time because the experience in Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound was that it sometimes took several years or seasons for the impact on a population to appear."

Oil from the BP well polluted fragile Gulf marshlands, coated wildlife and seriously affected businesses in the region. There have been several estimates of how much oil spilled into the Gulf. Last week, researchers from Columbia University put that figure at some 4.4 million barrels.