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EPA's Jackson haunted by oil spill unknowns

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Analyst
  • Roland Martin says effort to stop oil spill is akin to the Apollo 13 rescue
  • EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, who grew up in the area, says much is unknown about impact
  • She says oil spill response technology has not kept up with oil extraction techniques
  • Martin: Shrimpers are praying for a solution that caps the leak

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," and the new book, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable Network and host of a Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- As I listened to White House and BP officials describe the frantic search for an answer to cap the massive oil leak one mile below the Gulf Coast, all I could think about was the movie, "Apollo 13."

In the film starring Tom Hanks and based on the aborted lunar mission in 1970, some of the nation's best and brightest working at NASA feverishly try to find a solution to bring our astronauts home as their hobbled spacecraft's oxygen and power are depleted. With a nation sitting on edge, and TV analysts speculating on what it will take to bring the stranded astronauts home, a solution is finally found, and a thankful country gives them a hero's welcome.

Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told me Friday that the comparison between the two missions is fair.

"You are also dealing with an environment that is a helluva like space just by virtue of the fact that you are down there and you are limited because few vehicles can go down there," said Jackson, who told me that she will spend her Memorial Day Monday in Louisiana.

Jackson says watching the thousands of barrels a day flow into the Gulf Coast is painful since it is her job to ensure the air and water quality for the nation, but it's doubly difficult because she is a product of New Orleans, having spent many days on the beaches that are now damaged by the spill.

"I think the greatest concern is that we are dealing with so many unknowns. It just keeps going up because the amount of oil keeps going up," said Jackson, who holds a degree in chemical engineering from New Orleans' Tulane University.

I think the greatest concern is that we are dealing with so many unknowns.
--EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

While President Obama said Thursday that the federal government is in charge of the disaster area, they have no answers in stopping the leak, and they are relying on BP and their expertise to get this done.

But trust is a critical issue. BP has provided conflicting answers and hasn't been straightforward with even federal officials, so trusting them is difficult for even the greatest optimist.

Jackson said the problem they are encountering is that the drilling techniques used today are far different than what oil companies were using 20 years ago when the Exxon Valdez tanker leaked millions of gallons of oil into the Alaska waters. But Jackson said the techniques used to stop an oil leak are the same as 20 years ago.

"The technology has not kept up, and the results are potentially devastating," she said.

Jackson said the blame has to be placed initially with BP because the company gave federal officials assurances over the years that nothing like this could ever happen, and there really was no contingency plan in case it did. In the real world we call that supreme arrogance since even children know there are no guarantees in life.

Yet she says they were aided by other federal agencies signing off on the drilling techniques used by BP, and never demanding a plan of action if a spill of this magnitude took place.

As a result, Jackson says, BP and federal officials are tossing out every conceivable idea to see if it will work, and they are doing so without any way of having humans go to the source and cap it. The solution must come from above the water.

One contentious moment was when Jackson and the EPA told BP to stop using highly toxic chemicals in the Gulf to disperse the oil. She says the company was approved to use the technique, but only with a limited spill. With them dispersing some 70,000 gallons a day of the chemicals, she says the EPA wasn't comfortable that the science was there to keep water quality safe with that much toxicity. Now they are using about 11,000 gallons a day.

And while the nation waits, those most affected by the oil spill are literally watching their way of life die. Tourism to the area's beaches has gone away -- with signs erected saying that they are closed. The beautiful wetlands that served as an oasis for wildlife have been destroyed. And shrimpers have no clue what to do since their livelihood is based on the Gulf Coast waters.

In fact, I'm home in Houston for Memorial Day and restaurants have posted signs stating the shrimp they are now serving isn't from the Gulf Coast, hoping that will satisfy scared patrons who are afraid of any seafood from the region. In fact, some have put up signs saying that their shrimp is coming from China.

Jackson said as a child her family had so many friends and relatives who were in the shrimp business that they often got it for free. When her dad would tell the family that the crustacean was on the dinner menu, she would say, "We're having shrimp again?!"

Now many who stake their lives on the industry would love to return to the days when their nets were plentiful and overrun with shrimp. Now they are praying for that day, hoping they will have an industry to work in when -- better yet if -- the leak is capped.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.

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