"THE SYSTEM IS INCESTUOUS"
Complacency, secret agreements and negligence prevent genuine security mechanisms in the US, says legal expert Zygmunt Plater. Zygmunt Plater, 66, professor of law at Boston University, has specialized in environmental law. After the "Exxon Valdez" tanker disaster in Alaska, he directed the Legal Task Force that presented legal recommendations for over two years.
[This interview with Zygmunt Plater is translated from the German in: Tagesanzeiger 6/17/2010 on the Internet
Taz: Mr. Plater, twenty years ago you chaired the legal investigatory commission after the oil disaster with the "Exxon Valdez" in Alaska. What do you recommend in seeing the new oil disaster in the Gulf?
Zygmunt Plater: Frustration obtrudes, above all because the lessons from the "Exxon Valdez" formulated in our recommendations have been ignored.
What should have been done?
Both the oil corporation and the government should have done risk management. Emergency planning should have been modernized since a certain risk is unavoidable. Both did not happen.
Where is the opposition?
We have a two-pole system: with corporations that direct the economy and authorities that should protect us from market failure. This system is incestuous by nature. Corporations hire people who come from the government and the government hires people from the corporations. A third unit, the public, is missing. Fishers can residents cannot join the conversation.
Don't the experts know the dangers?
This very complex and very risky mega-system is characterized by complacency, secret agreements and negligence. Human nature represses the negative. That is a dangerous combination when you have a mega-system. Complacency means refusing genuine security mechanisms because the government is not vigilant and corporations are guided by short-term profit interests.
How can the public as the third unit understand the subtleties of oil technologies?
In Alaska we recommended a structure, the Regional Citizens Oversight Council, which was codified in the 1990 Oil Pollution law despite the opposition of lobbyists. Residents track the oil production and transportation system and evaluate the data of businesses. Authorities sit on this council. This is an efficient monitoring mechanism. Unfortunately the law is only in force for Alaska.
What would have been the reactions if the accident had occurred in another part of the energy sector like nuclear powerplants.
We take nuclear energy more seriously. We seem to know its dreadful potential. On the other hand, oil and gas are interwoven in our society, our cars and our politics. In the last years we had oil and gas presidents and vice-presidents.
In the Gulf, BP is the cause of the catastrophe and at the same time that institution in which all rescue operations converge. Is this the only way?
This also happened in Alaska and is somewhat unavoidable. Industry has capital and resources that can be used at any time. The government does not have this. At the moment the government has declared the dispersant Coexit dangerous and inefficient. Nevertheless BP continues to use it. This would be unthinkable in Germany. But in the US we are cowboys.
How do you explain this mentality?
Considering authorities as annoying is part of the culture of American industry. Transferring authority for issuing directives to a government agency is regarded as an outrage.
Do you want a stronger government?
America cultivates the antiquated idea that a government is not really necessary and therefore is the enemy. In the Gulf, it is clear we need a government that is not only in league with industry. We need a government that regulates. That is not communism.
After a 19-year legal battle, the victims of the "Exxon Valdex" received ridiculously small compensations in 2009. Does this fate now threaten the residents and fishers of the Gulf?
The political context is different today. In 1990 the Bush senior administration was not at all serious in this matter. The Obama administration is serious. In addition legal changes are occurring. The people in the Gulf will be better compensated, assuming BP does not do bankrupt.
BP Played Central Role in Botched Containment of 1989 Exxon Valdez Disaster
The BP oil spill is the worst to hit the United States since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. The devastation in the Gulf Coast has renewed attention on BP's key role in the botched containment of Exxon Valdez. We speak to Zygmunt Plater, an environmental law professor at Boston College who headed the legal team for the state-appointed Alaska Oil Spill Commission that investigated the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
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