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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Coast Guard Ceremony Overshadowed

May 25, 2010 - 3:31 PM | by: Steve Centanni

At a military change of command ceremony, the outgoing commander is said to be “passing the baton” to his successor.  And today in Washington, the new Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, joked, “I’m a little worried there might be oil on that baton.”

Of course, the Gulf oil spill is no joke to the people whose way of life is threatened by the spreading oil.  It’s not very funny politically, for Republicans who support more oil exploration, or for a Democratic administration accused of failing to respond to the spill in a more decisive or effective way.

But Admiral Papp’s comment does paint an accurate picture of a change of command overshadowed by disaster.  The outgoing Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen, has been the top federal official overseeing the spill from the beginning.   He’ll continue to be the National Incident Commander in the Gulf, even though he’s scheduled to retire from the Coast Guard July 1st.   At that time, he could either be recalled to active duty or keep doing the same job as a civilian.

At the same time, much of Admiral Papp’s time and energy will now be occupied with the oil spill as he takes over as Coast Guard Commandant.  At a news conference following the change of command, Papp said the Coast Guard will continue to support the oil spill cleanup effort.  And he indicated the intense effort is taking its toll, saying there will soon be a rotation of crews and ships at the scene.

Papp also said he agrees with recent statements by Admiral Allen that only BP is in a position to lead the response, because the oil company has all the equipment and expertise with deep water operations.  He was responding to a question about “federalizing” the capping of the leak and the cleanup of the spill.

Today’s ceremony at Washington DC’s Fort McNair had all the color and pageantry of any change of command.  The band played; the colors were presented; and, the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security were welcomed with a booming 19-gun salute.  (Only the President and heads of state get 21-gun salutes.)  The 87-foot Coast Guard cutter “Ibis,” lay anchored in the Potomac River just beyond the massive tent erected for the ceremony.  Wives and kids were introduced and thanked; and, two Coast Guard Academy graduating classes hooted and hollered when they were mentioned.   Allen graduated from the Academy in New London, Connecticut in 1971; Papp in 1975.  Back then, the two cadets played football together.   Now they’re exchanging a rhetorically oil-soiled baton.

Their boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano praised the Coast Guard’s efforts, but nonetheless offered an ominous assessment.  She said, “What began as a search and rescue operation…has now become a potential worst case scenario and an environmental catastrophe.”

As for the current efforts in the Gulf, Admiral Allen said at today’s news conference there’s no telling how big the spill will eventually be.    He reminded reporters, “I have said from the start, I have not been comfortable with any of the estimates.  That’s the reason we’ve been overly responsive in how many resources we’ve put out there.”  He went on to say, “Until I see some hard numbers with assumptions from scientists, I’m going to say we don’t know with any exact certainty exactly how much oil is coming out.”

And in light of reports that the gushing oil, a mile under the Gulf, appeared to be getting darker and possibly increasing in volume, Allen said the flow fluctuates depending on how much gas is coming out, and has probably not gotten bigger.

In any case, today’s change of command, under cloudy Washington skies, against a backdrop of trouble and uncertainty in the Gulf, will probably be remembered more for its timing than for its pomp and pageantry.

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