WASHINGTON (CN) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the federal government's response to the Gulf oil spill in a congressional hearing Wednesday, calling the government's action "a relentless effort since day one" and labeling it the "single largest response in the history of the United States to an oil spill."
At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing examining the spill response, Salazar said administration officials heeded President Obama's call to "spare no effort," as evidenced by the 20,000 people deployed to the coastline and 1,000 vessels combing the waters in response to the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., questioned why there were fishermen in the region willing to help but not being utilized and why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal could not get federal approval to construct a berm that would protect the state's barrier islands.
Salazar brushed off the criticism, saying he dispatched his second-in-command, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, to the Gulf region within hours of the spill "without even a change of clothes or even a change of underwear."
Hayes, sounding choked up, said that as someone who responded immediately to the spill and who has been working tirelessly since, it was "disappointing to say the least" to hear lawmakers suggest that the administration did not take the lead role.
Undeterred, Flake asked why the government wasn't prepared for the BP spill with well-researched response efforts.
"It seems that we don't learn anything from prior spills," Flake said, describing new reports of responders "washing off birds with handiwipes or whatever else."
"This is the largest response of the United States government with respect to an oil spill in history," Salazar said. "You wouldn't see this kind of global response if lessons from the past haven't been learned."
Salazar also assured the committee that even though the administration was heavily involved in the response, the government would not shoulder financial responsibility. Salazar said BP is responsible for "all response costs, all damages, all clean up costs, all economic damages" related to the incident, "which is their spill," he emphasized. He said the administration had already received assurances from BP that "they are not going to hide behind the $75 million cap" of damage payouts by law.
"I think we need more," Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said, calling the current $75 million damages cap a "laughably small number." Holt said he supported legislation that proposes to raise the cap.
Hayes agreed that there should be no liability cap, but said removing the cap might make sense only for deepwater drilling, the type BP was engaged in at the time of the Deepwater Horizon incident, and other risky activities and might not extend to all activities under the Oil Pollution Act.
Lawmakers expressed frustration that any cap removal will not apply to BP in the current situation in the Gulf.
"We have pushed BP as far as we can," Salazar said.
"Within the law that we have," Holt said.
"Within the law that we have," Salazar affirmed. "I think they will be good for paying the compensation," he added.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said BP and other oil companies' assurances that spills are unlikely "aren't worth spit."
"Cleanup is a public relations operation," Miller said angrily. "Once the oil hits water, you lose."