Coast Guard database makes oil spill penalties nearly impossible to track

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The U.S. government has investigated potentially thousands of BP leaks, spills and other incidents but the information is stored in a Coast Guard database that keeps key details such as investigative findings and penalties out of the public’s reach.

More than 8,000 incident reports about BP’s U.S. spills, emissions, and leaks of oil and chemicals have been filed with the National Response Center during the past decade. They range from minor clumsiness such as a tipped drum of jet fuel to the deadly April 21 explosion on BP’s Gulf of Mexico rig. The center relays each new report to the Coast Guard or other relevant policing bodies for investigation. All Coast Guard investigations are stored in the agency’s Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database.

BP had 550 incidents in Mississippi Canyon, where the now infamous Deepwater Horizon drilling platform was located, according to Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. But MISLE records about investigations and any resulting penalties can be obtained only by filing a Freedom of Information Act request for each individual incident. This means 550 separate FOIA requests would have to be filed to obtain details about the BP incidents in the area surrounding the site where BP’s drilling rig exploded in April, he said.

“Technically, it’s a database because you can request data from it,” Allison said, referring to MISLE. “But you can’t query or search the database. You have to already know what you are looking for in order to find it.”

This makes tracking trends in the Coast Guard’s policing of BP’s activity in Mississippi Canyon, nearly impossible, he said.

“We would like to look and see how often BP was investigated, fined, caused trouble or had penalties, but we really can’t do that the way the data is set up,” he said. “Even if we FOIA-ed, it would just get us a pile of paperwork which would be a hassle to go through compared to a query on a database.”

The MISLE reports are only accessible via FOIA requests because the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees the Coast Guard — says each report “contains sensitive personal information” of people involved in investigations, including their Social Security numbers. In addition to oil spills, MISLE also contains information about shipping accidents, vessel boardings, pollution discharges, drilling rig accidents, and search and rescue operations.

Representatives from the Coast Guard declined to specifically comment on MISLE access, referring questions to its FOIA webpage. According to the website, FOIA requests are necessary to “prevent individuals, businesses, and government from harm resulting from the release of certain information.”

Still, Allison believes there should be a way for the government to protect personal information in the database while giving the public access to investigative reports and penalties assessed to oil companies for leaks and spills.

“It’s just a silly way to run a database,” he said.

ABOUT THE DATA

What: Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE)

Where: Coast Guard/Department of Homeland Security

Availability: Online database with 560 GB of data

Format: General summary of information about each incident

Usability: Details about investigations, penalties must be requested via FOIA

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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