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Oil spill commission co-chairman says panel would have subpoena power to probe Gulf disaster

WASHINGTON (AP) — A leader of the presidential commission investigating the Gulf oil spill said Thursday he has been told his panel will have subpoena power to get a full accounting of the disaster.

Former Fla. Sen. Bob Graham, a co-chairman of the commission, said he's not sure if that subpoena power will be necessary for the panel to do its work.

Graham told the CBS Evening News, that "the whole industry was largely unprepared" for such an oil spill and said a great deal of development of deep-sea drilling technology was not accompanied by a similar investment in the safety of oil rigs and the ability to respond to an accident.

Former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, the other co-chairman, said he's surprised he hasn't seen more progress in the technology available to handle a spill more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled its cargo. Reilly was in charge at EPA at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaska coastline in 1989.

"I'm appalled that we're in that stage of primitive response capability," Reilly said.

BP sliced off a pipe with giant shears Thursday in the latest bid to curtail the worst oil spill in U.S. history, but the cut was jagged and placing a cap over the gusher will now be more challenging. Several earlier efforts to stem the flow have failed.

Reilly said it's time to reassess the laws passed after Exxon Valdez intended to hold companies accountable for a spill. The update is needed in case a company is not willing to cover cleanup expenses, he said, adding that Exxon was willing to pay its expenses and BP has expressed a willingness to pay.

So far, anywhere between 21 million and 46 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf, according to government estimates.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 522 dead birds — at least 38 of them oiled — along the Gulf coast states, and more than 80 oiled birds have been rescued. It's not clear exactly how many of the deaths can be attributed to the spill.

Oil drifted six miles from the Florida Panhandle's popular sugar-white beaches, and crews on the mainland were doing everything possible to limit the damage.

Reilly said the spill has been catastrophic for people's lives and their livelihoods. And he said he has concerns about what effects chemical dispersants will have on the Gulf and its wildlife.

"There's nothing worse than a slow-moving catastrophe," Reilly said, "and that's what we've got."