A Coast Guard helicopter refuels during the response to Haiti’s January earthquake. Image by Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith.

The Coast Guard since 2005 has dedicated fewer and fewer resources to environmental protection, one of its myriad responsibilities that includes preventing oil spills like the BP catastrophe now making history in the Gulf of Mexico.

A new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog inspector general says the number of resource hours committed annually by the Coast Guard to stopping perpetrators from dumping illegally into the ocean and otherwise halting the discharge of dangerous substances dropped in 2009, continuing a trend that’s lasted now for five years.

Lawmakers mounted ever-increasing pressure on the Coast Guard to fight terrorism after Sept. 11 while also insisting that it maintain traditional duties the public is more familiar with, among them plucking citizens from raging floodwaters and rescuing boaters stranded at sea. Resource hours dedicated to search and rescue have also dipped since 2001, although that particular mission depends on how many people actually need help.

Energy devoted to the Coast Guard’s so-called “homeland security missions,” which include things like securing the nation’s ports and stopping undocumented migrants from entering the United States, have increased markedly since the 9/11 hijackings. The federal government defines “resource hours” as the amount of time aircraft are in flight and ships are in the water carrying out specific missions.

More of those hours were spent by the Coast Guard in 2009 protecting the nation’s ports, waterways and coastlines from “maritime security threats” than anything else. Marine environmental protection has been at the bottom of the Coast Guard’s several missions for at least four years when using resource hours as a measurement. The IG is required by Congress to report on the division of resource hours annually.

Actual incidents involving the spillage of oil and other dangerous chemicals were declining prior to the BP disaster, which may account at least in part for the fact that such environmental hazards were “not at the top of the list,” as a retired Coast Guard captain described it to the Washington Post recently.

The Post published an assessment of the Coast Guard Aug. 13 and pointed out that its inspectors relied on decades-old regulations when they visited offshore drilling rigs to ensure workers were adequately protected and units were seaworthy:

Since the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, investigations into oversight gaps have focused on systemic problems within the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which in recent weeks has been renamed and revamped. But the Coast Guard, which shared oversight with MMS, has largely escaped scrutiny. … Some analysts said the spill highlights the need to rethink Coast Guard priorities. In the past 35 years, Congress has handed the agency at least 27 new responsibilities, according to a tally by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. ‘They just don’t have enough personnel to carry out all those missions,’ said Oberstar, who favors severing the Coast Guard from the Homeland Security Department. ‘That’s just not possible.’

Elevated Risk reported in May that budget plans by the Obama administration called for cutting $75 million and hundreds of personnel from the Coast Guard. That included decommissioning a strike force coordination center in North Carolina, which provides support to specialized teams in charge of handling oil spills and the release of other hazardous materials. Coast Guard officials promise the center’s responsibilities will be taken over by offices elsewhere and not abandoned.

Members of a key Senate subcommittee that controls the federal government’s purse strings nonetheless complained in a July report that the Coast Guard’s obligation to protect the environment “has been diluted by the increased demands of other homeland security missions.” The panel noted a 45 percent drop overall in mission hours dedicated to marine environmental responses since Sept. 11.

Obama’s proposed 2011 budget also sought an increase in funding of more than $45 million for the Coast Guard to battle drug traffickers, a homeland security mission, while its search-and-rescue functions, considered a “non-homeland security mission,” was scheduled to lose almost $50 million over the previous year.

But many of the Coast Guard’s high-profile response missions in recent months had nothing to do with the drug war. Coast Guard men and women were among the earliest to arrive in January when a colossal earthquake turned Haiti’s Port-au-Prince into near rubble. Its personnel were there to free motorists and homeowners trapped during torrential May floods in Tennessee. It remains the face of Washington’s response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people before launching an unforgettable environmental tragedy.

Recently retired Adm. Thad Allen likes to remind the public that all of these doubtlessly heroic episodes were carried out despite the Coast Guard having one of the oldest fleets in the world. He said during a February speech that two water vessels were forced to abandon the Haiti relief effort for emergency repairs and aircraft were diverted to help supply repair parts rather than participate in evacuations.

One of the Coast Guard’s leading preoccupations for several years now has been a gigantic, multibillion-dollar campaign to modernize its aging ships and aircraft and purchase advanced technologies. Known as Deepwater, Allen doesn’t always emphasize publicly for obvious reasons that the program has suffered from serious allegations of poor contractor oversight, mismanagement and waste.

The bungled handling of Deepwater has since made pleas from senior leaders for more money a tougher sell even as many acknowledge that the rank-and-file are being asked to do too much. Allen himself eventually conceded that the Coast Guard relied excessively on large defense contractors to direct Deepwater, but not before the program endured costly setbacks.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.