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One of the many lessons learned from the BP disaster is to better coordinate responses by private boats that hurry to an offshore rig explosion, the retired Coast Guard admiral leading the federal relief effort said today, referring to an issue spotlighted in a Center for Public Integrity story.

Last month, the Center reported the Coast Guard had evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating if the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the rig. The riser pipe, from which most of BP’s oil spewed, did not start leaking until after the drilling rig sank.

Thad Allen, the former commandant of the Coast Guard, said in a speech at the National Press Club that one of the government’s challenges is to improve the use and coordination of civilian ships.

Allen described the fleet of civilian vessels that sped to the Deepwater Horizon immediately after the explosion as a “floating militia” and praised the volunteers for their “passion, commitment and resources.” But the rescue and response was hampered by a wide technological gap among the volunteers — “some boats were armed with muskets and some were armed with a knife” — and he said coordination of volunteers must be improved.

Allen also touched on the government’s difficulty in estimating how much oil spilled from the BP well. The Coast Guard now says over 60,000 barrels a day started leaking after the well exploded on April 20, declining to about 53,000 barrels a day as the well lost pressure.

In June, the Center obtained a series of Coast Guard logs, which showed Coast Guard estimates of oil spills were much higher than the 1,000 barrels a day initially reported and that the president was warned that a major spill larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez might be coming. By April 23, the logs obtained by the Center show the Coast Guard warned that at least 64,000 barrels a day were flowing into the water but the official government estimate was not raised to that level until June 16.

At times describing himself as “a simple sailor,” Allen said he hoped the BP spill challenges the government has faced over the past four months would lead to better, more streamlined response to major oil spills. “It would be adding a crime to a crime if we didn’t learn from this,” he said.

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