Crews on fishing boats with giant vacuums sucked up pools of oil near a small Louisiana barrier island Tuesday as officials sought to reassure residents that the cleanup continues even though no crude oil has leaked in two months.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, who is overseeing the cleanup, said about 23,000 workers are still employed in the effort, about 80 percent of them in Louisiana.
No oil has leaked from the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico since July 15. On Sunday, the well was declared dead after engineers pumped in cement to stop up the bottom.
While oil has not been gushing into the Gulf, it continues to come ashore on coastal islands and wetlands in Louisiana. Local officials are worried cleanup efforts won’t be maintained to catch as much of it as possible.
Last week, BP said it was ending a program that employed boat captains as scouts for oil in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
The company called the vessels of opportunity program a success, although it was criticized for hiring recreational boats and out-of-state craft while some local commercial boats sat idle.
The boats looked for oil on the coast and helped in the cleanup by skimming for oil and deploying oil barriers.
Later Tuesday, near Bay Jimmy, Zukunft told reporters during a conference call that crews continue to respond to pockets of oil washing up along 600 miles of coastline. Besides oil in marshes and on beaches, officials also are focused on monitoring what is below the surface of the water, he said.
While acknowledging oil continues to come ashore in some areas, Zukunft and other Coast Guard officials said that marsh grasses appeared to be recovering. Oil making its way to shore is lighter and sparser.
The BP-leased rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast on the night of April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off a massive spill that ultimately led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP’s undersea well.
Crude first washed ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River on April 29. It fouled marshes, caused the closing of fishing grounds and sparked an intense environmental debate over long-term impact of oil in the water and at the bottom of the Gulf.
So far, BP said the effort to shut down the well and clean up the spill has cost $9.5 billion, not including a $20 billion fund the London-based company established to handle claims from individuals and businesses claiming damage from the spill.
On Tuesday, Zukunft reflected on the massive cleanup effort.
“If you were here in June or July you’d have been in thick black oil,” Zukunft said as the fishing boat he was aboard floated on oil free water.
Zukunft estimated that about 900 Vessels of Opportunity are still operating in Louisiana waters, deploying boom where needed or hauling in boom that is damaged or contaminated with oil. He said it was too early to estimate when or how quickly that number would be reduced, saying it will depend on weather and the condition and amount of oil that comes in. Vessels of Opportunity is a BP program that pays boat operators knocked out of work by the spill to assist with response activities.
A few feet away the oil spill effect was still evident. Strands of absorbent boom washed inland by rough weather littered the edge of the island, laying amid dead brown grass lining the perimeter of the lining the island.
Zukunft’s tour came a day after the Unified Area Command that was formed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill announced that it was consolidating command Posts in Houma, La., and Mobile, Ala., into a single Gulf Coast Incident Management Team in New Orleans. Zukunft said that would result in a staff reduction of about 1,800 people.