Gulf leaders wary over wavering on final plug


NEW ORLEANS — With the oil well that had been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico plugged from the top and BP PLC and federal officials pondering whether the final plug, or “bottom kill,” is needed, local officials fear national disengagement from what remains a crisis of unknown proportions.

Meanwhile, bad weather delayed work on the relief well being drilled into next week.

“This is going to be a long-term situation,” Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young said. “I think it’s way too early for the federal government have a ‘mission accomplished’ type of attitude.”

Work on the final kill to the well has been postponed by bad weather blowing through the region. Crews drilling relief wells to the gusher have stopped their work, and will need about four days to finish once the weather passes, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday.

Allen, the administration’s point man on the spill, said the well may not need to have heavy mud and cement pumped into it from deep underground after all. He said testing still needs to be done on the well before a final decision is made.

BP and the federal government will check to see whether the cement pumped in through the top went down into the reservoir, came back up and plugged the space between the inner piping and the outer casing. If so, the bottom kill might not be necessary.

“We think it’s a low probability event, but we can’t rule it out,” Allen said.

Allen also hopes he may be able to step down from his post by late September or early October, handing off the responsibility. Allen, who has served in the role since May 1, said he’ll only do that if the well is definitively shown to be in no danger of leaking again.

The discussion of a possible departure, though, raised the ire of some officials who say Washington is too eager to turn the page on the spill.

“Are they planning on closing up shop? Absolutely. Am I sad Thad Allen is going to be gone? Absolutely not,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who has criticized much of the government’s response as lacking a sense of urgency.

But Allen’s departure, whenever it comes, may simply signal that the response has entered a new phase, going from crisis response to long-term recovery, Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said.

“Despite some of the unforeseen challenges of this event, I never doubted his desire to get the source of oil stopped,” Roberts said of Allen.

Roberts said work is increasingly focused on restoration of wetlands and beaches, and the recovery of the commercial and recreational fishing industries, rather than stopping the flow of oil, which was achieved last month with the cap.

“Whether or not this becomes an old story is totally up to the media,” Roberts said.

Meanwhile, the tropical depression that had threatened to turn into a tropical storm in the Gulf fell apart Wednesday, a day after crews drilling the final few feet of the relief well halted their work because of concerns about the weather.

Allen said Wednesday that suspending work at the wellhead while the storm passes will cost crews about 96 hours, meaning work on the bottom kill won’t be done until at least Monday or Tuesday. Heavy rain is still forecast for the Gulf into Thursday and he did not say when the work might resume.

Government scientists estimate that almost three-quarters of the oil that spewed after the April 20 explosion of the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon has already been collected by the temporary containment cap, cleaned up or chemically dispersed, or naturally deteriorated.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., called on BP PLC to accept the government’s estimate that 4.9 million barrels, or 206 million gallons, had spilled. The amount is important because it could help determine what fines BP faces for the spill.

Markey sent a letter to the head of BP’s U.S. operations telling him that the oil giant should legally own up to its obligations as one of the responsible parties.

Civil penalties can be levied under a variety of environmental protection laws, including fines of up to $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled. If BP were found to have committed gross negligence or willful misconduct, the civil fine could be up to $4,300 per barrel.

That means BP could face fines of up to $21 billion.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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