As the subsea effort to permanently plug the blown out Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico draws to a close this week, the man who has been the government’s point person for the oil spill response effort said he also is preparing for the completion of his duties.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who was named national incident commander on May 1, will step down from that job on Oct. 1, barring any major disruptions in the response effort. Many of Allen’s duties will fall to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, who has been working with Allen and concentrating on the surface response.
The transition will follow the final steps to kill the once-gushing Macondo well, as well as the release of a report from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to develop an oil spill recovery plan for the Gulf Coast. Allen said the Mabus report is expected next week.
“The need for a national incident commander is going to go away as we stand up a long term recovery organization,” Allen said.
Reflecting on his time as the government’s point person for spill response, Allen said one of the greatest lessons he learned is that responding to this type of crisis requires coordination among federal, state and local officials.
“While this response was challenging and it was extraordinary and it was unprecedented . . . we’d be adding a crime to a crime if we didn’t try to learn from this and change some things,” Allen said. “I think we’re in a good place with the parish presidents. We’ve come a long way. It would be nice to start that way.”
Allen suffered harsh criticism from parish leaders in Louisiana who have said they were locked out of early meetings about spill response. Were he to do it again, bringing those leaders to the table early on would be a priority, Allen said.”What you really want to do is create unity of effort,” Allen said.
Allen officially retired from the Coast Guard June 30, but agreed to continue leading the response effort as an employee of the Department of Homeland Security. He said he plans to officially begin his retirement in October with “a lot of thinking, talking and writing.” Also on the agenda are a delayed trip to Ireland with his wife and building a house, Allen said.
When Allen leaves his post the size and mission of the response effort will change. The Coast Guard-led response operation will shrink from the 2,400-person operation of a month ago, to about 550 people, Zukunft said. The offices in Houma and Mobile will be shuttered and everything will be consolidated to the Unified Area Command’s headquarter at 1250 Poydras Street. An additional floor has been leased in the building to accommodate workers from the offices that will close, bringing the total to three floors.
How long the command center will remain operational and how long it will be staffed at that level are unknowns, Allen said.
“We really don’t put it on a timeline,” Allen said. “It’s really conditions-based. It’ll be a series of phases, where the final phase (will come when) there’s not a thing more we can do.”
The main focus of the office after the transition and under Zukunft will be on cleaning oil from areas along the Gulf Coast where it remains, including nine environmentally sensitive marsh areas in Louisiana, Zukunft said. That job will extend “well into November.”
The work will also include a “very aggressive” effort to recover, decontaminate and move boom to storage areas in higher ground so that it can be redeployed if needed. The amount of boom in the water has been reduced from about 3.5 million feet at the height of the spill to just 800,000, Zukunft said. The work could conclude sometime around the end of Hurricane season.
When those jobs are complete, there could be little work for the response team beyond responding to the occasional appearance of oil on shore, Allen said. Other duties, that had fallen to the Unified Area Command during the height of the response period, such as seafood safety, behavioral health and community outreach, will instead return to the the purview of government agencies that would normally attend to those issues, Allen said.
“Ultimately, at some point, if we’re just waiting to respond to oil, we will return the duty to the local Coast Guard,” Allen said. “When we’re all done, there may still be oil in the marshes but there will be nothing more we can do without damaging the marshes.”