Oil Spill Officials Shift to Long-Term Concerns


NEW ORLEANS — Officials in charge of the oil spill response in the gulf region say they are beginning to shift their efforts to a new phase, focusing more on long-term recovery now that some of the urgent demands of the spill are diminishing.

Crews recently removed boom from the water in Alabama, as swimming advisories were lifted. Some of the waters on parts of the Gulf Coast that had been closed to commercial fishing were reopened on Thursday, after the Food and Drug Administration tested seafood samples and found no reason for health concerns. Federal officials speak of seeing little “recoverable” oil on the surface.

And Robert Dudley, the incoming chief executive of BP and the man overseeing the cleanup for the company, used the phrase “scale back” in a news conference on Friday in Biloxi, Miss. He also went on to describe a commitment to the Gulf Coast that would last years, and other BP officials repeated a version of that commitment afterward.

“BP intends to be active in the restoration of the Gulf Coast for the long term,” said Scott Dean, a BP spokesman.

“But,” Mr. Dean added, “there is going to be a natural transition from a short-term emergency response, skimming and cleaning up beaches, over time to a long-term recovery and restoration organization.”

Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral in charge of the spill response, acknowledged that transition, but gave a caveat in a briefing later on Friday.

“We should not be writing any obituary for this event until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are cleaned, until the local — federal, state and local — officials agree that the beaches are clean,” he said.

He did go on to discuss the need to “adjust the resources,” as recoverable oil dissipates on the surface, referring in particular to the difficult issue of drawing down the Vessels of Opportunity program that has employed thousands of fishermen put out of work by the spill.

Admiral Allen highlighted the need now to remove boom that has washed over sensitive marsh areas and test gulf fish for safety so that additional fishing waters can be opened, and he suggested the commercial vessels could be used for those efforts not only to advance the recovery but to give fishermen a chance to replace lost income.

That is one of several areas of concern for state and local officials, who met with BP and Coast Guard officials on Thursday in Louisiana, in a meeting described by attendees as contentious at times but productive.

Nevertheless, distrust remains high. On Friday afternoon, the president of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser, saw about a dozen trucks taking boom out of his parish, and ordered sheriff’s deputies to pull the trucks over.

A BP official told him the boom was defective, Mr. Nungesser said, adding that he did not believe that. Shortly after, other parish presidents issued executive orders demanding that no response equipment be removed from their parishes.

The principal concern remains the oil itself. The possibility of a definitive end to the undersea gusher, which has been capped for two weeks, has been postponed again.

Admiral Allen and BP officials said that efforts to pump mud and cement into the well, an operation called a static kill, would be delayed 24 to 36 hours. Crews need first to remove sediment in the relief well that is being drilled simultaneously. The debris collected in the well during a recent storm.

Once the relief well is cleaned, crews over the weekend will install a final section of pipe casing into the relief well to give it an extra measure of security before starting the static kill operation. Engineers hope to begin the static kill by Tuesday, and complete the last 100 feet of the relief well just days after that. The final plugging of the well is expected by late August, government and BP officials say.

In the briefing, Admiral Allen said further study was needed on the underwater plumes of oil, a source of deep anxiety along the Gulf Coast. The effect of so much undersea oil, mixed with dispersant, on sea life remains far from certain.

That so much of the oil is submerged in the water column may cut down on the need for a fleet of skimmers, but it also raises the possibility of oil suddenly showing up on shore in the form of tar balls for weeks, if not months. On Thursday, for example, tar balls the size of softballs were being cleaned up on stretches of beach in Plaquemines Parish, some of them turning into a sticky paste under the hot sun.

John Amos, president of SkyTruth, an environmental advocacy group that has closely tracked the size and trajectory of the spill, said satellite imagery from Wednesday showed that the oil appeared to have reconstituted somewhat after last weekend’s storm into a very thin sheen spreading across a 12,000-square-mile area in the gulf. Burning or skimming would probably be ineffective on such a sheen.

Further, he said, images taken on Friday afternoon appeared to show that the reconstituted sheen had dissipated significantly.

“The overall trend is that the slick is dissipating,” he said. But, he added, “it’s far from being back to normal.”

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