BP's incoming CEO said Friday that it's time for a "scaleback" of the massive effort to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but stressed the commitment to make things right is the same as ever.
Tens of thousands of people — many of them idled fishermen — have been involved in the cleanup, but more than two weeks after the leak was stopped there is relatively little oil on the surface, leaving less work for oil skimmers to do.
Bob Dudley, who heads BP's oil spill recovery and will take over as CEO in October, said it's "not too soon for a scaleback" in the cleanup, and in areas where there is no oil, "you probably don't need to see people in hazmat suits on the beach."
He added, however, that there is "no pullback" in BP's commitment to clean up the spill. Dudley was in Biloxi to announce that former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt will be supporting BP's Gulf restoration work.
Meanwhile, efforts to permanently plug the gusher hit a snag when crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that must be fished out before crews can pump mud into BP's busted well in a procedure known as a static kill.
The sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie. They found it as they were preparing for the static kill and now they have to remove it. They had hoped to start the static kill as early as Sunday, but removing the debris will take 24 to 36 hours and like push the kill back to Tuesday.
"It's not a huge problem, but it has to be removed before we can put the pipe casing down," retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the spill, said Friday.
After the static kill comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom of the busted well and hopefully cut off the oil permanently.
The well blew out April 20 when the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers and setting off the spill. It spewed between 94 million gallons and 184 million gallons into the Gulf before a temporary cap stopped the flow July 15.
With the northern Gulf of Mexico still largely off-limits to fishing, BP's cleanup program has been the only thing keeping many fishermen working. Losing those jobs would make the region all the more dependent on the checks BP has been writing to compensate fishermen and others who have lost income because of the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.
Many people have complained about long waits and other problems in processing claims, and Dudley conceded that BP lacks expertise in handling them. He said the company hopes to turn that work over to an independent administrator soon.
"It's because of that lack of competence on our part ... that we want to bring in a professional," Dudley said.
Suggestions that the environmental effects of the spill have been overblown have increased as oil has disappeared from the water's surface, though how much of the oil remains underwater is a mystery. Dudley rejected efforts to downplay the spill's impact, saying, "Anyone who thinks this wasn't a catastrophe must be far away from it."
BP is hiring Witt, FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, and his public safety and crisis management consulting firm. BP did not say how much Witt would be paid.
Witt said he wants to set up teams along the Gulf to work with BP to address long-term restoration and people's needs.
"Our hope is that we can do it as fast as we can," Witt said. "I've seen the anguish and the pain that people have suffered after disaster events. I have seen communities come back better than before."
Bluestein reported from New Orleans.
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