BILOXI, Miss. – BP's new boss says it's time for a "scaleback" in cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Federal officials say there is no way the crude could reach the East Coast. And fishing areas are starting to reopen.
There were several signs Friday that the era of thousands of oil-skimming boats and hazmat-suited beach crews is giving way to long-term efforts to clean up, compensate people for their losses and understand the damage wrought. Local fishermen are doubtful, however, and say oil remains a bigger problem than BP and the federal government are letting on.
Other people contend the impact of the spill has been overblown, given that little oil remains on the Gulf surface, but Bob Dudley, who heads BP's oil spill recovery and will take over as CEO in October, rejected those claims.
"Anyone who thinks this wasn't a catastrophe must be far away from it," he said in Biloxi, where he announced that former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt will be supporting BP's Gulf restoration work.
After an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers, BP's blown-out well gushed an estimated 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil before a temporary cap stopped it July 15. Efforts to permanently plug the gusher had been expected to begin as early as Sunday, but the government's point man for the spill said Friday that those plans hit a snag.
Crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that ultimately will be used to plug the leak for good, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said. The debris must be fished out before crews can begin a procedure known as a static kill that hopefully will make the rest of the job easier.
"It's not a huge problem, but it has to be removed before we can put the pipe casing down," Allen said.
The sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie. Removing it will take 24 to 36 hours and likely push the kill back to Tuesday, Allen said.
Once the relief well is ready, crews can begin the static kill, in which mud, and possibly cement, are pumped in through the temporary cap. The better that procedure seals the blown-out well, the easier it will be to plug it forever by pumping in cement from below using the relief well. The blown-out well could be killed for good by late August, though a tropical storm could set the timetable back.
As the work of plugging the well appears to reach the homestretch, so does much of the cleanup work. Relatively little oil remains on the surface of the Gulf, leaving less for thousands of oil skimmers to do.
Dudley 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.
St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro responded with an order forbidding removal of any cleanup equipment from staging areas in his parish. "The response is not over in St. Bernard Parish, and it would be premature to demobilize any assets at this time," a brief announcement said.
There had been fears that the massive spill could reach South Florida and the East Coast through a powerful loop current, but federal officials said Friday that earlier reports that some oil had reached the current were wrong.
A new analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed most surface oil in the Gulf had degraded to a thin sheen. What remained on the surface and below was hundreds of miles from the loop current.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said a strong eddy is preventing oil from reaching the current.
"So there's no mechanism for oil to get from where it is now at the surface to the Keys, Miami-Dade, to any place along the East Coast," Lubchenco said.
Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle will likely be spared any additional major beach oiling, although tar balls could wash ashore, NOAA said. Louisiana's coast was the most likely place where oil could still make landfall.
Lubchenco cautioned that scientists will continue studying the potential effects of the subsurface crude.
"Diluted and out of sight does not mean benign," she said. "But in those concentrations there will be minimal impact to the big things that are out in the ocean, big fish, big marine mammals, birds."
She said scientists still don't know the oil's environmental effect underwater.
For help with the long-term recovery, BP has hired Witt and his public safety and crisis management consulting firm. Witt, who was FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, 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."
BP and Witt's firm refused to say how much Witt will be paid for his work.
Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, were allowed back on a section of Louisiana waters east of the Mississippi River on Friday after federal authorities said samples of finfish and shrimp taken from the areas were safe to eat.
About 70 percent of Louisiana waters are now open to some kind of commercial fishing, but state waters in Mississippi and Alabama remain closed and so do nearly a quarter of federal waters in the Gulf.
Reinforcing the state's declaration that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. At a news conference in New Orleans, she said fish showed levels of contaminants that were "extremely low, significantly below the threshhold of concern."
Hamburg stressed that testing will continue because of the large volumes of oil spilled and the large amounts of dispersants used to break it up.
Seafood industry representatives hailed the reopening, but Rusty Graybill, a boat captain from Yscloskey, La., who fishes for crab, oysters and shrimp, said "it's a joke."
"I'm pretty sure I'll go out and I'll get oil-covered shrimp. They capped this well and now they're trying to say it's OK," he said.
Graybill, a wiry 28-year-old with a leathery tan, made a 2-inch circle with his thumb and finger. "I'm still finding tar balls this big out there, and the boom is still covered in oil," he said.
Louisiana fisherman Pete Gerica couldn't work up much enthusiasm, either. He noted that it doesn't include crabs or oysters and that shrimp season in most of the area has yet to open.
"If you can't crab in these areas, it's a flop," Gerica said.
Oil rig workers are struggling along with fishermen because a federal moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Those workers will be getting $100 million in aid that BP said Friday it will distribute through a Louisiana charity.
There is no official estimate of how many people have been out of work since the Interior Department imposed the moratorium in June. Drilling has since been suspended on 33 exploratory wells.
The fund is focused on people who worked on the rigs drilling those wells, not people who provided support services, such as ferrying supplies to them, said Mukul Verma, a foundation spokesman. Those people might get money if there is any left over after grants are provided to rig workers, BP spokesman Tom Mueller said.
Bluestein reported from New Orleans. Associated Press Writers Jason Dearen in Yscloskey and Kevin McGill and Brian Skoloff in New Orleans contributed to this report.