Oil Spill: Time to Roll Up the Cleanup?

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With the well capped and surface oil fast disappearing from the Gulf of Mexico, the response to the BP spill seems ready to move to a new phase—and possibly a less intense one. Right now BP is preparing to begin the static kill, a procedure that involves pumping heavy drilling mud down through the cap over the wellhead, followed by cement. If it works—and right now BP is on a more than two week-long string of success, dating back to the installation of the cap—the well could be all but killed in just a few days. BP will still continue with the relief well—which involve shooting cement from the bottom of the oil reservoir—and that’s always been considered the only sure way to end the spill. But while the static kill was pushed back a couple of days because of debris left in the relief well during Tropical Storm Bonnie’s visit to the Gulf last week, officials are confident the Macondo well’s days are numbered. “We are going to make sure this well is killed,” said retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen at a Friday briefing.

Partially as a result of that success at the wellhead, cleanup operations along the coast are beginning to downshift. Workers are removing boom in lighter-hit states like Alabama, and swimming advisories have been lifted in some parts of Gulf. Ditto with fishing—both federal and state waters along the Gulf coast that were closed to fishing because of concerns over oil pollution have been reopened, though 84,000 sq. miles of the Gulf are still off-limits at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues toxicity tests. “We all feel very confident with the reopening of this water to the fishing of fin fish and shrimp,” said Food and Drug Administration chief Margaret Hamburg at a New Orleans press conference on Friday. “This is our first major opening of the state waters to commercial fishing, so it really is something to celebrate.”

But not everyone along the Gulf coast is ready to celebrate quite yet. Especially in hard-hit Louisiana, there are deep suspicions that BP will look for any excuse to pull out of the region early, to declare victory and go home—even while there’s still oil to be cleaned up. Certainly BP is ready to shift its focus. Incoming BP CEO Bob Dudley told reporters on Friday that it was “not too soon for a scaleback” in the cleanup efforts, and that we’d likely see a reduction in the number of hazmat-suited cleanup workers patrolling the beaches. Later a BP spokesperson told the New York Times that “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.”

To that end, the company announced on Friday the hiring of James Lee Witt, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) under President Clinton, to help oversee the long-term effort to restore the Gulf. But parish officials in Louisiana have resisted some efforts to redistribute cleanup resources—on Friday afternoon, Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser had his sheriffs pull over trucks that had been taking boom out of his parish. Later that day other parish presidents in Louisiana—who have significant powers, thanks to the state’s, uh, peculiar political culture—issued executive orders demanding that no spill response equipment be moved out of their territory. On Saturday morning Nungesser took a group of reporters on a boat trip off the coast, where they saw fresh oil on the marshes and tar balls in the water. The message was clear—the end of the spill had been greatly exaggerated. “Let me take [Dudley] water-skiing out here and see if he comes up black,” Nungesser said.

It’s not that Dudley is denying the damage caused by the oil spill—unlike his predecessor. “Anyone who thinks this wasn’t a catastrophe must be far away from it,” Dudley said on Friday. But now that the spill is no longer in crisis mode, officials will need to figure out—in the words of Admiral Allen—”how clean is clean.” And if BP and the government’s definition of clean differs from that of parish officials in Louisiana or worried hoteliers in Florida, expect more fireworks—especially since trust in BP and Washington over how the spill has been handled has never been very high.

More to the point, there is a LOT of money wrapped up in the oil spill cleanup right now. There are more than 30,000 workers and 4,400 vessels involved in the cleanup, many of them the “vessels of opportunity,” boats run by local fishermen and charter boat captains. That program has been a vital source of income for locals who would have otherwise been grounded by the spill, and it’s also been a major source of controversy. Everywhere I’ve gone along the Gulf coast over the past couple of months, I’ve heard complaints about the way the program has been carried out. Local boaters are angry that vessels from outside their town or parish are being hired for cleanup, and even within fishing communities like Venice in southeastern Louisiana, there has been criticism over how the jobs have been handed out. “We’re a community,” said Acy Cooper, the vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, at a hearing last month in New Orleans for the national oil-spill commission.”This isn’t fair and it has to change.”

So you can imagine that if BP decides to significantly pull back on hiring boats for cleanup operations—and I’ve already heard that some fishermen are being laid off—they could be caught in the crossfire, deprived of income well before it will be possible to resume fishing normally. They could apply for claims from BP, but that process has been fraught with problems—the company has paid out less than a third of claims so far. While Kenneth Feinberg is set to take over the compensation fund—and he’s said he’ll offer more generous terms—that won’t be for a couple more weeks, and it’s still not clear exactly how Feinberg, who will continue to use BP’s claims office, will suddenly speed the flow of funds. The environmental crisis from the spill may be coming to a close—but the economic crisis is just beginning.