WASHINGTON (CN) – The massive oil spill devastating the Gulf of Mexico has turned into “hundreds of thousands of smaller spills going different directions,” Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters at a White House press conference Monday. “We’re adapting to an enemy that changes,” he said.
Allen said the spill has “disaggregated itself” largely due to wind gusts and ocean currents. To deal with the breaking up oil, Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, has dispatched vessels to patrol Gulf waters 50 miles offshore to find patches of oil. The admiral said it’s crucial to catch the oil before it hits shore because, while oil that has been skimmed off the surface can be recycled, once it hits shore and mixes with sand it becomes toxic.
Workers are using controlled burning, skimming and boom to address the spill.
“Boom is not a silver bullet against oil,” Allen said, citing an incident last week when oily seawater overwhelmed boom protecting an island off the coast of Alabama.
Allen said his team is taking inventory of the nation’s skimming vessels.
Workers have backed off using chemical dispersants on the spill after federal officials grew concerned that an unprecedented amount — more than 1 million gallons — of chemical dispersants had been unleashed. Allen said he discussed it with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and agreed to scale back on their use at the surface. Dispersant is still being sprayed at the gushing wellhead.
In response to criticism that BP and the federal government have been “two steps behind” in response efforts, Allen said they were “trying to adapt to a spill that’s never happened before in this country.”
The containment cap placed over the gushing wellhead last week is working, Allen reported. Oil is being funneled up from the broken wellhead to a drillship on the sea surface, where it’s processed at a rate of 11,000 barrels of oil a day, Allen said. In the three days since the containment cap has been in place, surface oil production has increased from 6,000 barrels a day to 11,000 barrels a day. Allen said BP is bringing in another drillship that will increase production capacity to 20,000 barrels a day.
“This is a delicate cap,” Allen said, explaining that production capacity was not at maximum levels yet because workers were closing valves slowly to avoid placing too much pressure on the well.
“The ultimate solution to this is going to be drilling the relief wells,” Allen said. The first well, started May 2, has reached 7,000 feet below the sea floor. The second, started May 16, is at 3,000 feet below the ocean bed.
Allen warned that even when the well is eventually capped, oil will continue to devastate the region. “We’ll be dealing with oil and the effects of oil long after the well is capped,” he said.
The admiral said response efforts will remain in full force “at least four to six weeks after” the well is capped, which is expected to occur in early August.
Allen said 120 miles of shoreline have been affected by the oil so far, but said the number is deceptive, because when oil seeps into delicate wetlands, the damage spreads deep into the marshes and the effect is “far greater.”
Allen said his biggest concern about BP is its slowness in processing claims from fishermen in the Gulf region. He said that while the oil giant is starting to make partial-claim payments to Gulf residents put out of work by the spill, he said the turnaround is slow, and there is no system in place for continuing monthly payments. Allen said members of his staff are meeting with BP claims directors on the issue today.
He also expressed concern over BP’s failure to quickly and adequately respond to claims made by small businesses affected by the spill, such as seafood processing plants and local restaurants.
“We’ve got problems with major claims being paid,” Allen said. “They don’t have a history of doing that type of work. They need to do that better and quicker.”
He called the current process “a little cumbersome” and said he has a meeting scheduled with Tracy Wareing, the federal official charged with overseeing the BP claims process, and the BP claims director this week.
When asked if he trusted the oil giant, Allen said, “I’m not sure it’s a matter of trust. We’re working together. If I ask for information, I get it. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”
Allen said he talks to BP CEO Tony Hayward or Managing Director Bob Dudley at least daily.