Official: Gulf Spill Can't Be Compared To Katrina

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is overseeing the federal government's response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Allen, who offers the latest updates on efforts to contain the spill before it does further damage to the Gulf Coast.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Admiral Thad Allen is coordinating the federal government's response to the oil spill in the Gulf. He's the national incident commander and the commandant for the United States Coast Guard. He's on the phone. Admiral Allen, welcome to the program.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (Commandant, United States Coast Guard): Good morning.

HANSEN: Since they're having trouble with this oil containment box, are there any other ideas to try and stop the spread of oil?

Adm. ALLEN: Actually, Liane, there are number and people are working around the clock at the BP headquarters in Houston. One of the things they're considering is actually using a lot of pressure to put just small pieces of debris all into the blowout preventers, just clog it up and stop the leakage that way. They're actually creating the mechanisms to do that. And we'll be synching up probably later on this week.

There's also the option to actually sever the pipe and put another blowout preventer on top of it, but that is dependent on the amount of pressure that's already in there, and they want to know as much about that as they can. They're taking pressure readings around it. So, a number of initiatives are underway.

HANSEN: Do you have enough booms to cover the shoreline?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, there's not enough boom to cover all the shoreline of the United States. We've got enough boom to cover the impacted areas right now. One of the challenging things about the spill is it could go in a number of directions and everybody wants to be ready. So, rather than having enough boom to deal with a normal spill where it might come ashore, this thing is omni-directional and everybody trying to be ready has put demand on the boom manufacturing in the country.

But we've got a new central warehousing operation down there and we're dealing with the manufacturers.

HANSEN: Under federal law, the oil company, BP, is only liable for $75 million in damages. Do you support the efforts by some members in Congress to raise that liability limit?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, Liane, they're responsible for all costs and then there's an additional cap on other expenses associated with that. I believe it's something maybe should be looked at when we're done here, but BP understands they're responsible for all costs.

HANSEN: Can you at all estimate how much the containment and cleanup efforts have cost so far?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, we're up to about - the cap the Coast Guard has out of our fund is somewhere between $15 and $20 million and I don't have the exact total of what BP is spending but it is considerable.

HANSEN: What's your best estimate about how long you think this containment process is going to take?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, the ultimate solution is to drill a relief well, relieve the pressure that's currently in that pipe and then cap the well. That won't be done for at least 90 days and there is already a drilling unit on scene that's actually started to drill below the subsurface. That is the final solution. In the meantime, what's we're trying to do is stop the leak, to stabilize the situation until the relief well can be dug.

HANSEN: What kind of environmental damage do you anticipate over that period of time?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, the most sensitive areas are marsh areas, where you have wildlife and especially where shellfish are spawning and that sort of thing. And, of course, it's very close to the extensive wetlands and marshes around Louisiana and Mississippi. As you move over towards Alabama, you start to have - and Mississippi - you have beaches and into Florida, a lot of economic impact associated with the beaches were the oil leak get there right now.

The oil to date, though, has only impacted the marshland areas around Louisiana. We've had some reports of tar balls in Alabama. We're not sure it's associated with this spill but we're investigating. Right now, it appears that the impact is localized in southeast Louisiana with the next area likely to be impacted would be Mississippi and Alabama.

HANSEN: You had a major job during Hurricane Katrina and many people in the Gulf Coast region, particularly Louisiana, were very disillusioned with the federal government's response to the hurricane. Will this time be different?

Adm. ALLEN: You know, I've been asked several times to compare Hurricane Katrina and this and it's really difficult to do that because they're two very, very different events. As anomalous and as complex as Katrina was, there was a beginning and an end to it. In this oil spill, we're actually dealing with a source that does not have human access and that's very, very different than anything we've ever done before. It's 5,000 feet down on the floor of the ocean.

Everything we know, we know through what's seen by remotely operated vehicles and remote sensing. And everything we do down there is through robotics. And this is something that we've never dealt with in a large spill before.

HANSEN: Do you think the government responded quickly enough after the oil rig exploded on April 20th?

Adm. ALLEN: I do, because I was involved in it from the start. You know, this started out as a massive search and rescue case. We had the explosion and unfortunately there were 11 people that we were never able to find. We had a significant search and rescue effort. From the start, we had salvage teams available. We're starting to look at worst-case discharges because when you have a rig that large and that much fire going on, you know there's going to be something associated with it. And we didn't wait to start doing the planning and pre-stage of the resources.

The real game changer, of course, was on the 22nd of April when the rig actually sunk and the fire went out, which was consuming the product. And then we had three leaks in the riser pipe, which was 5,000 feet of pipe that was crumpled over and area of about 1,500 feet between the well head and where the drill, you know, was resting upside down.

HANSEN: Admiral Thad Allen is the national incident commander for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He's also the commandant for the United States Coast Guard. Thank you very much.

Adm. ALLEN: Thank you, Liane.

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