Progress Report From Coast Guard's 'Oil Spill Czar'

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Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen — known as the "oil spill czar" — talks with Renee Montagne about ongoing efforts to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the Gulf of Mexico, BP is trying to choke off that oil leak by pumping mud down into the damaged well today. The company began what's known as a top kill yesterday, and hopes to know today whether it's working.

We turn now to the man in charge of the administration's cleanup efforts in the Gulf, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

Welcome to the program.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, everyone is wondering what is happening at this moment in time and what might happen later today with this top kill procedure. What do you know now?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, Renee, since yesterday afternoon, British Petroleum and their subcontractors have been pumping heavy mud down into the well bore below the blowout preventer. And over the course of the last, you know, 12-18 hours, they've been able to force mud down and not allow any hydrocarbons to come up. What they're trying to do is reach a point where there is no pressure upward and slowly reduce the amount of mud that's going in, to the point where they think they've stabilized the well bore, which would allow them then to put a cement plug in and basically kill the well.

MONTAGNE: But a little bit positive - I know people are vey careful now because things haven't worked. A little bit positive a this moment in time?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, I'd say the absence of any news is hopeful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: The federal government clearly doesn't have the tools to cap a well itself - the government. Still, you outlined a pretty specific plan at the White House earlier this week, calling for, among other things, containment skimmers, booms, various things. Yet, local officials say these things are not showing up when they need them and where they need them. Where are all of these supplies?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, Renee, if I could maybe divide what we're doing out here into three worlds of work or lines of operations, then we would say, first of all, you have the subsea effort to control the leakage and control the well. You have the offshore effort to try and deal with the oil as far offshore as possible so you don't have to deal with it onshore. And that's in-situ burning, disperse and application, mechanical skimming, and there is some evaporation of the oil.

The last resort, obviously, is when the oil comes ashore. We're dealing with a massive amount of coastline. And a spill that has not - it has been so disaggregated now, we don't have a model to (unintelligible) anymore. It's a concentration of patches of oil separated by miles of open water. So our enemy has dispersed. It is smaller, and that is good, but it has dispersed and keeping track of it where it comes ashore becomes a bigger challenge.

That said, I'm down here at home in Louisiana today, and I'll be down visiting some of the communities down there and talking to our folks at the pointy end of the spear to see if there's any way we can increase the velocity of our response and then decrease the cycle time from when oil is sighted to we do something about it. And I think the people of Louisiana and the American public have every reason to expect that we can get better at this, and that's what I intend to do.

MONTAGNE: When you say increase the velocity of arrival time, obviously, you mean get it there faster. Couldn't it be gotten there in hours?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, yeah. Let me explain what happens. If there's a sighting of oil coming close to shore, or it's on shore, first thing we have to do is conduct an assessment of what type of oil is it, or is it oil. And depending on where it's at and where it might go, whether it's sandy beaches or marshland or so forth, is this something we can boom and then mechanically skim? Or are we going to have to mechanically pick up tar balls on a beach? Or are we dealing with heavy oil going into marshland? You can actually do more destruction to a marshland by going in and trying to deal with the oil than other methods.

So there's an analysis on the proper intervention that has be done, and then it has to be converted into action and the deployment of teams. And what we need to do is reduce the cycle time from when we know or sense there's oil around there until we start achieving the effects we're trying to achieve based on the conditions that are - which it ashore and where it's at. And I think we need to get better at that.

MONTAGNE: And will you get better at that?

Adm. ALLEN: I'm down here to do that.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Let me know put another complaint to you that our reporters have been hearing from local officials down there in that region. They're saying that they can't work out, always, who is in charge. Who exactly is, as of this morning, managing the containment and cleanup on the ground? Is it the Coast Guard? Or is it BP?

Adm. ALLEN: There is no doubt on who's on charge. It's defined by law and regulation. It is the federal on-scene coordinator, who is the senior Coast Guard officer charged with the responsibility. BP has a role, as the responsible party, to pay for all cleanup and recovery costs, and they necessarily need to be involved in the effort. But it is up to the federal on-scene coordinator to create unity of effort. I'm accountable for this response, and I'm down here to make sure it's going as well as it can. Where it need to be improved, we're going to do that.

MONTAGNE: If, in fact, the Coast Guard is in charge - and you are - why are there officials out there who say they don't know who's in charge?

Adm. ALLEN: Well, I think this may be an issue on our part to clearly explain the command-and-control structure on how spill response is done in this country.

MONTAGNE: But is it just that you're at a level at where - I mean, one might think that there would be a Coast Guard presence at the very local, basic grassroots level, here. Are you at all concerned? I mean, it suggests that...

Adm. ALLEN: Well, we are being...

MONTAGNE:'re not reaching out, perhaps, to the people who can't get to you.

Adm. ALLEN: Well, we are putting Coast Guard out in the outlying areas. In fact, later on today, I'm going to be actually going down to the Louisiana coast, south of Houma here, and I'm going to be actually checking to make sure that we are doing that, that we're interacting with the parish presidents in Louisiana to a level that's sufficient to make them comfortable that we are listening to them and being responsive to them. And I'm down here on the ground to check how things are going. That's exactly what my mission is today.

MONTAGNE: Thad Allen is the Coast Guard admiral who is heading up the federal government's response to the oil spill. He's speaking to us from Houma, Louisiana. Thanks very much for being with us.

Adm. ALLEN: Thank you, Renee.

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