Allen Says Gulf Clean-Up Could Last Months

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Thad Allen, the administration's point man on oil, says clean-up efforts could go for months on end. In the Gulf, those who are dealing with that effort say it isn't going well.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama tried to reassure Americans today, saying we will get through this crisis. The crisis, of course, the thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day and now hitting the shores of four states. But along the Gulf Coast, local officials say there's nothing reassuring about the response to the spill so far.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: President Obama says the economic impact of the disaster is going to be substantial and ongoing. But he says the Gulf Coast will bounce back.

President BARACK OBAMA: This will be contained. It may take some time and it's going to take a whole lot of effort.

ELLIOTT: Part of that effort is trying to slow the underwater gusher. BP says it was able to collect 11,000 barrels of oil through a containment cap yesterday. It's hard to say what that means, given the wide range of estimates of how much oil is coming from the blown-out well.

At a White House briefing today, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen evaluated the progress.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (National Incident Commander, U.S. Coast Guard): I think it's going fairly well. What we want is to establish a rate so we know exactly what that containment cap can tolerate in terms of flow and what's going to be lost. And I think it's very, very important we're watching that very, very closely.

ELLIOTT: Oil is now coming ashore in one form or another over at least 120 miles of the Gulf Coast, in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. And that figure doesn't include where the oil has seeped deep into marshes and bayous, contaminating fisheries and wildlife.

As the impact has spread, so has the frustration with the government and BP's inability to stop the leak and protect the shore. In Pensacola, Florida today, State Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor, Bill McCollum, was flabbergasted when he learned skimming boats would not be there for two weeks.

Mr. BILL McCOLLUM (Attorney General, Florida; Republican, Gubernatorial Candidate): There are no skimmers out there now and we're seeing oil and oil sheen coming here to Florida. And they're elsewhere. They're not here. So I'm just very upset. Whether that's BP or the Coast Guard or President Obama or whoever it is, they need to get with it.

ELLIOTT: Admiral Allen says the Coast Guard is taking a national inventory now and deciding whether to move skimmers from other parts of the U.S. to the Gulf, potentially leaving those areas at risk. McCollum says those decisions should have been made weeks ago. Allen says the widespread nature of this spill was never anticipated.

Adm. ALLEN: I don't think any plan ever envisioned it would get out that far and have the requirement to have so many resources spread across such a wide area. Because you kind of think of an oil slick coming in en masse, and you think about the Exxon Valdez. That is what's been different, and that, if anything, is taxing our resources. It's the breath and the complexity of the disaggregation of the oil.

ELLIOTT: Over the weekend in Orange Beach, Alabama, BP's senior vice president, Bob Fryar, held a news conference during an afternoon thunderstorm, seemingly to reassure locals that the situation wasn't as dire as it seems.

Mr. BOB FRYAR (Senior Executive Vice President, British Petroleum): There's not a lot of oil out there, but you do see it. It typically runs in ribbons. It's emulsified oil. It's been on the water for quite some time. The lighter ends have flashed off, have evaporated off of it, so what you're seeing - what's coming up is the tar balls and the tarry-type substance.

ELLIOTT: While he spoke, that tarry substance was soiling white sand beaches less than a mile away.

Mayor TONY KENNON (Orange Beach, Alabama): They're toxic to our economy, I'll tell you that.

ELLIOTT: Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon was irate that Fryar was in town, but cleanup crews weren't.

Mayor KENNON: We should be like Disney World. Somebody throws a piece of trash down, there ought to be somebody right behind it getting it up within 10 seconds. Those tar balls have been on the beach for six hours this morning. They may still be there. I don't know. But it's really aggravating for someone to walk in here, who's never been to our town and put on a pretty rosy picture when it's just not the case.

ELLIOTT: Kennon and other local mayors interrupted Fryar's news conference to question the slow response, demanding more skimmers, protective boom and cleanup equipment. One councilman even threatened to put the BP vice president in jail.

Kennon says the company should have been ready.

Mayor KENNON: I don't care how much money BP has to spend. I want the resources here to handle any situation - I don't care what it is. That is their job. They're not doing us a favor by cleaning this mess up.

ELLIOTT: While officials on the coast feel the urgency of oil reaching their shores and threatening their economies, Coast Guard Admiral Allen is taking a longer view. He warned today: We're going to be dealing with this oil for the foreseeable future.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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