BP Keeps Look Out For Vanishing Gulf Oil

BP soon could begin to pump mud into its damaged well, as a step toward shutting it down forever. As for the oil that's already escaped, BP's chief operating officer says it is rapidly vanishing from the surface of the Gulf. Oil under the surface is a big concern but there isn't an estimate on how much might be down there.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Welcome back, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: This week, BP intends to starts closing a damaged oil well for good. As early as tonight, BP could start pumping heavy mud into the well. The plan is to follow that with cement.

INSKEEP: BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, says the company does not yet have a plan to deal with another part of the disaster. Unknown amounts of oil are still in Gulf waters, below the surface.

The executive took a tour of affected wetlands and brought along reporters, including NPR's Allison Keyes.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

ALLISON KEYES: In the mist of the South Pass, where the Mississippi River merges with the Gulf, BP's chief operating officer climbed off of an airboat with a giant fan on the back, onto the deck of a converted oyster boat. One of that boat's three crewmen, Randy Murray, pointed at one of the large barrels on the deck.

Mr. RANDY MURRAY (Crewmember, Swamp Queen III): That's crude oil right there.

KEYES: Murray says for a month, the Swamp Queen III has been slurping up increasingly smaller amounts of oil from the surface of the waters here, and from among the rose cane grasses that form a maze of paths through the brown water.

Mr. MURRAY: We suck it all up; it's like a vacuum - a big vacuum, is what it is.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

KEYES: The crews of these boats and there are only two of them in this region rely on spotters to help them find the oil. And sometimes, they find as much as 100 gallons per day.

(Soundbite of ocean)

KEYES: At a tiny, gray-brown beach about four miles away, workers who had been picking up tar balls here for two days stood idle as Suttles strolled down the edge of the water. This place looks good, he says, but others are still seeing tar balls, and they may return here as well.

Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, BP): You know, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw tar balls come in through the winter, and we'll have to be able to respond to that as long as they keep coming. But I think that every day seems to look better than the day before, which is a good sign.

KKEYES: Many locals, including the drivers of both the air boats and the sleek, fast boats involved in a tour of clean-up operations in this area, confirmed the cyclic nature of oil sightings. But no one is sure why the oil appears on the surface in one place one day, then is gone the next. Some blamed the tides. Others blamed the wind. But the only oil reporters saw today, during our three-hour tour, was a ribbon-like line of black at the waterline of the most of the marsh grasses. In some places where the wake of the boat exposed the plants for several inches below the water's surface, their stems were dotted with brown-black streams of goo.

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, that's where the oil is.

KEYES: That's what BP's Suttles told NPR when asked whether he had a plan for getting at the oil that's under the water, and not so much on the surface now.

Mr. SUTTLES: We keep looking for it other places, but we haven't found it. If we find it there, we'll have to find a technique to get it.

KEYES: At a press conference later at the Venice, Louisiana, command post for the government and BP's response, Suttles says he knows the oil under the water is a big concern. But he has no estimate on how much might be down there.

Mr. SUTTLES: We're taking water samples off shore all the way down, to up to 5,000 feet in the water column. We've set out absorbent materials near shore to see if we see any oil there. But so far, we haven't found much.

KEYES: But BP did put a positive spin on other facets of their underground operations, announcing that it is closer to permanently sealing the blown well that's been temporarily closed down for three weeks.

Mr. SUTTLES: Well, the current forecast on the static kill is that that operation, it can't begin until we get the casing run and cemented in the relief well, and that's ongoing as we speak. Once that's finished, we'll be ready to do the static kill, and the current forecast is for it looks like Tuesday right now.

KEYES: Suttles did offer support to worried fishermen and those who sell their products asserting strongly that he would eat the seafood from the Gulf and feed it to his loved ones.

Mr. SUTTLES: I absolutely would, because there's been a tremendous amount of testing done by NOAA and the state agencies and the FDA and others. And they are not going to open these waters to either sport fishing or commercial fishing if it's not safe to eat the fish.

KEYES: The areas where the government is allowing fishing are mostly east of the Mississippi. But most fishing west of the Mississippi is still prohibited.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, New Orleans.

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