“Bottom Kill” Set to Seal Oil Well for Good, but Worries Abound in Louisiana

New Orleans —As BP prepares final operations to permanently seal the once-out-of-control oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana residents are both relieved and wary.

Many see government scientists as overly optimistic in their assessments of the current state of the spill, and they are worried about BP standing by its commitment to fully clean it up.

“We had assurances from BP that they’re in for the long haul, but we don’t know what the future holds once this well is killed,” says Lafourche Parish president Charlotte Randolph. Ms. Randolph was one of seven parish presidents who last week attended a meeting with federal response director Thad Allen, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“Everyone is saying, ‘where’s the oil?’” continues Randolph. “This week in Lafourche Parish we had hundreds of barrels a day washing in. We need some clear answers from BP on what [is an appropriate cleanup], what is their exit strategy.”

Three weeks after a containment cap checked the flow of petroleum into the Gulf, the vast slicks of surface oil have largely disappeared. On Aug. 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report stating that 74 percent of the estimated 200 million gallons of oil from the blown wellhead have disappeared, due largely to natural decomposition and dispersal. White House energy adviser Carol Browner said “the vast majority of the oil is gone.”

In an opinion poll sponsored by WWL radio in New Orleans this week, which was not a scientific survey, 80 percent of respondents said they did not believe the findings of the NOAA report. Gulf Coast residents worry that if national attention shifts from the spill, concerns about future environmental impacts could also wane – and perhaps go unaddressed.

BP’s newly appointed CEO Bob Dudley said July 30 that the company will begin scaling back its cleanup operations, but that there will be “no pullback” in its commitment to clean up the spill. On the same day, Mr. Allen also assured Gulf Coast residents that the federal government will remain engaged until state and local officials agree that the cleanup is complete.

BP this week finished pumping mud and cement into the well that blew out after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Spokesman Max McGahan said Saturday that engineers were still waiting for the cement to harden so work could begin on drilling the final 100 feet of a relief well.

When that relief well intersects the broken well, workers will pump more cement and mud in a “bottom kill” to seal the well permanently.

It may well prove to be a pivotal week for BP and Gulf Coast residents, but local officials are not ready yet to declare victory.

Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser, for one, used a sheriff’s department helicopter this week to make his own survey of nearby waters and took photographs of oil floating off the coast of the parish, which he distributed to the media. Mr. Nungesser says he will be meeting with BP representatives to ask for assurances that cleanup equipment would remain in the parish through hurricane season, so that local fishermen employed by BP’s “vessels of opportunity” program could continue cleaning up oil.

“I wish the oil was all gone tomorrow, but the fact is we don’t know that, and for us to pull out equipment prematurely is not right,” says Nungesser. “What happens if a large patch of oil from a tropical storm rolls it into the marsh?”

Larry Hooper, a charter boat captain in Plaquemines Parish employed as under the “vessels of opportunity” program, spent the week working with skimmer boats off the Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge. “I know there’s still oil because I was in it all day,” says Mr. Hooper. “An oiled tern that was out there floating on the water climbed onto the back of my boat, and state wildlife officers came out to pick it up. There is oil still out there. It’s dispersed, but it’s going to keep coming at us for a long time. Tar balls are on the beaches, and if you dig down you can find oil underneath the sand.”

Hooper, who used his 30-foot fishing boat for deep-sea charters before the spill, doesn’t know when he will return to his life as a sport fisherman. He and other charter captains recently turned down an offer by BP to sponsor three fishing tournaments in Plaquemines later this month. “BP wanted to turn around and say, ‘Look, we’ve got fishing tournaments going on here again. There’s no oil, everything’s fine,’ but we’re not going to do that,” he says. “We’re not going to help them make it all look good when we don’t even know what the conditions are yet. We have to wait and see for ourselves if the oil is out there and what the [chemical] dispersants are doing.”

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.