Image: Boom on La Belle Idee
Matt Stamey  /  AP
A boom on the La Belle Idee corrals oil in Timbalier Bay, La., on Thursday. 
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updated 7/30/2010 9:45:36 PM ET 2010-07-31T01:45:36

BP's new boss says it's time for a "scaleback" in cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Federal officials say there is no way the crude could reach the U.S. East Coast. And fishing areas are starting to reopen.

There were several signs Friday that the time of thousands of oil-skimming boats and beach crews wearing hazardous-materials suits is giving way to long-term efforts to clean up, compensate people for their losses and understand the damage wrought. Local fishermen are doubtful, however, and say oil remains a bigger problem than BP and the federal government are letting on.

Other people contend the impact of the spill has been overblown, given that little oil remains on the Gulf surface, but Bob Dudley, who heads BP's oil spill recovery and will take over as CEO in October, rejected those claims.

"Anyone who thinks this wasn't a catastrophe must be far away from it," he said in Biloxi, where he announced that former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt will be supporting BP's Gulf restoration work.

After an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers, BP's blown-out well gushed an estimated 94 million gallons (356 million liters) to 184 million gallons (697 million liters) of oil before a temporary cap stopped it July 15. Efforts to permanently plug the gusher had been expected to begin as early as Sunday, but the government's point man for the spill said Friday that those plans hit a snag.

Crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that ultimately will be used to plug the leak for good, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said. The debris must be fished out before crews can begin a procedure known as a static kill that hopefully will make the rest of the job easier.

"It's not a huge problem, but it has to be removed before we can put the pipe casing down," said Allen, who is leading the federal government's oil spill response.

The sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie. Removing it will take 24 to 36 hours and likely push the kill back to Tuesday, Allen said.

Once the relief well is ready, crews can begin the static kill, in which mud, and possibly cement, are pumped in through the temporary cap. The better that procedure seals the blown-out well, the easier it will be to plug it forever by pumping in cement from below using the relief well. The blown-out well could be killed for good by late August, though a tropical storm could set the timetable back.

As the work of plugging the well appears to reach the homestretch, so does much of the cleanup work. Relatively little oil remains on the surface of the Gulf, leaving less for thousands of oil skimmers to do.

Dudley said it's "not too soon for a scaleback" in the cleanup, especially in areas where there is no oil.

He added, however, that there is "no pullback" in BP's commitment to clean up the spill.

St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro responded with an order forbidding removal of any cleanup equipment from staging areas in his parish. "The response is not over in St. Bernard Parish, and it would be premature to demobilize any assets at this time," a brief announcement said.

There had been fears that the massive spill could reach South Florida and the East Coast through a powerful loop current, but federal officials said Friday that earlier reports that some oil had reached the current were wrong.

A new analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed most surface oil in the Gulf had degraded to a thin sheen. What remained on the surface and below was hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the loop current.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said a strong eddy is preventing oil from reaching the current.

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Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle will likely be spared any additional major beach oiling, although tar balls could wash ashore, NOAA said. Louisiana's coast was the most likely place where oil could still make landfall.

Lubchenco cautioned that scientists will continue studying the potential effects of the subsurface crude.

She said scientists still don't know the oil's environmental effect underwater.

For help with the long-term recovery, BP has hired Witt and his public safety and crisis management consulting firm. Witt, who was the federal emergency response director under President Bill Clinton, said he wants to set up teams along the Gulf to work with BP to address long-term restoration and people's needs.

BP and Witt's firm refused to say how much Witt will be paid for his work.

Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, were allowed back on a section of Louisiana waters east of the Mississippi River on Friday after federal authorities said samples of finfish and shrimp taken from the areas were safe to eat.

About 70 percent of Louisiana waters are now open to some kind of commercial fishing, but state waters in Mississippi and Alabama remain closed and so do nearly a quarter of federal waters in the Gulf.

Reinforcing the state's declaration that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. At a news conference in New Orleans, she said fish showed levels of contaminants that were "extremely low, significantly below the threshhold of concern."

Hamburg stressed that testing will continue because of the large volumes of oil spilled and the large amounts of dispersants used to break it up.

Seafood industry representatives hailed the reopening, but some fishermen couldn't work up much enthusiasm.

Oil rig workers are struggling along with fishermen because of a federal moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Those workers will be getting $100 million in aid that BP said Friday it will distribute through a Louisiana charity.

There is no official estimate of how many people have been out of work since the Interior Department imposed the moratorium in June. Drilling has since been suspended on 33 exploratory wells.

The fund is focused on people who worked on the rigs drilling those wells, not people who provided support services, such as ferrying supplies to them, said Mukul Verma, a foundation spokesman. Those people might get money if there is any left over after grants are provided to rig workers, BP spokesman Tom Mueller said.

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Photos: Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill

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  1. Dead fish float along the waterways at North of Point a la Hache Marina, La. on July 10. It is unclear what killed the fish and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries is investigating. (P.J. Hahn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The remains of a dead pelican are seen on Raccoon Island, the largest pelican rookery in Louisiana. Rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, it was home to more than 60,000 pelicans, but since the oil spill mature pelicans are scarce. Instead, there are thousands of dead birds and emaciated and abandoned juvenile and baby birds. (Andy Levin / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Monday behind Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. These workers were seen preparing to lay oil boom around an island in St. Bernard Parish, La. Wednesday. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The LaFontaine family of Waveland, Miss., find a horseshoe crab dead amid globs of oil on the beach of its town July 7. Numerous dead horseshoe crabs were found along the beach as their populations are thought to be declining world wide due to harvesting, gathering by humans and habitat destruction, like that caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Bevil Knapp / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Scientists are seeing early signs that the massive Gulf spill is altering the food web, by killing or tainting creatures that form the foundation of marine life -- such as this dead pyrosome, spotted June 17 by a University of California Santa Barbara team in an oil slick near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig -- and spurring the growth of others more suited to a fouled environment. (University of California Santa Barbara Department of Earth Science / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts a dead sea turtle into a garbage back at night on Orange Beach, Ala., on June 16. It is undetermined if the turtle death was caused by the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A dead crab sits among oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a beach in Grand Terre Island, Louisiana on June 9. (Lee Celano / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Biologists from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recover a dead dolphin off of Grand Isle. The scientists towed the dolphin to shore as a thunderstorm was approaching. Further testing will determine if its death was due to exposure to toxins from the oil spill. (Carolyn Cole / LA Times via Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A dead Northern Gannet covered in oil lies along Grand Isle Beach in Grand Isle, La. on May 21. A month after the well blowout and rig explosion that unleashed the catastrophic spill, sheets of rust-colored heavy oil started to clog fragile marshlands on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, damaging fishing grounds and wildlife. (Sean Gardner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A dead jelly fish floats in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on June 7 in the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice, La. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dead fish sit on a boom in place to help shield marshes impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pass a Loutre, La., May 22. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    P.J. Hahn / AP
    Above: Slideshow (11) Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill
  2. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  3. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  4. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  5. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  6. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

Video: BP to attempt ‘static kill’

  1. Transcript of: BP to attempt ‘static kill’

    AMY ROBACH, co-host: Now to the oil spill in the gulf, where efforts to plug the busted well have hit yet another setback. NBC chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is live in Venice , Louisiana , with the latest on all of that. Anne , good morning.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good morning, Amy . The problem is some debris that they found in the relief well after Tropical Storm Bonnie passed over, and so crews have been cleaning out that debris and they hope by perhaps Monday night or Tuesday to start the static kill. It's the first in a two-step process to permanently end the well that has harmed so much of the gulf. As crews at the leak site prepare to run the final section of pipe in the relief well, Bob Dudley , BP 's soon-to-be CEO, tries to reassure a suspicious Gulf Coast .

    Mr. BOB DUDLEY: We've had some good news offshore -- you'll know that -- but that doesn't mean we're done. We'll be here for years.

    THOMPSON: At his side, former FEMA director James Lee Witt , who will assist BP in the long-term recovery. But Dudley said with no more oil going into the gulf, it is not too early to scale back the massive cleanup.

    Mr. DUDLEY: Where there's no oil on the beaches, you probably don't need people walking up and down with hazmat suits. So you'll see that kind of a pullback. But commitment, absolutely no pullback.

    THOMPSON: Portions of Louisiana 's commercial fishing waters are reopened east of the Mississippi River , including some shrimp areas. Patrick Hugh hoped he could get back to work, but the waters he trawls are still closed. Readying his nets, Hugh worries that when he can fish again, the delicacies he catches will never be thought of in the same way and never bring a good price.

    Mr. PATRICK HUGH: People's not going to want to eat them. I -- you know, I would eat it -- you know, if they say it's safe, I would eat it, but a lot of people won't, you know. I mean, it's going to put a dent in us.

    THOMPSON: Trust it at the heart of rebuilding demand for Louisiana seafood and restoring the Gulf Coast , as the government's man in charge made clear in Florida .

    Admiral THAD ALLEN: We should not be writing any obituary for this event. Until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are clean, until the federal, state and local officials agree that the beaches are clean, we're still engaged in the fight and we need to stay engaged.

    THOMPSON: Now, there is some good news this morning for Florida . The government says, because there is no evidence that the oil has gotten into the loop current and because the oil is degrading, they don't expect the oil to have any impact on southern Florida , the Florida Keys , or the Miami-Fort

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