updated 8/4/2010 8:34:00 PM ET 2010-08-05T00:34:00

In the end, it was a crush of mud that finally plugged the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, three months after the offshore drilling rig explosion that unleashed a gusher of oil and a summer of misery along the Gulf Coast.

The government stopped just short of pronouncing the well dead, cautioning that cement and mud must still be pumped in from the bottom to seal it off for good.

President Barack Obama declared that the battle to contain one of the world's worst oil spills is "finally close to coming to an end."

Yet after months of living with lost income, fouled shorelines and dying wildlife, some Gulf Coast residents weren't so sure.

"I don't think we've finished with this," said 59-year-old Harry "Cho-cho" Cheramie, who grew up in Grand Isle, La. "We haven't really started to deal with it yet. We don't know what effect it's going to have on our seafood in the long run."

Still, it appeared there might finally be an end in sight to the disaster that closed vast stretches of fishing areas, interrupted the usually lucrative tourist season, and cost BP's CEO his job and the company's shareholders billions of dollars.

BP PLC said 2,300 barrels of mud forced down the well overnight -- an operation called a "static kill" -- had pushed the crude back down to its source for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana on April 20. The explosion killed 11 workers and began the spill that sent tar balls washing onto beaches and oil oozing into delicate coastal marshes.

Later Wednesday night, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said he approved BP's plan to begin forcing cement down the well, as long as it didn't delay work on the relief well. BP officials said they planned to begin pumping cement on Thursday.

And there was more seemingly good news: A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released Wednesday claimed that only about 30 percent of the spilled oil remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly. The rest has been contained or cleaned up or otherwise disappeared, and the report also said the oil no longer poses a threat to the Florida Keys or the East Coast.

But some independent experts said they were concerned that the government's method of estimating the amount was too simple for such a complex spill, and even government scientists cautioned the rosy numbers do not mean the Gulf is out of harm's way.

The containment effort -- and the cleanup -- aren't finished either. Federal officials said they won't declare complete victory until they pump in mud and cement from the bottom to seal the well, a procedure that might not be done for weeks.

"We're in a good place today, but we want to get it permanent over the near term, whether that's days or weeks," said Kent Wells, BP senior vice president, who repeatedly and pointedly avoided saying the static kill had finished the job. Asked when he will be able to say the well is dead, he replied: "I'm looking forward to that day."

An experimental cap had stopped the oil from flowing for the past three weeks, but it was not a permanent solution. Before it was lowered, the government estimates that 172 million gallons of oil had flowed into the Gulf.

And before that, BP tried a series of often-absurd sounding contraptions, raising hopes only to dash them when those efforts failed. They included a giant 100-ton containment box that got clogged with ice-like crystals and the so-called junk shot, an attempt to clog up the well with golf balls and rubber scraps.

The apparent success of the static kill had some along the Gulf curious about why BP waited so long to try it.

"I'm wondering, as smart as the people in the U.S. government are, they couldn't have done this sooner?" asked 78-year-old Willie Jones, a retiree from Baton Rouge, La., who sat in the shade in Pensacola Beach, Fla., while his wife and granddaughter ventured onto the white -- and oil-free -- sand.

But the static kill -- also known as bullheading -- probably would not have worked without the cap in place. It involved slowly pumping the mud from a ship down lines running to the top of the ruptured well a mile below, and a similar effort failed in May when the mud couldn't overcome the flow of oil.

Workers stopped pumping mud in after about eight hours of static kill work and were monitoring the well to ensure it remained stable, BP said.

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Charter boat captain Randy Boggs, of Orange Beach, Ala., said he has a hard time believing BP's claims of success with the static kill and similarly dismissed the idea that only a quarter of the oil remains in the Gulf.

"There are still boats out there every day working, finding turtles with oil on them and seeing grass lines with oil in it," said Boggs, 45. "Certainly all the oil isn't accounted for. There are millions of pounds of tar balls and oil on the bottom."

In the fishing town of Yscloskey, La., crabber Oliver Rudesill, 28, said he has been out of business like most of his buddies, some of whom are doing cleanup for BP instead but are earning about a quarter of what they do fishing.

"As soon as BP gets this oil out of sight, they'll get it out of mind, and we'll be left to deal with it alone," he said Tuesday.

Even politicians expressed concern that BP and the federal government will need to stay focused on the cleanup and long-term monitoring of the Gulf's marine life.

"This is a positive step," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, "But this crisis is not over for Louisiana until the well is permanently capped and our coasts and wetlands are fully restored to their pre-spill status and our people can resume their way of life."

Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Pensacola Beach, Florida, Mary Foster in Grand Isle, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Harry R. Weber on the Gulf of Mexico, Jason Dearen in Yscloskey, Louisiana, Annie Greenberg in Miami, and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: New Gulf controversy: Where’s the oil?

  1. Closed captioning of: New Gulf controversy: Where’s the oil?

    >>> to the oil disaster and the words we've all waited so long to hear. the coast guard said today that static kill operation to stop the oil flow is working and they do not expect any more oil to gush into the gulf of mexico . but there are plenty of questions about the government's claims about where all that oil went. nbc's chief environmental correspondent anne thompson joins us tonight from venice, louisiana. anne, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester . bp says the static kill is working extremely well, but tonight there's a new controversy over just how much oil is left in the gulf. 107 days after the leak to poison the gulf began, president obama delivered some good news.

    >> a report out today by our scientists show that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water.

    >> reporter: but many of louisiana's fishermen who still can't fish because of the spill find the government's claims hard to believe.

    >> i think they're jumping the gun way too quick.

    >> they should have never put the dispersant on to begin with. they wanted the oil to sink because you can't see it.

    >> they need to go to orange beach , alabama. it's pouring in.

    >> reporter: the report says 33% of the oil was recovered, burned or chemically dispersed. 25% evaporated or dissolved. 16% broken down naturally into microscopic droplets and 26% is on or just below the surface, washed ashore or collected from shore. that's more than a million barrels, four times the size of the exxon valdez spill . it is far less than smt doom's day predictions some say have happened but no reason to stand down.

    >> we want to be very, very clear that this does not mean there is more to be done. there remains a lot to be done.

    >> reporter: oil spills can take years to reveal their impact.

    >> we can't stop pursuing the answers.

    >> reporter: as alaska's chief environmentalist during the exxon spill, he saw the collapse of the herring in prince william sound .

    >> the documentation of the crash in the fishery was two years after the spill, the exxon valdez spill .

    >> reporter: so just because things are good today doesn't mean they'll be good a year from now?

    >> that's right.

    >> reporter: what is good today is the static kill. so far the heavy mud is holding back the oil giving the energy secretary confidence about the well.

    >> what we've seen is consistent with an undamaged well, that's good news.

    >> reporter: it certainly is. now, the next decision secretary chu, his team of scientists and bp has to make is whether to cement the well from the top or just do it from the bottom with the relief well. lester .

    >> anne, if so much of that oil has in fact disappeared, that's good news. at the same time, it raises more questions about these dispersants that were used. could that prevent some of these areas from being fished into the near future?

    >> reporter: well, they don't know that yet, lester . they say only 8% of all the oil that spilled was actually dispersed chemically by that, you know, though things that came down. but that is the big question. there's so much we don't know. and what are the long-term impacts of using that dispersant. how does it break down, what does it do to the food chain . those are all questions we're still waiting answers on.

Interactive: Interactive look at 'static kill'

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. 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
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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