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updated 8/18/2010 7:46:04 PM ET 2010-08-18T23:46:04

BP's image, which took an ugly beating after the Gulf oil spill, is recovering since the company capped the well, though the oil giant's approval level is still anything but robust. A majority of Americans still aren't convinced it is safe to eat seafood from parts of the Gulf or swim in its waters, a new AP poll shows.

Politically, President Barack Obama's rating on handling the nation's worst oil spill has nudged up to about 50 percent, the poll indicated. Fewer people now think the spill is a major national issue, and more support increased drilling in U.S. coastal waters than oppose it.

Safety remains a worry.

"Normally, I would go to the casinos and eat seafood, but now I'm going to be kind of skeptical of eating," said Samuel Washington, 44, who lives in Norfolk, Va., but also owns a home in Ocean Springs, Miss. "My biggest concern is whether or not they are really testing all the affected areas."

The poll results were released as BP on Wednesday afternoon began flushing drilling mud and hydrocarbons from the well sealing cap and the original Deepwater Horizon Lower Marine Riser Package and Blow Out Preventer. The flushing is in advance of a pressure test procedure that will study the well's BOP stack and sealing cap under ambient conditions. 

The poll showed approval for Obama's handling of the mess has risen from 45 percent in June, while BP's marks have more than doubled — from 15 percent to a still lackluster 33 percent. Some 66 percent of those surveyed continue to disapprove of BP's performance, down from a whopping 83 percent in June.

Government testing of Gulf seafood flawed, coalition says

More than half, 54 percent, said they weren't confident that it is safe yet to eat seafood from the spill areas, and 55 percent said they weren't confident that the beaches in the affected areas were safe for swimming.

Still, just 60 percent of those surveyed called the spill an important issue now, down from 87 percent in June. Only 21 percent said it would affect them and their families a great deal or a lot in the next year, down from 40 percent in June.

"At least it did get capped. It could have been done a whole lot sooner," said Deshon Jenkins, 33, of Arlington, Texas, who works in shipping and warehousing and was among those who said the spill would "not at all" affect his life.

Shrimper Patrick Hue of Buras, La., said BP has been hard at work. "You can't deny that," he said. "They got boats out here, they got people working. ... I guess they're cleaning up what they're supposed to clean up."

But Connie Bartenbach, owner of Rental Resources, a Mississippi company that specializes in vacation and corporate rentals, said BP "ruined our whole summer. They should not be let off the hook. ... There's no upside to this."

Between June and the week that the Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted, Aug. 11-16, BP capped the well, it was announced that gaffe-prone chief Tony Hayward was losing that job and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said most of the oil had dissolved, dispersed or been removed.

Those developments probably contributed to the improved public attitude, though the NOAA findings have been challenged by some ocean researchers as far too optimistic.

Whatever the case, it is clear is that the spilling of over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf no longer looms as a commanding political issue for voters heading toward midterm elections in November.

Voters are far more concerned about the economy, jobs and bulging federal deficits.

The poll showed that 48 percent favor increasing drilling for oil and gas in coastal waters, up from 45 percent in June. Some 36 percent said they opposed increased drilling, down from 41 percent. The rest didn't have an opinion.

The spill began after the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, operated by well owner BP and owned by Transocean Ltd., exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. Only the deliberate dumping of oil by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War ranks in the world as a larger spill.

For months, the spill riveted the public's attention as oil and gas spewed relentlessly from the ocean floor, fouling marshes and beaches and leading to the shutdown of fisheries.

Obama, who just prior to the spill had called for an increase in offshore drilling, struggled to demonstrate leadership and fend off GOP attacks suggesting the crisis was his equivalent of Hurricane Katrina.

As repeated attempts to cap the well failed, Obama expressed compassion with Gulf Coast residents and anger toward BP, delivered a prime-time address on the issue and imposed a drilling moratorium. He successfully pressed BP to set up a $20 billion liability fund.

Fishing and commercial shrimping activity has been resuming as the drilling of two relief wells, begun in May, nears completion. The first one to reach the damaged well will seal it from below with mud and cement. The flow of oil was cut off from the top in mid-July.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill, said Wednesday he has no timeline for ordering the completion of the relief well despite earlier plans to finish it by early to mid-August. Stormy weather and questions of how to mitigate potential risks in the procedure make it hard to set a firm date, he told reporters.

Mike Voisin, who runs a Louisiana-based oyster harvesting and processing business, said despite waves of anger directed at BP by the public, the company has succeeded in working well with local communities. "Did they make mistakes? Sure. Should they have been better prepared? Yes," Voisin said. He estimated his business took a 50 percent hit "but we'll work our way through it."

"With more than half of the American people still worried about swimming in the Gulf or eating its seafood, we must be vigilant about monitoring the spill and its continued effects," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Markey heads a House panel on energy and the environment that is holding a hearing Thursday on seafood safety and where the oil went.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,007 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Conflicting reports on oil clean-up

  1. Transcript of: Conflicting reports on oil clean-up

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're going to begin here tonight in the Gulf of Mexico , specifically with a reality check on just how much of the oil released into the water from that BP Deepwater Horizon well is still there. As you may know, the government's been reporting that only about 25 percent of the oil from that spill remains. But is that at all accurate, and, in plane English, did anybody really think 90 days worth of crude oil was just somehow slowly vanishing? Our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is in Venice , Louisiana , for us once again tonight. Anne , good evening.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good evening, Brian . You know, at the heart this is a numbers game. And all sides on this issue admit no one knows for sure exactly how much oil is left in the Gulf of Mexico , but tonight there are clues about where some of it has gone. Pictures of an increasingly blue gulf seem to support this Obama administration claim two weeks ago.

    Ms. JANE LUBCHENCO (NOAA Administrator): The vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed and recovered from the well head or dispersed.

    Mr. CHARLES HOPKINSON (University of Georgia): And that leaves, you know, 70 to 79 percent.

    THOMPSON: But today, researchers from the University of Georgia say their calculations don't support that conclusion, in part because they claim oil doesn't break down that fast.

    Mr. HOPKINSON: The idea that 75 percent of the oil is gone and is of no further concern to the environment is just absolutely incorrect.

    THOMPSON: The Georgia group insists more than half the oil spill , from 2.9 to 3.2 million barrels, is still in the gulf, far more than the nearly 1.3 million barrels the government estimates. Today in a statement, the government defended its oil budget, saying it was based on, quote, "direct measurements whenever possible, and the best available scientific estimates where direct measurements were not possible." So where is the oil? Researchers from the University of South Florida say they found some of it in microscopic droplets, underneath the surface and on the floor of the gulf, in far larger quantities than anticipated and in an area they didn't expect.

    Mr. JOHN PAUL (University of South Florida): We were surprised at how far east the oil had gotten, because this was about 40 miles from the Pensacola area.

    THOMPSON: Even though you can't see it, the unseen oil is still a threat. Not directly to people, but to the very basic elements of the food chain .

    Mr. BOB KIBLER: These are all identified.

    THOMPSON: Researcher Bob Kibler found benzine levels of up to 1,000 times higher than allowed in the mud of Louisiana 's Four Bayou Pass , an area that nurtures a variety of living creatures. Things such as?

    Mr. KIBLER: Such as the small plankton, the small bacteria that are taken up by the oysters, that are taken up by the shrimp, and eventually work their way up the food chain .

    THOMPSON: And that's what concerns both independent scientists and the government alike, that no matter how you calculate the oil budget, that the true impact of this spill won't be known for years to come. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Anne Thompson starting us off once again from Venice , Louisiana , tonight. Anne , thanks.

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