A procedure intended to ease the job of plugging the blownout Gulf well for good could start as early as the weekend, the government's point man for the spill response said Thursday.
The so-called static kill can begin when crews finish work on the relief well 50 miles offshore that is needed for a permanent fix.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said crews would drop in the casing for the relief well later Thursday, and that could speed up work on the static kill, though he did not say how much. He previously said it would begin late Sunday or early Monday.
Crews will pump heavy mud down the well though a temporary cap and failed piece of equipment called a blowout preventer. If the well casing is intact, the mud will force the oil back down into the natural petroleum reservoir. Then workers will pump in cement to seal it.
The static kill is on track for completion some time next week. Then comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement; that process will take days or weeks, depending on whether the static kill works.
Allen also said Thursday he had what he called a very frank and open discussion with coastal parish officials concerned that the Coast Guard and BP will pull back from the spill response once the oil is stopped permanently.
"You know these parish presidents, no one held anything back," he said.
He said they'll work together to come up with a plan by next week for how to clean up any oil that might continue washing up on beaches and in wetlands.
The temporary cap has held in the oil for the last two weeks, and Allen said crews are having trouble finding patches of the crude that had been washing up since the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people.
Before the well was capped, it spewed anywhere from 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. No one knows for sure how much of that oil might still be lurking below the surface, but most of what was coming ashore has broken up or been sucked up by skimming boats or burned.
"The oil that we do see is weathered, it is sheen," Allen said.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said as he arrived for the meeting that it's clear the cleanup effort is being scaled back even though oil is still showing up on the coast.
He said his biggest fear is "they are going to start pulling back. They say they are not but already they have canceled catering contracts, they've stopped production of boom at factories."
Barring a calamity, the oil won't start flowing again before BP PLC can permanently kill the well, which could happen by mid-August. Allen said the Coast Guard expects oil to keep showing up on beaches four to six weeks after that happens.
In Orange Beach, Ala., Jack Raborn said he didn't see any tar balls when he went to the shore Wednesday with friends and family. But when they entered the ocean, he said, the water was tainted.
"It feels like you've got diesel fuel on you. It's sticky," said Raborn, 49. "I was optimistic before today. I'm really disturbed by what I found once we got in the water."
A report by the National Resources Defense Council found oil still fouling beaches even after the gusher was capped July 15. Since the spill started, beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle have been closed or slapped with health warnings more than 2,200 times, the council found.
Allen said once oil stops for good, the Coast Guard may start redeploying some of the 11 million feet of boom, 811 oil skimmers and 40,000 people that have been part of the oil spill response. Many of the workers are fishermen who have lost their livelihoods because of the spill.
Allen also said there is now little chance that any of the spilled oil will reach the East Coast, and the odds will go to zero as the well is killed.