The Macondo well operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico has now been capped with a star adornment that commemorates the 11 people killed when the rig operating on the water surface above the site exploded on April 20. Clean-up efforts continue, though, all along the Gulf coast from Florida to Louisiana.
Speaking to reporters in a conference call, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft said workers had installed the cap on 8 Nov and completed testing to make sure the well is completely plugged. On top, he said, is a corrosion cap featuring an 11-point star, with each point representing a worker killed in the blast that led to the largest oil spill in history.
Zukunft said there is evidence of oiling along 939 kilometers of coastline, but he described most of it as light, with only around 41 kilometers being heavily oiled. He said more than 9,000 people are still engaged in clean-up operations with a special emphasis on restoring marshlands and beaches.
"Some of our more persistent oil is in that sand column on both recreational beaches and also on national park shorelines," said Zukunft. "In some cases it is either removed manually or we are using heavy equipment."
The Coast Guard rear admiral said the response team he leads is making a special effort to clean beaches that are frequented by tourists before the spring season begins in about five months. He said the effort to restore the shoreline involves state and local officials, as well as various federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which was the agency that capped the well.
Zukunft said determining when to finalize operations in any given area involves discussions with all interested parties. "We sit down with a number of trustees, it could be land owners, National Park Service, NOAA and others, when we reach a point where any further clean up provides no net environmental benefit. At that point we terminate that phase of the response. So that will really be the indicator of when we are done."
Zukunft said around 12 vessels remain at the site of the well disaster, including the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship and two others owned by the Transocean oil services company that owned the rig destroyed in the accident. The ships will move back to shore after being decontaminated. Other ships on site are involved in retrieving spill response equipment that remains on the seabed near the site.
Experts differ as to how much long-term damage was done to the Gulf region's ecology by the spill and the dispersant chemicals used to keep heavy oil slicks from reaching shore. Some scientists say oil in the water could affect fish embryos and other sensitive aquatic life for months or even years to come.
But other scientists cite studies done after the 1979 Ixtoc-1 spill in Mexico's Gulf of Campeche that showed little effect from the oil or dispersants in the years that followed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says only eight percent of the oil from the BP well disaster was treated with dispersants.