Now that the well that spewed oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig for three months has been plugged, the federal government is completing agreements with states, including Florida, on defining "how clean is clean."
The agreements — which do not involve BP — would set up a checklist for each area where oil washed ashore, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal incident commander overseeing the disaster. The checklist would define how much more needs to be done before an area is declared officially clean, he said in a conference call Monday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.
In some areas, he said, the cleanup may have to leave some oil behind on beaches and marshes. As part of the checklist, he said, the states and the federal government will agree on a point at which they will say "you've done as much as you can and trying to do anything further could cause more damage."
Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Amy Graham said that at this point it "is too soon to tell at this time when cleanup operations will no longer be needed. Florida wants the beaches returned to the condition they were in before the oil spill. This means the removal of all oil and oil byproducts to the maximum extent possible."
Scientists from the University of South Florida have found that even on cleaned-up beaches there are still tiny tar balls and layers of oil up to a foot below the surface. Some coastal marshes may be impossible to clean without crews stomping the fragile grass. There have already been complaints from Louisiana about cleanup crews trampling nesting bird colonies and driving across sensitive dune areas.
As of Sunday, about 672 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline was still classified as "oiled," which can mean anything from dime-sized tar balls to brown waves washing liquid crude ashore. The state-by-state breakdown shows about 375 miles in Louisiana, 117 miles in Mississippi, 72 miles in Alabama, and 108 miles in Florida.
Tar patties up to 7 inches across washed ashore at Topsail Hill State Park in Walton County on Sunday, and tar balls washed ashore near Destin on Monday.
Though the well has been capped, Allen predicted, "I think you're going to be dealing with periodic oiling of the beaches for some time to come." So even after the cleanup checklist is completed, he said, "if the beach is re-oiled, you will come back and clean it again."
Creating those checklists and signing agreements with the states are part of a push to convert the federal government's oversight of the disaster from its current crisis-response mode to one that would be focused on the long-term cleanup and recovery of the region, he said. He predicted that would take place around Oct. 1.
Allen acknowledged the continuing controversy over BP's use of chemical dispersants. The company sprayed 1.84 million gallons of dispersants, an unprecedented quantity. Of that, 771,000 gallons was sprayed directly at the wellhead, the first time anyone has used dispersants beneath the surface.
"It was all legal," Allen said. "The EPA had approved it."
But the Coast Guard and the EPA told BP to cut back its dispersant use because of pressure from Washington, he said, explaining "there was obviously some political nullification of the use of dispersants."
Now, he said, the government "owes it to the American people" to determine whether the decision to allow the dispersant use was the right one.
"What we don't know is the impact of the amount of dispersants that were used," he said.
As the spill crisis winds down, Allen acknowledged that Deepwater Horizon has shattered all prior theories about how a spill would occur and how it could be cleaned up.
Instead of a single slick, he said, "we were dealing with hundreds of thousands of patches of oil" that stretched from Port St. Joe to the parishes of southern Louisiana. That wasn't at all what was in the oil spill response plans of both the government and industry.
Allen predicted that Deepwater Horizon will alter how drilling plans are approved, with the Coast Guard getting a bigger voice.
"This is going to change dramatically how we review these in the future," he said.
Allen has been dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster since the day it exploded April 20, and he said the lessons learned from the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history included the need for an independent government estimate on flow rate right from the start. BP's initial estimates proved to be far off the mark.
Another lesson, he said, is to better coordinate the air traffic. By June, the swarm of government and press planes and helicopters zooming around the spill site had produced eight midair near-collisions, he said. Allen persuaded President Barack Obama to establish a command post at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach to take control of the airspace.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster marked the first to use so many private contractors, Allen noted, and he said coordination proved difficult under those circumstances.
"It would be a crime on top of a crime not to learn from this experience," he said.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.