WASHINGTON -- Damage from the massive oil spill off the southeastern coast of the United States will take "years" to repair, according to the U.S. government official overseeing the containment operation.
U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has briefed President Barack Obama on the latest efforts by BP to reduce the amount of oil gushing from its Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months,” Allen told reporters after the meeting. “After that it will be taken care of. The long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years."
Allen said the giant containment cap that was placed over the well last week is keeping up to 1.75 million liters of oil a day from leaking into the Gulf.
The good news is that that number has been increasing over the past few days, and BP says it thinks it can double the amount of captured oil within a few more days.
The bad news is that the ruptured pipe is still leaking as much as 3.8 million liters of oil a day, according to official estimates.
Obama on June 7 said the economic impact of the disaster "is going to be substantial and...ongoing."
But he expressed confidence that the environmental nightmare of the gushing oil well, now in its seventh week, could be stopped and the damage repaired.
"This will be contained. It may take some time. And it's going to take a whole lot of effort,” Obama said. “There is going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast and there is going to be economic damage that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for. But the one thing I'm absolutely confident about is that as we have before, we will get through this crisis."
A patchy slick of thick, viscous oil now spans 160 kilometers across the Gulf of Mexico, stretching from Louisiana to Florida. Some 193 kilometers of shoreline have been affected and fishing is off-limits in fully one-third of the Gulf's once rich waters.
The devastation wrought on the region's wildlife has been heartbreaking and unrelenting. Brown pelicans and seagulls struggle to escape pools of the thick oil. Sea turtles and dolphins choke on and succumb to the dark, sticky poison that now pollutes their once-pristine habitat.
The Coast Guard's Allen characterized the situation as "no longer...a monolithic spill," but "an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil."
He added, "We need to adapt to meet that threat."
The clean-up effort now involves hundreds of small boats that are using skimmers to capture oil on the water and scores of people on the coastline working to rescue injured wildlife and clean up the globs of tar washing ashore.
The relative success of the containment cap has provided the first hopeful news in weeks after previous attempts to slow or stop the flow failed, including the much anticipated "top kill" approach.
But the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history will only be stopped when two relief wells are completed, expected sometime in August.
The odds are high that the wells will succeed in halting the geyser of oil boiling up from deep inside the earth, but that's at least two long months from now.
Obama acknowledged the painful waiting time. "Even if we are successful in containing some of much of this oil, we are not going to get this problem completely solved until we actually have the relief well completed, and that is going to take a couple more months,” he said. “We also know that there is already a lot of oil that's been released and that there is going to be more oil released, no matter how successful this containment effort is."
BP posted an update on its website saying that one of the four vents on the containment cap had been successfully closed.
As for the other three, "The New York Times" reported that a technician involved in the effort said closing those is unlikely. The reason is "both because the surface ship [is] nearing the 15,000-barrel limit of the amount of oil it could process and because of concern that closing more vents would create more pressure that would force the cap off."
BP said that it so far it has spent $1.25 billion since the oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.
The Obama administration, which last week opened a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident, said it has sent BP and "other responsible parties" a preliminary bill for $69 million.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the total cost of cleanup and recovery, plus penalties, could reach "many billions of dollars."
written by Heather Maher with material from agency reports