Time to scale back oil spill clean up, says BP chief

The massive effort to clean up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill must be scaled back now, BP's new chief executive officer said today.

Tens of thousands of people - many of them fishermen - have been involved in the clean up, but more than two weeks after the leak was stopped there is relatively little oil on the surface, leaving less work for oil skimmers to do.

Bob Dudley, who heads BP's oil spill recovery and will take over as CEO in October, said it's "not too soon for a scale back" in the clean up, and in areas where there is no oil "you probably don't need to see people in hazmat suits on the beach".

He added, however, that there is "no pullback" in BP's commitment to clean up the spill.

Dudley was in Biloxi, Mississippi, to announce that former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt will be supporting BP's Gulf restoration work.

Meanwhile, efforts to permanently plug the gusher hit a snag when crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that must be fished out before they can pump mud into BP's damaged well in a procedure known as a static kill.

The sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Tropical Storm Bonnie.

They found the debris as they were preparing for the static kill and now they have to remove it. They had hoped to start the static kill as early as Sunday, but removing the debris will take 24 to 36 hours and likely push the kill back to Tuesday.

"It's not a huge problem, but it has to be removed before we can put the pipe casing down," said retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government's point man for the spill.

After the static kill comes the bottom kill, where the relief well will be used to pump in mud and cement from the bottom of the broken well and hopefully cut off the oil permanently.

The well blew out in an explosion in April and spewed between 94 million gallons and 184 million gallons into the Gulf before a temporary cap stopped the flow on July 15.

With the northern Gulf of Mexico still largely off-limits to fishing, BP's clean up programme has been the only thing keeping many fishermen working.

Losing those jobs would make the region all the more dependent on the cheques BP has been writing to compensate fishermen and others who have lost income because of the worst offshore spill in US history.

Many people have complained about long waits and other problems in processing claims, and Dudley conceded that BP lacks expertise in handling them. He said the company hopes to turn that work over to an independent administrator soon.

"It's because of that lack of competence on our part ... that we want to bring in a professional," Dudley said.

Suggestions that the environmental effects of the spill have been overblown have increased as oil has disappeared from the water's surface, though how much of the oil remains underwater is a mystery. Dudley rejected efforts to downplay the spill's impact, saying: "Anyone who thinks this wasn't a catastrophe must be far away from it."

BP is hiring Witt, FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, and his public safety and crisis management consulting firm.

Witt said he wants to set up teams along the Gulf to work with BP to address long-term restoration and people's needs.

"Our hope is that we can do it as fast as we can," Witt said. "I've seen the anguish and the pain that people have suffered after disaster events. I have seen communities come back better than before."

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