Gulf Oil Spill: 50 Days Into Crisis, Where Do Things Stand?

Adm. Allen tells ABC's Diane Sawyer about limits on government's response.

June 8, 2010, 3:45 PM

June 8, 2010— -- On this, the 50th day since the oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said that the federal government has been aggressive with its response, but acknowledged room for improvement.

In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Allen shared the difficulties the government still faces as it copes with a disaster that has already put millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and soiled hundreds of miles of coastline.

"We need to flatten and streamline this and cut the cycle time from when oil is sighted until we get a response team on it," Allen said.

A flow chart detailing the National Incident Commander's support organization gave some indication today of the bureaucracy that's already involved in the cleanup effort.

The chart shows 13 agencies involved in the response effort, as well as three sub-departments, including the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The chart, dated June 6, shows a maze of responsibility, all leading back to Adm. Allen himself.

"It's not easy to go from town to to town and see the level of frustration and the anger of the American people out there," Allen said. "I worked on the water all my life. [...] And I completely empathize with the folks down there having such a hard time. That's the reason it's very critical that we bring unity of effort to this entire thing."

When pressed about why boats remain docked along the coast, unused in the cleanup effort, Allen defended the government's actions.

"Diane, we qualified over 2,600 vessels of opportunity and in the last couple of days, for example, in Alabama, we've deployed over five or six hundred. It's a matter of reconciling the type of boat, the operator competency, getting them trained and reconciling them with the equipment. We're actively doing that," he said.

BP and the government said they were able to collect some 620,000 gallons of oil on Monday using the containment cap device, up from a 460,000 gallons on Sunday.

Though authorities say that they're now collecting anywhere from a third to three quarters of the oil that is coming out of the damaged well, no one can truly be sure because a precise measurement of the flow rate is still unavailable.

When asked today whether the flow could be as high as 60,000 barrels per day, Allen said he simply didn't know.

"Everything we know and everything we see is through either the remote sensors or remote-operated vehicles that are like looking through a particular keyhole at a particular time," Allen told Sawyer.

A Coast Guard team has been assigned to nail down the rate of the leak. Underwater video shows inky oil still billowing out of the damaged well.

For the first time today, the federal government acknowledged that some of the oil that has already gushed into the ocean has not risen to surface but instead remains deep below in huge, undersea plumes.

Scientists have been warning of the plumes since mid-May, but thus far, both BP and federal officials had denied their existence.

"There aren't any plumes," BP CEO Tony Hayward said on May 30, echoing his company's suggestion that the oil would rise to the surface.

And back on May 17, NOAA dismissed university researchers' claims about plumes as "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."

Today, NOAA acknowledged a different reality.

"NOAA is confirming the presence of very low concentrations of subsurface oil," said administrator Jane Lubchenco. "The bottom line is yes, there is oil in the water column.

Tests confirm that oil collected from undersea plumes 40 nautical miles northeast of the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident has the same oil "fingerprint" as that which is gushing out of the well. Even in low concentrations, oily water threatens marine animals by depleting the ocean's oxygen content.

But despite weeks of warning about the threat of oily plumes, government authorities didn't seem to be prepared to deal with a crude problem that can't be skimmed off the surface.

"We have not generally done subsurface responses," Adm. Allen told a news conference today. "In my own personal experience, I have not dealt with it."

BP Encounters Criticism Over Claims

As for BP, the company announced today that it will donate net revenue from the oil recovered from the spill to help fund wildlife recovery efforts. At current recovery rates, that would amount to about $1.1 million per day.

The company has also promised to pay all "legitimate claims" related to the spill.

Today, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley called on the National Guardsmen to help spread the word that the condo owners, fishing captains and others are all eligible to apply for compensation from BP, Adm. Allen said

The company says it has already spent $49 million on claims, but across the Gulf, tens of thousands of workers and business owners whose livelihoods have been affected by the accident say they're now running out of money, waiting for checks from BP.

On top of that, many are now learning that payments for lost revenue will not be based on what would have been a big season this year -- they'll be based instead on the last three years.

For many fishermen and other Gulf Coast workers, they had been awful years, with paychecks battered by the effects of Hurricane Katrina.


"Well, we have to start somewhere," a BP spokesperson told ABC News today.

BP says that 90 percent of claims paid so far have gone to individual workers, the rest to businesses. Business owners say they've been required to turn over a mountain of paperwork, keeping track of taxes, receipts and other records.

Boat welder Bill Farmer says he has already lost $45,000 in business, but he and others refuse to let BP get away by paying a tiny claim.

"They have the same fears I have. What if we settle for a little bit and this impacts us for the next five years?" Farmer said.

Hayward to Appear Before Congress

BP also said that CEO Tony Hayward will appear before a congressional subcommittee on June 17 to testify about his company's role in the spill, where he's sure to face pointed questions and criticism.

Today on Capitol Hill, a brother of a man killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion already had a message for Hayward.

"I want to take the opportunity to address recent remarks made by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP," said Christopher Jones, the brother of Gordon Jones. "In particular, he publicly stated he wants his life back. Well, Mr. Hayward, I want my brother's life back."

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ABC's Dan Arnall and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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