WASHINGTON, July 28, 2010 (AFP) - The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster reached the 100-day mark Wednesday with hopes high that BP is finally on the verge of permanently sealing its ruptured Macondo well.
But years of legal wrangles and probes lie ahead and myriad questions remain about the long-term effects of the massive oil spill on wildlife, the environment and the livelihoods of Gulf residents.
|Ships assist in clean up and containment near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill July 27, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.AFP|
If BP needs a reminder of the long legal road ahead as it tries to rebuild its reputation, one will be provided on Thursday as lawyers at a session in Boise, Idaho set the stage for a potential trial of the century.
Proceedings will examine whether complaints from around 200 plaintiffs can be consolidated and give trial lawyers a test run of the arguments they will make during what could be years of legal action.
US officials were anxious to avoid being too optimistic ahead of next week's crucial operations and cautioned that a mountain of work lay ahead to clean up oiled shorelines and pick up some 20 million feet (3,800 miles) of boom.
"I would characterize this as the first 100 days. There's a lot of work in front of us," said Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, the on-scene coordinator. "We are not out of the woods yet, we still need a permanent kill."
BP aims to start the "static kill" on Monday, pumping heavy drilling mud and cement down through the cap at the top of the well that has sealed it for the past two weeks.
Five days later a relief well should intercept the damaged well, allowing engineers to check the success of the "static kill" and cement in the area between the drill pipe and the well bore.
This so-called "bottom kill" should finally plug the reservoir once and for all, but it will not answer how the catastrophe was allowed to occur and who is responsible.
While the last surface patches of toxic crude biodegrade rapidly in the warm waters of the Gulf, the long-term impact of what is thought to be the biggest accidental oil spill ever may not be realized for decades.
As the focus shifts to the clean-up in the marshes and beaches of the Gulf coast, so it does to the US Justice Department investigation and state probes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that a team has been established to examine whether the notoriously close ties between BP and federal regulators contributed to the April 20 disaster.
The "BP squad" will also probe rig operator Transocean and Halliburton, the oil services company which had finished cementing the well only 20 hours before the rig exploded, the Post reported.
BP announced Tuesday it would replace gaffe-prone British chief executive Tony Hayward with Bob Dudley, an American, in a bid to repair its tattered US reputation.
It also posted a quarterly loss of 16.9 billion dollars and set aside 32.2 billion dollars to pay spill costs, including a 20 billion dollar fund to pay compensation to the battered fishing, oil, and tourism industries.
Once the well is sealed, US spill chief Thad Allen plans to shift resources to focus on picking up boom, cleaning oiled shores and testing for any hidden underwater plumes.
To that end he has called a meeting on Thursday morning with parish presidents to discuss the redeployment of the army of local conscripts.
Sophisticated underwater operations involving fleets of robotic submarines at brain-crunching depths will make way for the less glamorous but equally complex work of Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Teams, SCATs for short.
They will sign off mile-by-mile on the 638 miles (1,027 kilometers) of Gulf Coast where oil has washed ashore.
The beaches should be relatively painless to mop up, but cleaning up the maze of marshes, where there is nothing to stand on and shallow-bottomed boats are needed to navigate the narrow channels, is a logistical nightmare.
Geologist Ed Owens, a world authority on protecting shorelines from oil spills contracted to BP, told AFP on Monday that the marshes should recover in months and the impact of the oil was "quite small."
But other leading scientists have warned of a decades-long effect on marine life that could lead to a shift in the overall biological network in the Gulf of Mexico.