NEW ORLEANS – Tropical Storm Bonnie left crews working to plug the Gulf oil gusher a little memento that is expected to push their work back about a day.
Crews found debris in the bottom of the relief well that ultimately will be used to plug the leak for good, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Friday. The government's point man on the spill said the sediment settled in the relief well last week when crews popped in a plug to keep it safe ahead of Bonnie.
"It's not a huge problem," Allen said, but removing the debris will take 24 to 36 hours and likely push a procedure known as a static kill back to Tuesday. Earlier that work had been expected to begin late Sunday or early Monday.
The static kill involves pumping mud, and possibly cement, into the blown-out well through the temporary cap that has kept it from leaking for more than two weeks. Then comes the so-called bottom kill, in which cement pumped in from below the leak using the relief well will plug the gusher for good. The better the static kill works, the less time it will take to complete the bottom kill.
The blown-out well could be killed for good by late August, though a tropical storm could set the timetable back.
After an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers, BP's blown-out well gushed an estimated 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil before the temporary cap stopped it July 15.
There are signs that the era of thousands of oil-skimming boats and hazmat-suited beach crews is giving way to long-term efforts to clean up, compensate people for their losses and understand the damage wrought. Local fishermen are doubtful, however, and say oil remains a bigger problem than BP and the federal government are letting on.
Others contend the impact of the spill has been overblown, given that little oil remains on the Gulf surface. Bob Dudley, who heads BP's oil spill recovery and will take over as CEO in October, rejected those claims Friday.
"Anyone who thinks this wasn't a catastrophe must be far away from it," he said in Biloxi, Miss., where he announced that former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt will be supporting BP's Gulf restoration work.
Relatively little oil remains on the surface of the Gulf, leaving less for thousands of oil skimmers to do. Dudley said it's "not too soon for a scaleback" in the cleanup, 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.
There had been fears that the massive spill could reach South Florida and the East Coast through a powerful Loop Current, but federal officials said Friday that earlier reports that some oil had reached the current were wrong.
A new analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed most surface oil in the Gulf had degraded to a thin sheen. What remained on the surface and below was hundreds of miles from the Loop Current.
Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle will likely be spared any additional major beach oiling, although tar balls could wash ashore, NOAA said. Louisiana's coast was the most likely place where oil could still make landfall.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco cautioned that scientists will continue studying the potential effects of the subsurface crude.
"Diluted and out of sight does not mean benign," she said. "But in those concentrations there will be minimal impact to the big things that are out in the ocean, big fish, big marine mammals, birds."
She said scientists still don't know the oil's environmental effect underwater.
For help with the long-term recovery, BP has hired Witt and his public safety and crisis management consulting firm. Witt, who was FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, 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."
BP and Witt's firm refused to say how much Witt will be paid for his work.
Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, were allowed back on a section of Louisiana waters east of the Mississippi River on Friday after federal authorities said samples of finfish and shrimp taken from the areas were safe to eat.
About 70 percent of Louisiana waters are now open to some kind of commercial fishing, but state waters in Mississippi and Alabama remain closed and so do nearly a quarter of federal waters in the Gulf.
Reinforcing the state's declaration that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. At a news conference in New Orleans, she said fish showed levels of contaminants that were "extremely low, significantly below the threshold of concern."
Hamburg stressed that testing will continue because of the large volumes of oil spilled and the large amounts of dispersants used to break it up.
Seafood industry representatives hailed the reopening, but Rusty Graybill, a boat captain from Ysckloskey, La., who fishes for crab, oysters and shrimp, said "it's a joke."
"I'm pretty sure I'll go out and I'll get oil-covered shrimp. They capped this well and now they're trying to say it's OK," he said.
Graybill, a wiry 28-year-old with a leathery tan, made a 2-inch circle with his thumb and finger. "I'm still finding tar balls this big out there, and the boom is still covered in oil," he said.
Oil rig workers are struggling along with fishermen because a federal moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Those workers will be getting $100 million in aid that BP said Friday it will distribute through a Louisiana charity.
Harry Weber reported from Biloxi, Miss. Associated Press Writers Jason Dearen in Ysckloskey and Kevin McGill and Brian Skoloff in New Orleans contributed to this report.