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Transcript – Press Briefing by Federal On-Scene Coordinator Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft

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Paul Zukunft:        OK, good afternoon everybody.  This is Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, Federal on-scene coordinator and I've down here for over 3-1/2 months now and I've been overseeing the response aspect of this operation. 

In my operation and in Admiral Allen's, we're split between surface and subsurface.  Admiral focused primarily on controlling the source of the spill whereas I was dealing with the recovery of oil and then removing it from the shorelines as well. 

So where we are today, I just returned from Bay Jimmy where we have one of our divisions working under the Venice branch which is in Plaquemines Parish.  This is one of eight locations in these marsh areas where we still have residual oil which is a very labor intensive effort but we're able to get into some of these areas using some of the technology that actually was – came to surface.

We used a Schafer skimming system by Mr. Schafer from Plaquemines Parish that invented this vaccum device where we can get adjacent to that marsh, remove oil.  But we have about 600 people just working at this site alone today down at Bay Jimmy.

Those folks live out in the floating barge, a flotell as we call it, but so there was concern earlier now that the well is dead, where do we go forward.  We haven't any oil released since the 15th of July.  We continue to respond to these pockets of oil.  They are basically job sites now where we still have residual oil and 600 miles of coast line that is still affected.

When people think coastline, you normally think the straight coastline of a Florida panhandle.  When you get over here in Louisiana, its back in marshes and estuaries and very remote locations so logistics is our challenge but again there is still plenty of work remaining.

They have about 23,000 people in this response effort as I speak today.  What we did earlier this week was we consolidated our headquarters function and we consolidated the headquarters functions in Houma, in Mobile combine them in with the Unified Area Command in New Orleans.

What that did was it drew down about 1,800 people that work in a headquarters oversight capacity to minimize our footprint.  It has also streamlined our internal communications and that’s moving ahead quite smoothly.  

So besides the oil that’s on the, in the marshes and on the beaches of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi our other area of focus is what’s below the surface.  I have Dr. Sam Walker with NOAA and they’ve been an integral part of this operation from day one as has the scientific community.

Just as it was science that came up with the solution to shut in this well and deem it effectively dead it’s also science we have called upon here as we look at what is in that water column.  What’s in those deep sea sediments and does it oppose a risk to sea food safety and for the safety of the United States.  So I’ve asked Sam Walker to provide an oversight of our subsea monitoring program and then at that point I would be happy to entertain any questions.

Sam Walker:          Thank you Admiral.  This is Sam Walker with NOAA and I’m just going to run down a couple of the key points in terms of our status with our subsurface monitoring.  We’ve been conducting this since late April as a matter of fact and monitoring the sub surface with respect to dispersant use there.  But subsequent to the well being capped we’ve continued to do that work both in the deep water but also on the shelf, on the Continental shelf and then in the near shore areas.

And so that’s a very comprehensive expanse all the way from the shoreline into the deep water.  And what we are trying to get a handle on is you know what is the form of oil if any that remains and can we take action against that oil.  And so we are doing that with a series of different technologies.  We are using surface vessels that monitor down through the water column.  We’re using ocean gliders that help to check presence of hydrocarbons in the water column.

We’re also taking sediment cores on the sea floor itself and having those analyzed so we’re looking at things comprehensively.  And as the Admiral has pointed out on numerous occasions as has NOAA’s administrator Dr. Lubchenco you know there are in fact places where oil still resides particularly in the near shore area where it’s being entrained in sediments, and so we’re very aware of those.  We are also trying to look a little bit more comprehensively in the deep water based on some reports from academic vessels here in recent weeks.

And so we are responding to that we’re in contact with those University researchers and making sure that we’re going back and revisiting the same places.  One thing to keep in mind is that the time line upon which these samples can be returned from a lab in order to render a result about the source of that oil is a little bit longer than what we can do on a daily basis.

So sometimes it takes a week or more to return those data sets but what we can do is on a daily basis talk about the number of samples that have been taken the number of vessels that are deployed in order to take these samples and then also return back a presence or absence of oil at those locations.  But what we can’t do on a daily basis is immediately turn around a result for the source of that oil.

But what we can say is that over the past couple of months since the well has been capped we’ve been seeing a very clear trend of diminished concentrations particularly in the water column.  We are down into the parts per billion range now which is not actionable for this source oil but we are continuing to track that and that’s a natural transition into the Natural Resources Damage Assessment phase of this incident which is different than the response.

And so we’re working very closely with our colleagues in that part of the phase to indicate to them where we’re seeing these traces so they can continue their work for ecosystem assessment over the long term and that’s a really critical point in terms of transitioning in this incident.  The other thing that we’ve been doing is continuing to actively engage the academic community particularly here in the Gulf. 

We’ve been working with researchers from states all across the Gulf including those at USF and Texas A&M, at LSU, Southern Mississippi; these are academic institutions that are well respected.

And bring tremendous expertise to the table, just for example right now we have the chief scientists on the NOAA ship Pisces, that have been involves they’re from Texas A&M.  That’s David Valentine, he was actually in the press here the other day talking about his missions.

So we’re bringing that expertise on board as we have all summer to help guide some of our sampling.  The other technologies that I mentioned briefly are really autonomist vessels and so we’re using ocean gliders some of you have had exposure to those technologies before.

But they allow us to work in sort of a sentinel mode where as the surface vessels are doing very explicit sampling through the water column.  And so ocean gliders tend to be used up on the continental shelf and they would look for presence or absences of hydrocarbons.

We’ve been doing that all summer long, but the particular focus on the West Florida shelf is there’s concerns about oil being entrained there in the loop current.  And also on the shelf along the northern Gulf Coast, we’ve had very little indication of cross-shelf transport.

So that’s a key message because that’s what we’re looking for is that concern about transport from deeper water into the near-shore environment, where humans could come in contact with it.

And the last point I’ll make before I turn it back over to the Admiral or take questions, is we’re also working closely and continue to work closely with the fisheries community.  Both, the Seafood Safety Component and the Fisheries Closures group as well within the national fishery service.

And so we’re making sure there are data in the subsurface monitoring is shared with those groups to help inform their decision making.  So I’ll be happy to take any questions along with the Admiral.

Operator:               At this time if you would like to ask a question press star one on your telephone key pad.  We’ll pause for a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Your first question comes from the line of (Tom Fowler) with the Houston Chronicle.

(Tom Fowler):       (Taking my question), this is a question about dispersant, my understanding was as I remember it – was remembering it that the dispersement stops – stop the use of it of weeks ago.

But I keep reading online a couple different news sources that are using antidotal reports from some boat owners and so forth saying that they’re spotting people still out there doing, doing – using dispersant and given in certain sites, maybe not on the aerial sparing and so forth.

But, just wanted to get a clarification on the use of dispersants, and if it’s still being used in limited cases or what the status is of that.

Paul Zukunft:        Thank you obviously happy to take that question, the last time we used dispersants were on July 19th on that day we used 200 gallons of dispersant out at the well site.  Because we had a high POC levels, but that’s the last time we’ve used dispersant.

Certainly in the public awareness has been peaked throughout this spill, and we’re very wary of that as well.  They’re also been several fish kills due to hypoxia which is a natural recurrence, this time of year where there’s low oxygen levels.

But again the last time that we used dispersants coincident with this spill was on the 19th of July.

(Tom Fowler):       And that’s for – including as far as you know that BP and other contractors as well as the Coast Guard and the other vessels of opportunity that were involved.

Paul Zukunft:        Yes as the federal on-scene coordinator all of those applications of dispersant, each and every one, whether it’s subsea or surface, whether it’s from an airplane or a vessel are approved by me in consultation with the EPA and so the vessels of opportunity do not have the autonomy to use dispersant and really there is no one out there in the field right because we have not had any recoverable oil and sheening since on or about the first of August.

Male:                     OK, thank you. 

Operator:               Your next question comes from the line of Mark Chediak with Bloomberg News.  Mark your line is open.

Mark Chediak:      Yes, I'm speaking hello can you hear me?  Hello?

Paul Zukunft:        Yes Mark we can hear you. 

Mark Chediak:      OK, yes I was trying to get the spelling of Sam Walker's name last name and his title. 

Sam Walker:          Yes, I can take that, this is Sam Walker, the last name is spelled W-A-L-K-E-R.

Mark Chediak:      OK and your title?

Sam Walker:          Well I'm here within area command, I'm coordinating the subsurface monitoring unit. 

Mark Chediak:      OK thank you, that’s all I had.

Operator:               Your next question is from the line of Bettina Boxall with Los Angeles Time.

Bettina Boxall:      Hi, thank you Sam could talk a little bit more about what is being found in the sediments and how you think they became – the oil became bound up in the sediments and what quantities we're talking about and exactly where you're finding that.

Sam Walker:          Yes, I'm happy to take that question so maybe I'll take it from the how it gets there is probably the most natural place to start.  So there are a couple different ways oil can be entrained in sediments certainly in the near-shore environment that’s driven largely by the natural energy of waves and the tides. 

So if you're in a place where you have sandy sediments this is the most likely place you would find oil entrained.  And we – you know we have good sense of where those are just based upon soil mapping you know in the near shore environment.  So in particular you're seeing – you're seeing like sandy beaches and trop areas and things like that. 

But typically the way that oil is entrained is two primary functions.  One is it gets captured on sediment, like I was just describing or it has a particular molecular construct that makes it heavier and makes it you know it's natural buoyancy is then impaired so it would – it would actually sink in the water column. 

That tends to be a very small fraction of most hydrocarbons.  And this particular source oil, it's something on the order of about one percent of the total volume of this source oil would have those sorts of properties, but because dispersant was used in the subsurface you know that’s probably somewhat less. 

And so those are typically the two ways that you would find it in sediments.  And then you know one thing to keep in mind as well is that as Admiral pointed out even when you find oil it has to be actionable in a way that’s not damaging to – further damaging to the environment so there has to be a balance in the net environment impact before you could actually take action.

And so we evaluate those things when those opportunities arise.  And that’s very important so thinking about you know what it would take to remove oil at 5,000 feet is not an insignificant equation. 

Bettina Boxall:      And so this oil bound in the sediment is near shore though in shallower waters I take it?

Sam Walker:          Well so I mean you know we are definitely finding oil there, we have been throughout this incident right and so what we're trying to do is narrow that search target so that we can – we are moving along the shore in a very systematic manner right now using a couple of different methodologies.

So for example we're using absorbent pads where we're actually pressed down into the sediment in the near source environment, we're using snorkeling teams that are actually visually looking, we're using something called *fluorometry*, which is you know an instrument that measures hydrocarbon presence in the water column. 

And we're also using the Snare Sentinel Program which you know uses almost like a pom-pom looking device to indicate the presence and absence of oil.  So we're being very systematic in the near shore environment so that we can narrow down our search window and then we can make tactical decisions and the Coast Guard can make tactical decisions about where to deploy resources to help clean up that oil.

But that’s a very different environment than in the deepwater.  And in the deepwater you know you can't send out a snorkeling team at 5,000 feet to look for oil.  So we have to use different technologies and so we're using high resolution cameras on ROVs.  We're using what is a classic tool in oceanography which is a sediment coring device at depth and then bringing those samples to the surface where they're visually inspected.

They're also run through the gas chromatograph, mass spectrometer, which is you know which is a way to analyze data, chemically analyze data very quickly.  So that we have a screening process that’s right there on the ships to indicate presence, absence and concentration.  But I think a really important point to take away here is that in order to establish the source of that oil we have to do additional chemical analysis.

And so just because we're finding oil you know the responsible thing to do here on the scientific side but also in terms of response is to ensure the source of the oil.  And so we're doing a couple of other things to meet that need.  We're mapping – continuing to map and characterize from a chemical standpoint a lot of the natural seeps that are in the source area within about a 30 kilometer ring. 

We're working with a number of federal agencies, NOAA working with a number of other federal agencies like the USGS to map those out using acoustics and then actually capturing samples from those natural seeps so that we can help distinguish between the different sources in the primary area of interest. 

Bettina Boxall:      Thank you.

Operator:               Your next question is from the line of Dan Vergano with USA Today.

Dan Vergano:        Thanks very much, I was wondering if Sam could say anything about the deep sea plume reports from some academic researchers a few weeks ago, I think they were in the parts per million they said for June when the one plume was sized.  I wondered does anything you found say anything about that?

Sam Walker:          Dan can you be a little bit more specific about which reports because you know. 

Dan Vergano:        There was a report in Science Magazine that said sort of the size of a plume from the spill…

Sam Walker:          Right.

Dan Vergano:        (Inaudible).

Sam Walker:          I don’t want to speak for you but you're most likely referring to the Woods Hole study that…

Dan Vergano:        Yes that’s right.

Sam Walker:         Got that right?  OK.  So you know certainly NOAA's position long standing position on academic research is to respect the independence of it.  We worked very closely with Chris Reddy who is one of the primary authors on that report.  In fact he was just here at area command as our academic liaison that’s a position that we've established here for quite some time. 

And you know so we respect the results of their study, went through the peer review process.  The thing to really keep in mind is that that report was published in Science about two months after the date it was actually captured.  And it was actually published you know subsequent to the well being capped.  And so the results of what they you know what they found were actually relevant to a timeframe that was several months prior.

And you know (Chris) and (Rich Commily) who were the primary authors there made that very clear in their press conferences and so the evidence that they had was supported by a lot of other vessels sampling at the same time.  What we can say is that in subsequent weeks, months really since they've been out there we are continuing to find lower and lower and lower concentrations. 

And so we're going back and revisiting a lot of the areas where these early cruises were done and we are not finding the concentrations that they found.  The sub surface oil that’s indicated there is much more dispersed and so – I mean I think they’re work is perfectly valid. 

You know we support their work and others of independent research but it really needs to be kept in mind this is an incredibly dynamic environment that we’re talking in the Gulf.  And the 5,000 feet of water column you have a lot of currents moving around, you have a lot of different processes that are taking place on both the chemical side and the biological side that change that equation on a – you know even a minute-by-minute basis.  So that’s why …

Male:                     So there’s no sign of that kind of cloudy concentration of plume currently that’s all gone according to what – now.

Paul Zukunft:        Well it is – yes, the concentrations that they were reporting from June are not indicated in any of our sampling here over the past couple of months certainly, since the well has been capped.

Male:                     Very good thank you.

Operator:               At this time, we will only take two more questions.  Your next question comes from the line of Paula Dittrick with Oil &Gas Journal.

Paula Dittrick:       This is a question for Sam I was wondering if the oil ever got in the loop current there have been some concern early on about that and then it sort of dropped by the way side.

Sam Walker:          Well certainly you know the surface expression that was shown early on you know I tend to focus my work in sub surface so I’ll just speak to you know what is certainly available in the public realm.  But surface trajectories that we shown is the official maps to the response you know did indicate some entrainment in the loop current but that tends to be a surface express type phenomenon so. 

 Oil that makes it to the surface and maintains that buoyancy would not at all be expected to get back into the sub surface and find its way down into the sediments or something like that.  I’m not sure if that’s speaking directly to your question. 

What I can tell you is that we’ve had a number of very explicit cruises that came up from the floor to straits that worked along both the continental shelf and also into the deeper water where the loop current in fact is down. 

And you know they reported to the unified command on a daily basis and throughout those two cruises that were done in August we had no indication from those vessels that they were finding oil in the sub surface.

Paula Dittrick:       Thank you.

Operator:               Your next question is a follow-up from the line of Mark Chediak with Bloomberg News.

Mark Chediak:      Hi, can you hear me?  Hello.

Sam Walker:          Yes, we can hear you.

Mark Chediak:      OK, yes, just a follow-up question regarding the consolidation of headquarters.  Where are the headquarters being consolidated?  And didn’t I hear that 1,800 people were – had left the scene of the result of that, is that correct.

Paul Zukunft:        That is correct we located on 1250 Poydras Street.  So we consolidated two headquarters functions where we started to see redundancy in our purchasing functions or logistics functions so we were able to cut back a number of people that way.  And then also we centralized our joint information center so for those that are looking for updates there really is a one-stop shop for you.

Mark Chediak:      And that’s at New Orleans, is that correct?

Paul Zukunft:        That’s in New Orleans that’s correct.

Mark Chediak:      OK thank you.