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TRANSCRIPT: Operational Update with USCG Adm. Zukunft, NOAA's Sam Walker

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Paul Zukunft: Well good morning. Thank you for joining me. And I'll just give you an overview of where are as we're – today we're just two weeks out from where we'll reach a point where it will be six months since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon.

So nearly six months later where are we today? Our response organization, we've got over 18,500 people continuing to do operations. We have just over 21,000 feet of boom deployed. All of that boom is actually in the state of Louisiana. We have another roughly 250,000 feet of sorbent boom deployed and again all of that in Louisiana as well.

And we're down to just over 500 vessels of opportunity, but I'll start from the west and work east. So if you look at one point we had an incident command in Galveston where we had some tar balls washing ashore. That was closed down on the very early part of September. We've had no further tar ball activity over the Texas area.

And we've had little to no activity as we work our way across Cameron Parish. We have cleanup activity ongoing in La Fourche Parrish. On the shoreline there and then as you get into Barataria Bay we still have some residual oiling on the marshes there.

And then continuing east on what they call the (bird foot) of the Mississippi River delta and Louisiana and Plaquemines Parish we still have a considerable amount of cleanup activity ongoing there. We have 15 floating barges that are accommodations for several hundred people working down in that part of the region.

As we work our way across the Mississippi we've got the Barrier Islands of Mississippi, (Cat Island), (Horn Island), (Ship Island), (Petty Boy Island) that did have significant oiling early on in the spill and so we have tantamount to amphibious operations teams go out there during the day by boat and then they work those shorelines during the day.

And then we have beach cleaning operations that are occurring across Gulf shores, Orange Beach, across Pensacola and then along the Florida Panhandle. And what we're seeing over there is oil that when it came to shore some of that settled into the sand column and so we're using various types of machinery that didn’t exist before this spill to remove that oil that's aggregated into that sand column on the beach.

And then finally what we're dealing with is the remaining oil, if you will, and that's our subsea monitoring program. We have eight research vessels that are a flotilla supporting that operation as we continue to do data gathering in the water column. They had great depth sediment sampling of the ocean floor out at the well site and then moving towards shore.

And then a number of sentinel snares, these are basically crab pots that are located in that inner-tidal area looking for tar balls. And so a lot of that is still preliminary data. I have Sam Walker on the line. He can talk to that, as well. And then the final aspect of the operations is the shoreline treatment recommendations that actually get to the point where we sign off that any further treatment has no net environmental benefit.

But we still have just under 600 miles of shoreline that we need to reconcile through that process. And then finally we have 20 decontamination sites set up for some of this boom and the sorbent that's being removed and we're trying to move as much of that sorbent boom – we've made arrangements with a number of waste energy programs that it could be used for co-generation and then we've even worked with General Motors that is using some of that damaged plastic boom so that can be recycled and it's actually being used for vehicle bumpers.

So again we're trying to minimize our solid waste footprint, if you will, from some of the equipment that we've used down range. With that I'll turn it over to Sam Walker who can talk about what we're doing offshore in the subsea monitoring program.

Sam Walker: Thank you Admiral. This is Sam Walker with NOAA. So I'm just going to run through sort of an update we've talked about this over the last couple of weeks and I'll just run through a quick update on the sort of near shore offshore deepwater environments. Those are the three basic zones where we're continuing to work in the subsurface.

So we're looking at both the water column and in the sediments themselves. In the deepwater environments and on the shelf we are using the multi-coring device since that enables the capture of multiple samples simultaneously so that they can be analyzed by different groups. I think I've mentioned before that at least one of those samples from each site will be provided to the Gulf Academic Research Community for independent analysis so that’s a nice construct that we have continue to work with the academic community.

In fact I'm calling today from St. Pete in Florida. There's a principal investigator's conference being heard here right now to talk about the transition from really incident natural resources damages assessment phases of this response. And so I'm having an opportunity here to really interact with a lot of – a lot of academic folks that have been working on this spill to date.

Just as an example in terms of the progress we're making, in the near shore environment last week we were just about 1,170 sediment samples have been taken in the near shore environment, this week we're up to a little bit over 1,300. There's still approximately 300 sites that we have identified through a very explicit set of rationale that will be visited here over the next couple of weeks.

And so we're anticipating meeting the stated need based upon the scientific evidence sometime in the next two to three weeks, wrapping that up. And as those sampled are analyzed then any additional work that may need to be taken up can be – can be evaluated by the – by the command.

Also on the water side we continue to work although we're only finding hydrocarbons in the water column in parts per billion and parts per trillion so it's really becoming dilute, continues to do so. We still continue to sample in the offshore environment and in the near shore environment as well so that we can continue to inform those tactical decisions that the Admiral speaking to a couple of minutes ago.

One of the other things that we've had take place here in the last week is the USGS vessel the Gilbert has come online, it's capable of doing a lot of sediment sampling in the near shore environment so we're glad to have that additional federal partner onboard and that resource available to us.

The other thing that I would also just remind everybody of is that these data are being exposed a couple of different places; they're being exposed through the National Oceanographic Data Center which is one of NOAA’s data archives and also through GeoPlatform ,which hopefully is a site that’s familiar to everybody. It’s the common operating picture that’s being used for the response.

So you can sort of watch our progress against the stated need for this subsurface monitoring as we move forward. And that’s a quick summary for now and I'm glad to take some specific questions if there are any.

Operator: At this time I would like to remind everyone in order to ask a question please press star then the number one on your telephone keypad. We'll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster. Again if you would like to ask a question please press star then the number one on your telephone keypad. One moment. Your first question comes from Erik Stokstad with Science Magazine.

Erik Stokstad: Hi Dr. Walker can you say what you're finding in the sediment so far? I think last week there was a press conference saying that sort of (vessels) had not found signs of oil in the sediment, any update?

Sam Walker: Right so thanks Erik, the – a couple things to just be reminded of – when the vessels are performing their work what they do on a daily basis is provide a sort of an operational report from the field so it's much more qualitative in nature. Those samples actually have to be taken to a lab then and run through you know much more robust chemical analysis.

And that takes some time and it's usually something on an order of about two weeks just given the volume of samples that are in the Gulf right now coming through a lot of the labs. So we will be able to give a much more explicit update next week on quantitative measures. But what I can say is that you know just from the daily reports that are coming from the chief scientists onboard is they are not finding evidence of heavily oil sediments and we are looking in a lot of places in the Gulf right now.

But you know where the greatest potential for oil to have made it to the sea floor. We have gone back and visited a couple of sites that were identified by academic research community, we've gone explicitly back to those sites so we have – not simultaneous, but coincidence cores from those locations so they'll be evaluated.

We've also been able to get a what was called a split sample so actually taken from the same physical sample and that material is actually split from several academic researchers as well so that we can look at the exact same piece of evidence and run those analysis independently so you've got confirmation from multiple sources.

Erik Stokstad: OK, I wait for a follow up.

Operator: Again if you would like to ask a question please press star then the number one on your telephone keypad. One moment. Your next question comes from Eileen Fleming with National Public.

Eileen Fleming: Hi Mr. Walker, last week I believe you said that you were testing in areas not the same places that the University of Georgia found oil or said they found oil on the ocean floor. Are you looking in those same areas now? And could you give more – some – I guess some more numbers on exactly how many samples you're taking and what results are showing?

Sam Walker: Sure, well yes well last week I don’t – I don’t think I said anything specific myself because I was on vacation but we did – we did in fact go back to eight of the original 16 sites that were – that were – that were sampled by the University of Georgia.

And as I said just a couple minutes ago, we do not yet have the final analytical results back. And as far as I know the University of Georgia analytical results are not – are not finalized yet either. We have not seen – we have not seen those. So it does take time and you know this is not a process that can happen, it's not like a – it's not like a pH test or something where you can just sort of you know monitor it right there on the spot.

You actually have to go through a chain of custody and it's a very specific process in a laboratory. So we are going to their sites and we have been back to them already. We're just waiting for the actual data to come back from the laboratory. Then in terms of numbers with respect to the sediments and I'm sorry Eileen I'm not sure if you're asking just about those locations. But just I'll give you a sense in the deepwater environments. Excuse me.

There are about 475 total sites that were identified just here in the last month or so as primary target areas for sediment sampling. But overall you know we're you know up into the thousands in terms of numbers of samples that have been taken from sampling cores, both in the near shore, on the shelf and in the deeper water environments. And again you can go to GeoPlatform and see that progress against the stated need.

Operator: Once again if you would like to ask a question please press star then the number one on your telephone keypad. One moment. At this time there are no further questions. Gentlemen do you have any closing remarks?

Paul Zukunft: Yes, I just have one. This is Paul Zukunft and the work that Sam is doing you know with NOAA is in collaboration with the academic and National Science Foundation. On these research vessels we do have a number of other academic and National Science Foundation marine scientists.

And as we look at what samples like we've seen from the University of Georgia the objective here is to have a common data set so we can provide consistency and reporting as we go forward with this effort offshore.