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TRANSCRIPT: Operational Update with FOSC Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, NOAA's Sam Walker, Steve Lehmann

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Paul Zukunft:     Well good morning, this is Admiral Paul Zukunft, and today is the 176th day of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, in fact, a week from today, we will hit the six-month milestone.

Also in the next day or two, we'll hit the three-month milestone since any oil was released out of the well site.  And so where that leaves us today is we still have 16,200 people out doing active response operations in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and in Louisiana.

Some of our more challenging areas continue to be what we call amenity or recreational beaches along the Florida panhandle, and in Orange Beach Gulf Shores where some of that oil had actually aggregated into that sand column.  And so we're doing a rather deep clean, if you will, of that sand to restore those to original conditions.

And then we have the Barrier Islands, especially off the coast of Mississippi, some of those still have the oiling, so we have a number of teams out working on the islands of Petty Boy, Ship Island, Horn Island, Cat Island doing cleanup operations there.  And again, we continue to do extensive cleanups, we have out of that 16,000 people, over 10,000 of them are in the State of Louisiana working in some of oiled marshlands, and some of that is proving to be very labor intensive, and time consuming work.  But again, the response operation continues.

We're also looking at seafood safety.  This last Friday, I went out on a – on a trawler where we actually – we did a couple of haul backs, and then we delivered that fish to a lab in Pascagoula, a NOAA lab.  And then it went through a very extensive testing process, and this is in an area that's already been reopened.  But we go back for a period of four weeks, continuing to do seafood sampling in those areas to, again, validate that that seafood is in fact safe for human consumption.

And it actually went through the process where we have trained specialists that do the century analysis of this, and this is where they actually used their olfactory nerve to smell raw fish tissue, and that would – that's everything from shrimp, oysters and the tissue itself, not the shell, not the – not the mollusks, but the flesh.  And then it's heated, and then they go through that process again, and then it's tasted.

But the point I wanted to make is that these individuals can detect hydrocarbon down to .5 parts per million, actually more accurate than some of the instruments we use to detect hydrocarbon.  Then it's also run through a chemical analysis as well, so we've done – run over 6,000 samples.  Out of all of those, only two samples had a positive sensory hit, none of those had any positive instrument hits.  But again, that seafood sampling process is still very aggressive, and we've reopened over 60,000 square miles of the more than 80,000 square miles that were closed earlier on in this spill.

And we're pretty far along in two other areas that we have a lot of sampling data that may be reopened in the near future.  But again, that effort continues.

And then we also have the sampling activity that's taking place subsea in the water column, and then on the seaport itself in those sediments.  Today, there's four oceanographic research vessels out doing that work.  And again, a lot of that information is preliminary, still needs to go through a more analytic rigor, and I have Dr. Sam Walker here, who's – I'll turn this over to him right now to talk – give you an update on where we are with our subsea monitoring program.

Sam Walker: Thanks, Admiral.  So just a quick update, today, as the Admiral mentioned, there's still a very aggressive program underway.  Back in August, the unified command performed what would be considered a gap analysis of the existing needs for both the water column and for sediments in the – in the deepwater regions in the offshore sort of on the continental shelf, and then in the near shore environments.

So we are about 70 percent finished with that effort based upon you know the scientific – the scientific need.  And so we continue to do that work.

The sediment work in the near shore environment is going very well, that's being done by shallower draft vessels, so there's quite a few VOOs that are actually involved in that as well.  And then we have conducted some very near shore work up on the beaches and in the marshes as well, looking at areas that were pre-impact as well as post-impact.

And so the next portion of the effort is actually in the analytical laboratory facilities, and that's ongoing as well.  So these samples don’t come in all in one big you know sort of container, they come in iteratively over the course of the sampling.  And so that's something that we have to keep in mind in terms of being able to analyze those things, they don’t – they don’t all come in at once.  And so we have to wait you know sometimes several weeks for an analytical result to come back, and then combine that with subsequent or previous results in order to render a true conclusion about the conditions either on the sea floor or in the water column.

So as we continue to do that, those results will be made available, there is an onsite team here that performs analysis.  And there's additional oversight for certain elements of that from external groups that – from the academic sector, for instance, who can – who can weigh in on the – on the results.

I just want to give you a sense for the magnitude of effort to date, and this is since the – since the spill began, and our response on the subsurface.  We've had over 125 dedicated cruises, and most of those are multiday cruises.  That's a tremendous amount of days at sea, it's over 850 days at sea, that's a tremendous amount of scientific effort that's been put forth.

Over 31,000 samples have actually been taken, and those include both the – looking for hydrocarbons, looking for disbursements, and measuring those against human health indicators, as well as ecological indicators.  So this is a very, very large effort that spans a good portion of the Gulf, including those areas that the Admiral mentioned for seafood safety and fisheries work.

The other thing I wanted to point out just quickly as well in terms of the magnitude of effort is that within this subsurface monitoring effort, we had folks representing over 23 states within the U.S.  And so these are people drawn from all over you know fellow citizens, and those from other countries as well, at least five other countries represented in this effort.  So it's – it just kind of gives you a sense of the depth and breadth of the expertise and the groups that are involved in this effort.

As we move forward here, we expect over the next couple of weeks to actually be able to really provide some solid results on a couple of key indicators that I mentioned before.  The (PAHs), so whether their exceedance is there based upon the EPAs thresholds.  Exceedances of the public health measures also set by the EPA, and then looking at evidence for disbursement breakdown products.  And those are the things that we're targeting in those three nearshore, offshore and deep water environments.

And so those are the things you can expect us to update on as we move forward here over the next couple of weeks.

Rob Wyman:  Operator, at this time, we'd like to go ahead and open the line to questions.

Kaska Nlimasinska:      Hi, thank you, this is Kaska Nlimasinska from Bloomberg News.  I just have a question, how much longer do you think the oil spill response will last?

Paul Zukunft:     That'll vary by location, this is Admiral Zukunft.  We have what's called shoreline treatment recommendations, and we work with – work with state and a number of other stakeholders to determine at what point the cleanup reaches a point where no further treatment is recommended.  And we typically reach that point where any further cleanup has no net environmental benefit, so that'll vary location by location.  I envision there will probably be some areas along the shoreline where we'll have cleanup operations going on through the winter, and others that will close down here within a matter of weeks, if not within another month or so.  But I – there will still be ongoing activity going on through the winter months, just it'll depend on the conditions and the progress we're able to make.

Rob Wyman:  Next question, please.

Operator:   Your next question's from the line of Vivian Kuo with CNN.

Vivian Kuo: Hi there.  I was just wondering if you could repeat, you mentioned earlier that you had gone on a trawler to do some seafood safety testing, and you said that – was it that over 6,000 samples were tested at the Pascagoula lab, but only two of those 6,000 had positive sensory hits?  Is that right?

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, some of those were actually – it was 6,306 was the exact number to date that we've run.  A lot of this work had been done in the NOAA office in Seattle, they have since moved some of their sensory equipment – their instruments down to the lab at the NOAA office in Pascagoula.  But between the two, we've run over 6,300 samples, and again, out of all of those, we had two positive hits for hydrocarbon, and no positive hits using chemical analysis.

Also worth noting that in part of those sensory protocols, there are samples that are intentionally spiked with traces of hydrocarbon to, again, just validate the effectiveness.  This is very scientific, I know there are some people that were skeptic about this sensory analysis, having seen the work, the protocols in place, it is science in the true sense.  But again, only two hits out of those 6,300 samples.

Vivian Kuo: And so what was done with those two samples after that?

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, those were further sampled, and then determined to be what we call false positives.  So again, it – given the number of samples, that, again, is a very low rate, but those two actually proved to be false positives.  Two weeks ago, on that note, there was a question about various types of species, and how they're tested.  There's over 50 different species of seafood that go through this process.  Again, it depends on the location of where that's drawn, for example, if they're a highly migratory species, such as tuna, further offshore, and then (ground) fish closer in shore.  But one question in particular was with shrimp, and so I did want to see what was being done with the shrimp analysis.

But the shell is removed, and it's just the tissue itself in its raw form.  They're not deveined, and those are the samples that are run through this sensory and chemical analysis.

Operator:   Your next question is from the line of Kate Bradshaw with WMFR.

Kate Bradshaw:    Hi, thanks for taking my question.  I was wondering, I just read that there is a 250 square mile dead zone near the Chandelier Sound, and how does the size of this compare with what's there every year?  And how likely is it that it's been exacerbated in one way or another, either directly or indirectly by the oil disaster?

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, I have Steve Lehmann here, he's our Scientific Support Coordinator with NOAA, I'll turn that question over to Steve Lehmann.

Steve Lehmann:    That – you know the size of that varies from year to year, it's a function of a lot of the nutrients that come down the Mississippi, and it's usually a shallow water event.  We don’t have any indication that there's a – there's a relationship between the current area of hypoxia, which is an area of low oxygen, and the response or the – or the spill.  We're measuring it pretty carefully, but that's a – that's a well documented, well-known phenomenon in the area.

Rob Wyman:  Next question, please.

Operator:   You have a follow-up question from the line of Kaska Nlimasinska Bloomberg News.

Kaska Nlimasinska:      Yes, thank you, I just wanted to specify what (inaudible) term means, do you think the cleanup might last until January or February?  And where specifically will it be the longest?

Paul Zukunft:     Can you please repeat that question?

Kaska Nlimasinska:      Yes, this (inaudible) question on how long the cleanup will last.  So ...

Paul Zukunft:     OK.

Kaska Nlimasinska:      ... you said it will continue through winter, do you mean like until January or February?  And where specifically you think?

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, that will be, again conditions based.  Yes, we – when we go through the shoreline treatments, we actually have specialized teams, they're called shoreline cleanup assessment teams, and they'll go mile by mile.  We – today, we have 557 miles of oil impacted area that still needs to be assessed, and then rendered clean, if you will. 

And until we complete that, but it's not a decision that I make unilaterally to say you know we've reached that endpoint, it really is dependent upon the various trustees to acknowledge that any further cleanup activity would in fact possibly case more environmental harm than benefit.  So it will be very conditions based, so very difficult to put a time and effect.  I'm reluctant to do so, because as soon as you put a date on it, people have the expectation that we're drawing down the response.  So it's a very active external outreach to work with these trustees, and gain their concurrence that we've reached the end of that phase of the cleanup.

And now when that portion of the response ends, there's a very long-term process called a natural resource damage assessment that then approaches what do we need to do to restore the environment, the shorelines, the areas that were impacted?  So as the response ends, restoration then takes over, which is a very time consuming process, there's still restoration activities taking place up in Prince Williams Sound from Exxon-Valdez.  So again, very conditions based, that, again, it doesn’t lend itself to putting a calendar date on it just yet.

Operator:   Your next question is from the line if Ryan Dezember with Dow Jones Newswire.

Ryan Dezember:    Hello.  I just had a quick question.  The beach cleanup in Orange Beach Gulf shores and the Florida beaches, what exactly are you guys doing there?  Are you sifting, or is it any kind of chemical use?  What's going on there?

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, we're using – we're doing mechanical cleanup, and in fact, there's two pieces of machinery that did not exist prior to this oil spill, they've been dubbed as sand sharks.  It's reconfiguring an asphalt piece of machinery that can go down up to a meter deep, and then it will sift sand and remove all tar from that sand.  It immediately deposits the clean sand on the beach, then segregates any oil tar sediment that may be in there.  Of course, it also removes any sand shells, which those tend to be a little bit deeper down in the sand column, but that’s the process that we're using to clean those beaches out on the recreational beaches.

Operator:   We have time for one more question from the line of Peter Kent with The American Independent.

Peter Kent: Yes, good morning.  Are you aware of the ambient pressure test that was conducted on August 12th through the 20th at 0100 hours, the pressure is 2,500 PSI, the pressure then rises 50 percent to 3,700 PSI at 0300 hours.  The entry for 0500 is missing.  When the log resumes at 0700, the pressure is down to 2188, but remains identical for the next 13 entries, which would indicate a blowout on August 19th.  Were you aware of that data?

Paul Zukunft:     No, that would be data that would be at our – at BP Houston, and again, this – the focus of this phase of the operation is really on the – on the oil spill response itself.  So if that data exists, that would actually reside back in Houston, not here at the – at the Unified Area Command.

Operator:   I will now turn the call over to Rear Admiral.

Paul Zukunft:     Yes, my only closing remark is that you know we continue to respond, and again, we're approaching the six-month phase of this.  And again, it's been nearly three months now since we've had any new oil introduced, but if you look at what a traditional oil spill has been you know this is anything but that.  Typically, if you look at it an Exxon-Valdez, or some of the other large oil spills, those are generally instantaneous releases, and then it's a very long cleanup process.  What we had during this spill was we had 87 consecutive days of a major spill reoccurring day in and day out.

So during that phase, we were clearly in a – in a – in a crisis.  We're still calling this emergency response, but more along the traditional lines of that we're now dealing with the last release of oil, and then where that oil impacted.  And as we've seen in past spills, that proves to be a very time consuming, labor intensive process.  And what's different about this is now we have oil that's in a very deep water column that we're looking at tracing down.  Right now, those – the highest concentrations we're seeing in that water column is in the parts per billion, but also it's had an impact on seafood safety, and right now we're seeing no indications that there's polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in that seafood.  But still, there's a stigmatism applied, and inappropriately, to the Gulf of Mexico seafood industry.  As I've said, and will continue to say time and again, it is the most sampled seafood anywhere on the face of the earth.  The science, and I've seen it on a first hand basis, is thorough, it's comprehensive, and so that's – those are some of the hardships that the Gulf of Mexico residents are trying to recover from right now, especially those who make their livelihood harvesting seafood, and then dealing with the image of that.

So again, we're very concerned about that image, and we'll continue that effort, again, offshore, and then on the – on the monitoring process, and clearly on the shorelines where we still see oiling.

Rob Wyman:  Thank you, everybody, for dialing into today's call.  Let me remind you that information about the ongoing response efforts is available via the Web site at www.restorethegulf.gov.  Also, if you have any follow-up questions, you can reach the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center at 713-323-1670.

Thank you for dialing into today's call.

 

 

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