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TRANSCRIPT: Operational Update with FOSC Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft

 Click here to listen or download the MP3 teleconference

Operator: You may begin.
Rob Wyman: Good morning, everyone, my name’s Lieutenant Commander Rob Wyman.  I’m the public information officer for the Deepwater Horizon response unified area command located in New Orleans Louisiana.
  Today’s call is with Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, Z-U-K-U-N-F-T, the Federal On Scene Coordinator and it’s to provide you with an update of the ongoing operations and recovery efforts.
  We’ll open the call with remarks from Admiral Zukunft and after that we’ll open the line to questions.  If you would, initially, please start with one question and time permitting, we will have follow ups.  Thank you.
Paul Zukunft: Good morning.  Today is the 182 day and nearly closing in on the sixth months since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  I’m sure it’s a date that’s very poignant for the families of the 11 crew members who were lost and then subsequent to that, the triggering point for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  And so over the last six months, where we’ve been, we’ve hit a peak of up to 48,000 people and upwards of 6,000 boats employed per day responding to this oil spill.  And where we are today, we’re down to just over 13,000 people and about 280 boats, but continuing to respond to residual oiling that still stretches from Florida to Louisiana.  In doing what we’re – what is a very deep clean, if you will, right now, out in the Florida panhandle and in orange beach, gulf shores, we actually kicked off what we call operation deep clean and that is to get the oil sediment out of that sand and literally sweep the beach, mile by mile, using mechanical devices and have that work done by the end of this calendar year because those beaches are very critical to the economies of those coastal communities, many people make their travel plans after the first of the year and we want to insure that those travel plans do include those beaches and that we return those to pristine conditions.
  We’re also working on the barrier islands of Mississippi.  This is very much an amphibious operation on those barrier islands and then we continue to work the marshes and the wetlands within Louisiana.  In fact shortly after this press conference I’ll be heading out to Bay Jimmy, I’ve been out there on a number of occasions and that’s probably – you know that’s become the poster child, if you will, of our oil marshlands and it’s a very persistent oiling that’s out there.  it’s in that marsh grass, very time consuming, tedious to be able to remove that but we’ve been working that site since right around memorial day, which is again, consistent with any spill of this magnitude.  What characterized this spill is that we had 87 consecutive days of a major spill regenerating itself.  And so even though it’s been three months since we’ve had any oil released, we continue to have active operations across the Gulf of Mexico.
  And then we continue with our sampling efforts offshore, looking in the water column, working – looking at the sea floor itself where we have now gathered thousands of samples.  The highest concentrations of hydrocarbon that we are seeing in the water column is now at about 0.5 parts per billion and really stretching the upper limits of the sensitivity of our instruments in the same concentrations we’re seeing in some of the sediments.  The sediment sampling data is still very preliminary.  We do have a number of research vessels out there that are continuing to work a very elaborate grid system that we have to sample across that entire area.
  And then finally we have the seafood safety on this past Friday, another 6700 square miles were reopened to federal fishing.  So at its peak we had nearly 90,000 miles closed to fishing in federal waters and today that number is down to 16,000.  And even as those waters are reopened for a period of four weeks there continues to be sampling activity conducted in those areas.  So again, the – this continues to be the most aggressively sampled seafood and we’re not finding any positive indications of hydrocarbon in the seafood that has been sampled to date.
  So that’s an overview of where we are six months into the spill and still there is much more work to be done.  I know on our last call there were a number of questions of when will you be done and it really is what conditions need to be met before we can pin down that final endpoint, if you will.  And it’s really based on conditions, not on a calendar and that will depend on local stake holders concurring and collaborating that any further clean up activity would cause environmental harm and not benefit.  so we’re being very careful as we look at the nearly 560 miles that remain oiled that we treat those that are in an environmentally friendly area and that we return those areas to as clean a condition as possible.  So with that, I’d be happy to entertain any questions.
Rob Wyman: Operator, at this time we’d like to go ahead and open the lines to questions, please.
Operator: At this time, in order to ask an audio question, please press star one on your telephone keypad.  
  Your first question from the line of Ann Thompson with NBC News.
Ann Thompson: (Inaudible).  I actually have two questions.  What is the most challenging problem that you have going forward.  And earlier there were large reports of fish kills.  Have you been able to determine that was just the natural hypoxias that occurs in the area?  Or were those in any way related to the spill?  Thank you.
Paul Zukunft: Yes, thanks Ann.  Great to hear from you again.  The – some of those areas in Plackman’s Parish that you’re most familiar with, those continue to be our biggest challenges.  As I said earlier, I’ll be headed down to Bay Jimmy, been down there a number of times and it’s great each time I’m there I see a little bit more progress.
  But we’re really not at the point where a lot of that marsh grass comes into a new growth season.  So there’s still some unknowns but we’re still seeing heavy oil marsh grass in some of those wetlands in Barataria Bay and just the logistics of getting to those locations.  We’ve had 600 people working that site, but in order to get there, most of them end up going back to a floating barge, a floatel and operate out of there.  So it’s logistically and environmentally challenging and certainly we do not want to be overly aggressive in that clean up because if we do, we may actually cause further erosion.  And when you look at the loss of wetlands in Louisiana, clearly that’s the last thing we want to do.
  And then during the spill, as far as fish kills, we’ve had three hypoxia vents and we’ve worked very closely with Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries and also with Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to insure that each one of those were in fact attributed to a combination of low oxygen, high nutrient levels which would be consistent with some of the – I wouldn’t say unprecedented but we did have a lot of fresh water inundate some of these areas.  We had a diversion – fresh water diversions earlier so a lot of that is consistent with past hypoxia vents.  So again, none of those attributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Rob Wyman: Next question, please.
Operator: Once again, to ask an audio question, please press star one.
  Your next question is from the line of Andrew Gully with AFP.
Andrew Gully: Good morning, Admiral.  I was wondering what plan is in place should another Deepwater Horizon disaster happen tomorrow, given that the moratorium has been lifted.  What emergency planning have you put in place?
Paul Zukunft: Yes, there are a number of procedures in place now.  When this catastrophe occurred a lot of the equipment that were used, the top hat and the capping stack in particular, neither one of those devices existed prior to the spill.  They were absolutely critical in providing subsea containment of this oil spill.  Those now exist and I foresee that that will be a prerequisite, if you will, to have containment devices to be able to continue in deep water exploration.
  And then, clearly, a spill of this magnitude, being able to marshal the number of skimmers, the amount of boom that was necessary it exceeded what we had in inventory.  We now have that in a number of warehouses across the Gulf of Mexico.  So there’s critical resources are in a ready to deploy status that we’re able to build up throughout the last six months during the spill.  So that piece of preparedness is absolutely critical to going forward with the moratorium and we are in fact much better prepared than we were on April 20.
Rob Wyman: Next question, please.
Operator: Once again, to ask an audio question please press star one on your telephone keypad.
  You have a question from the line of Ann Thompson with NBC News.  Ann, your line is open.
Ann Thompson: I apologize.  While you were – while you have – you’re better prepared to actually contain a deep sea spill today.  isn’t it the case that quite frankly we’re not better prepared to clean up the oil once it gets on the ocean because we’re still dependent on booms and skimmers that really – once that oil gets up to the surface it can’t – we don’t have an effective way to clean it up fast before it gets to the marshlands.
Paul Zukunft: Yes, a critical piece to that is that subsea containment system and it took 87 days for that device to be delivered.  It took about four and a half weeks before the first oil came ashore.  Being able to deploy a capping stack to shut down the source of the leak within a matter of weeks, if not days, would be absolutely critical to that.  
  Another key shortfall we had were the offshore – the heavy duty ocean skimmers that can work far offshore, which would be a scenario in a deep water environment and we were able to retrofit offshore supply vessels and put heavy duty (transwreck) skimmers and then a skimming boom literally 1500 meters wide that could cut – take out huge swaths of oil and a lot of that was developed fairly late into this response, but the fact that we could retrofit existing oil and gas offshore supply vessels that are already here in the Gulf with these type of devices would make that skimming offshore much more efficient and as we saw, the most effective means of removing the oil was with our – on the surface was with our in situ burn vessels.
  The key – our biggest limiting factor with skimming and burning is in fact weather and so when we have weather conditions where seas exceed four feet, skimming and burning are not practical.  You can’t get a good enough concentration of oil for that to be efficient.  So weather always is – has the upper hand in these operational decisions and those were in fact some of the decisions that drove those tradeoffs of whether to use disbursements or not.  Especially when we had one period where we had 16 consecutive days of prohibitive weather where we could not burn and could not skim so having a dispersant plan front loaded, you know prior to a spill of this magnitude is a key tool to have in your tool kit as well.
Operator: Your next question is from the line of Eileen Fleming with National Public Radio.
Eileen Fleming: Yes, thank you.  I’m wondering, Admiral, if you have a plan or if you are concerned that many people are convinced that the oil is not gone and they’re skeptical of information saying that it is.  Do you have any plan to sort of convince folks that the water is indeed free of oil?  
Paul Zukunft: Yes, in fact I’ve signed out a subsea implementation strategy that has now brought a flotilla of research vessels that are doing water sampling, sediment sampling and also doing seafood sampling and testing as well.  Looking at all aspects of the you know is it safe for swim or safety, is the seafood safe to eat and then are there any concentrations of oil that would be recoverable under the clean water act.  And so what we’re seeing are in our water sampling of concentrations of oil that’s right now what we’re seeing at the higher end is about 0.5, one half part per billion hydrocarbon, which is again, it’s clearly not a recoverable amount of oil.  And even in the sediments, we’re seeing similar very low concentrations of oil as well.  And we’ve – this grid that we’ve done the sampling extends roughly 300 miles in radius around the well site itself.  So it covers a broad expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, including in some areas where there are natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, which there’s about 40 million gallons per year that naturally seep into the Gulf of Mexico.  So hydrocarbons in the Gulf is not limited to just the Deepwater Horizon.
  And then similarly with the seafood safety, with all the sampling that we’ve done and continue to do, you know we’re not seeing any concentrations of hydrocarbon in that fish tissue that’s being sample.  But again, am I concerned about the remaining oil?  Yes.  And the plan is to continue this very aggressive monitoring plan as we try to reconcile the remaining oil.
Operator: Your next question …
Rob Wyman: Next question, please.
Operator: Your next question is from the line of Debbie Elliott with NPR.
Debbie Elliott: Hello, Admiral, thank you for taking my question.  Can you characterize for us what – you know what the situation is today compared to what it was when this was at its peak of the crisis and how you envision what you have to see in order to declare that it’s over?
Paul Zukunft: Yes, sure Debbie.  I’ve been down here for nearly five months and I’ve certainly – offshore and in the air, literally probably well over 100 over flights you know when this was clearly at its worst.  When the president came down here and saw that we needed every available resources to respond to a spill of this magnitude and those resources were in fact brought to bear.  There was a lot of skepticism at that time, whether the Gulf of Mexico would ever rebound from a spill of this magnitude.

And then even as recently as late July, within two weeks after the well was closed, in Barataria Bay we were starting to see new growth in some of the wetlands that had been heavily oiled back in late May and early June and then about a week after that, roughly three weeks after that capping stack was applied and there was no further release of oil, we could not find any recoverable oil across the entire Gulf of Mexico, that could either be skimmed or burned. What oil remained was the oil that had already impacted the shoreline. And then what we expected to see was a significant amount of recurrence of tar balls coming ashore across the Gulf of Mexico and that’s been the biggest surprise, is even though we’re seeing episodic tar balls coming in in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, they’re not heavy tarring as we would have expected on a spill of this magnitude. And so that’s been a – I’m cautiously optimistic that the Gulf of Mexico is proving to be rather resilient after a spill of this magnitude and again, we’re seeing that just in the – in the aquatic life that‘s out there, we did not have significant fish kills. We did have you know certainly a loss of wildlife, but in comparison we had about 2300 dead oil birds and Exxon Valdez, that number was nearly 225,000. So again, the impact could have been much worse than what it was.


  And again, the other big bullet that we dodged throughout this was hurricane season.  Had this – at the peak of this spill, had we had a significant hurricane in a storm surge that could have brought all of this oil further inland that would have been absolutely devastating.  So in many respects Mother Nature was our benefactor during this spill.
Operator: Once again, to ask an audio question, please press star one.
  Your next question is from the line of Andrew Gully with AFP.
Andrew Gully: Admiral, thanks again for taking the question.  I was wondering what resources you’ve deployed in – for the PR campaign that will be necessary to convince tourists to come back to the beaches, and of course American consumers to eat the seafood once its judged to be safe?
Paul Zukunft: Yes, sure, Andrew, we’ve developed a couple of mechanical devices, one’s called a sand shark, it was actually you know reengineering asphalt equipment and this now can reach down up to a meter deep into a recreational beach and then it sifts out tar from the sand.  It leaves the sand in place but it removes that tar in the sand column.  So you know we’ve got four of those devices right now that are working – these recreational beaches and we’re working very closely with the mayor’s, particularly with – in Alabama Mayor Kennon in Orange Beach, Mayor Kraft and in Gulf Shores in working with the local stake holders is absolutely critical so they can monitor our progress to assure that its meeting their standards, recognizing tourism, you know it’s a billion dollar industry in Alabama alone.  
  And then, on the same side for seafood sampling, we’ve chartered a fleet of vessels, we’ve got a number of grids throughout the Gulf of Mexico where we’re looking at upwards of 50 to 60 different fish species within each grid and then each of those species, they’re brought to a lab – most of them right now are brought to a NOAA lab in Pascagoula.  I was there a week and a half ago and they go through two – a two phase analysis.  They first undergo sensory analysis and there are a number of trained specialists who have the ability to detect less than one half part per million oil, hydrocarbon in fish tissue.  So this is either filleted fish, it’s an oyster out of the shell, or it’s a shelled shrimp.

And then we periodically introduce traces of hydrocarbon just to test that there in fact had the capability to detect hydrocarbon. And that goes through actually there phases. First they’ll do a sensory analysis of the raw tissue, fish tissue and then its heated and it goes through a second phase and then a third phase they actually consume it. And then finally it goes through a chemical analysis and so a very rigorous procedure covering multiple species of fish in grid by grid across the Gulf of Mexico. So again, those resources have been brought to bear and will continue for some time here as we look at seafood safety not just for the response phase of this, but really for the long term restoration of the seafood in the Gulf of Mexico.


Rob Wyman: Operator, could you hold for one second before the next question?
Operator: No problem.
Rob Wyman: OK, sorry about that.  You can take the next question please.
Operator: Once again, to ask an audio question, please press star one.
  You have a follow up question from the line of Andrew Gully with AFP.
Andrew Gully: (Inaudible) for answering that.  I was really – as well as the results that you are using to determine the safety of the seafood and clean up the beaches, I was more wondering about a campaign – a PR campaign to convince the American public that the beaches are safe and that the seafood is safe.  Are you actively working on something like that or is this something that you would see further down the track?
Paul Zukunft: A lot of that will be in the long term restoration and certainly the seafood industry is a critical component of that.  We have worked with BP and there is a campaign plan that is in the works to address that very issue of seafood safety.  And another element of that is the seafood monitoring that goes with that.  The monitoring is what is the impact on the biomass.  You know was there a loss of a year group of fish at some point during this spill that we don’t see today, but may appear a year or two from now, and that would really be on the restoration aspect of this oil spill.  And there’s a clear distinction.  You know my role as the federal on scene coordinator is on the response and a lot of the restoration comes afterwards.  So I run the intensive care unit and then the restoration is more the rehabilitation, if you will, of the Gulf of Mexico and the wildlife and fish life as well.
Rob Wyman: Operator, we have time for one last question.
Operator: At this time you have no further questions.  I’ll turn the call over to Rear Admiral.
Paul Zukunft: OK.  Well, again thank you.  I just want to reiterate that we’re at a six month milestone with this spill and we’re still shouldering a significant load with over 13,000 people working the hot spots where we still have residual oiling in four states and so we’re clearly – we’ll be this until – at this until this job is complete and again, that will be situational based on each of those hot spots when we reach that end point.  But we’re still in it for the long haul.
Rob Wyman: Thank you for dialing in to today’s call.  Just as a reminder, information and updates about the ongoing operational response efforts are available on the Web site at  If you have any other follow up questions you can reach the unified area command’s joint information center at 713 323-1670.  This concludes today’s call.  Thank you for dialing in.