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TRANSCRIPT: Operational Update with FOSC Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft

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Operator:   Good morning.  My name is (Cathy) and I will be your conference operator today.  At this time I would like to welcome everyone to the Deepwater Horizon Operational Update.  All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise.


      After the speaker's remarks there will be a question and answer session.  If you would like to ask a question during this time, simply press star then the number one on your telephone keypad.  If you would like to withdraw your question press the pound key.


      Thank you.  I will now turn the call over to Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft.  You may begin.


Paul Zukunft:     Well good morning.  This is just a follow up.  Last week we were at month six so one more week into this spill of national significance.  For today's update we have out in the area of responsibility in the (throughout) across the Gulf of Mexico we've got approximately 11,200 people continuing to do response activity.


      Still down significantly when at a peak we were at roughly 48,000 people.  But even today the level of response still exceeds the peak activity during the Exxon Valdez (oil spill).


      The type of work those individuals are doing, we have shoreline treatment recommendations for the 577 miles of oiled shoreline.  And some of that is – very little of it is actually heavy oil, about 30 miles.  Most of this is moderate to very light oiling.


      But starting in Florida that's doing deep beach cleaning in areas like Pensacola and then in Alabama, Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and actually that work – our target is to have those beaches clean by the 31st of December.


      And we're bringing in additional mechanical devices to facilitate that cleanup effort out there.  Across Mississippi we have roughly 1,800 people working the Barrier Islands and that becomes very weather dependent since those folks have to go out by boat during the day and return in the evening.


      And then we still have oiling in the Louisiana marshlands and also on some of the Barrier Islands and then over in Grand Isle, Emerald Island and over in Port Fourchon as well.  Offshore we've had another re-opening of federal waters.


      Approximately 7,000 miles of – square miles of federal waters were re-opened to fishing.  At its peak we had 88,000 square miles closed.  To date there is 9,000 square miles that remain to be opened. 


      And within – among those 9,000 miles there is actually three grids.  Two of those three grids we've already done the preliminary sampling to – that will then make a determination to re-open those areas.  The one final area that would be re-opened among those three grids we still have 12 vessels from the initial response and these are heavy rigs. 


      The DD2, the DD3, Discovery Enterprise are still out there going through – still doing additional work but mostly going through decontamination so we want to make sure that they're cleared with that process before we continue with our sampling efforts offshore.


      And then finally we continue with our sub-sea sampling, that's in the water columns and the sediments and then near shore were we have over 420 sentinel snares looking for oil in that inner tidal area.


      The last hit that we've had of any oil near shore was on the 20th of September and really have not seen much activity there.  The fleet of vessels that we had doing the offshore work, the water column sampling and the sediment sampling have by and large completed the initial data gathering but all of that data still needs to go into a lab for final analytics and then you know ultimately to report out on those particular findings.


      But of note is that you know the data is being gathered by a number of members of academia, national science foundations and we've been able to broker a number of those to participate in this very aggressive monitoring plan. 


      But that said, there is still independent reports that go out and there was one that was released over the weekend from the University of Southern Mississippi.  And we are working with that scientist who will have further discussions tomorrow to look at their coordinates to look at ours and compare findings but again, that was preliminary data. 


      And then lastly, we did have an algae bloom over the weekend down in West Bay, which is off the Mississippi River Delta again, an area that is very nutrient rich and is prone to algae bloom.  But as expected you know with a spill of this size any time there’s an anomaly detected we fully expect that it will default to relate to the Deepwater Horizon but this was a historical algae bloom in very nutrient rich waters.


      We did send teams out there, a number of over flights and we’ve gathered sampling data from that as well.  The samples are still in the lab we don’t have results that there’s actually any oil in that algae.  But again, we have a very large response organization and we were able to respond immediately to that initial report.


      But was believed to be oil but at least on initial findings appeared to be algae.  That’s the update from my position as the Federal on scene coordinator but I’d like to turn it over to my scientific support coordinator with NOAA, Charlie Henry.


Charlie Henry:    Thank you Admiral good morning.  I’ll just comment – make a few additional comments you know what the Admiral already outlined.  And it is that we do continue to assess the distribution and degradation of any of the residual oil in the environment.  This includes in the deep water, the offshore environment, the near shore environment, and the shorelines.


      And through that process, we have collected a very large amount of information.  And I like to think of that information as lots of individual pieces like small pieces of glass that are forming this very comprehensive mosaic as we put all the pieces together.


      And that’s taking time because we’re in addition to just the qualitative observations that have been seen and a lot of this documented, we’re really relying a lot on the detailed analytical documentation that we have and the validation of that data to paint this picture so that we have a very comprehensive understanding of the environment.


      I will say that, to this point though, to put the data we’ve looked at both, you know, from the observations and the analytical data have not shown any real surprises, you know.  We’ve seen no observations that have resulted in any change in our current response actions. 


      So, you know I wanted to kind of maybe (end) it there and we can have you know you follow-up on questions and although I think the key point is that we have a lot of people working these issues.  We’re continually assessing in an adaptive fashion all of the information that comes from this field, not just from our operations and activities, but from any other activities and observations from other groups, other scientists that we interact with.


      And we take all those seriously and respond to those to ensure that we have not missed anything that would result in us changing our current response posture and leave it there.


Paul Zukunft:     OK, so if there are any questions we’ll be happy to entertain those.


Operator:   And at this time if you would like to ask a question please press star one on your telephone keypad.  Once again, if you would like to ask a question please press star one.  OK your first question comes from (Nancy McKenzie) with NOLAEmergency Response.  OK that question has been redrawn.  Again, if you would like to ask a question please press star one.  Again, you have a question from (Nancy McKenzie) with NOLA Response.


(Nancy McKenzie): Is this plug and abandonment.  Hello.


Paul Zukunft:     Hi, could you ask your question again please.


(Nancy McKenzie): Oh, yes, I was wondering – you mentioned that there’s additional work going on out at the well site.  I’m wondering what that additional work might be if it’s plugged and abandoned, then what the time schedule is for that?


Paul Zukunft:     Yes, it is plug and abandonment.  The rough time schedule right now is through the end of November.  But that is the activity out there so again, that’s the DD2 is a vessel doing that plug and abandonment work out there.  And then as there are other support vessels out there during the spill we had significant amount of that was on the sea floor and so a lot of that equipment is being retrieved as well.


(Nancy McKenzie): OK thank and just one last question because the joint information center wasn’t able to answer this.  What is the purpose of the two anti-pollution boats that have been out there?


Paul Zukunft:     Those are there just to support the decontamination of the Discovery Enterprise.  As you know that was in very heavily contaminated water as they were flaring gas, recovering oil right at the well site.  So the hull of the vessel is being cleaned, but it’s actually, as it’s being cleaned we boom it off to make sure that we’re skimming any oil that comes off the hull to mitigate any environmental impact.


(Nancy McKenzie): OK and that’s why the other development drillers up there as well.


Paul Zukunft:     They’re out there as well for to do that decontamination offshore but again, we’re doing that with response vessels on scene so we’re doing it in a very environmentally friendly manner.


(Nancy McKenzie): OK thank you I appreciate your time.


Paul Zukunft:     OK thank you.


Operator:   And your next question comes from the line of Debbie Elliott with NPR.


Debbie Elliott:   Hi, there Admiral, thank you for taking my questions.  I actually have two; the first is you talked about when there were reports of oil in the Gulf late last week or over the weekend and it turned out to be an algae bloom you responded immediately.  Can you describe for me how you respond, what does that mean, what do you send out skimmers?  I mean if oil were to surface again, on the Gulf what do you do what is the procedure.


Paul Zukunft:     Since it was yes, it was slightly offshore we immediately launched aircraft to survey the area.  We also launched a number of response vessels and once the determination was made that it was algae and not oil and again, there was no sheening observed, but it is very common when you have a red algae bloom it looks very similar to that orange emulsified oil we had at the peak of the spill. 


      And then went out and took samples; had that been oil, we would have then deployed skimmers if it was in fact recoverable oil to respond to that.  But again, since it was an algae bloom there was no recovery operations required.


Debbie Elliott:   What do you have in terms of recovery vessels you know ready and at the standby, you know how many skimmers?  I mean what is the situation at this point as far as being able to respond.


Paul Zukunft:     Yes, we have – at its peak, we had about 835 skimmers, but we still have on immediate standby a number of those vessels are ready to respond and in fact our posture going through the winter months throughout this spill is we will continue to maintain that rapid response capability. 


      And even though in a number of areas we're not seeing any oil, we have a long term monitoring plan that is still response oriented.  And this will mostly be in the form of over flights to surveil the area on a regular basis and if there's any residual, new or residual oiling detected, to deploy rapid response teams to do that recovery.


      What we typically see, and we did see just recently here along the Alabama coastline and Orange Beach Gulf shores, strong south winds and a heavier surf as it did break up some tar mats that were in that inner tidal area. 


      And so we had, you know, dime and maybe quarter size tar balls.  Not a significant number but it did come ashore.  And again, we have clean up teams out there so they were able to immediately recover that oil. 


      And that's probably indicative of the level of activity as we see going forward into the winter months where there may be tar balls coming ashore, but we'll have that rapid response capability to immediately recover it. 


Debbie Elliott:   And if I may ask Mr. Henry a question?  I was actually out on Orange Beach this morning and there are pretty large tar balls, bigger than quarter size, and the surf is a bit churned up. 


      I'm just wondering if there's a sense of how long people along the coast can expect that type of oil to keep washing in whether it be tar balls over in Florida or in Alabama or whether it be the heavier oil that's coming in over in Louisiana?


      Is there a sense of how long that will continue to happen? 


Charlie Henry:    Well let me try to address that in a couple of ways.  One is its very difficult to put a real time line on how long that will happen.  We've a very good understanding of where the oil is in those shore lines, the oil that is actually buried because of being deposited on the beach and then sand being deposited on top. 


      It's a normal process on those beaches where they erode back often during you know, storm type events and then rebuilt.  And that process can be very dramatic and happen quickly.  In a storm you can pull several feet of sand off of the beach very quickly and actually be deposited back, you know, as much as six inches or more in a day or through a normal tide cycle. 


      And that's what created some of those oiled lenses, so.  And some of that oil when it gets eroded off, it gets in that area that we call the zone of transition, but it's right there at the margin to the beach and it comes back ashore. 


      And that's what you see being remobilized in some of those tar balls that come back to shore.  And it's really localized to that area.  In some ways that erosion of the beach is actually a good thing because it's very difficult. 


      You can see a lot to the heavy equipment that's being used on those beaches to try to excavate down or to access those lenses of oil to remove it.  So this natural process you know in some ways where it can look you know ugly because there's new oil that's now on top of the beach actually puts it in a form that we can much easier recover more effectively. 


      So it's kind of a working with nature a little bit of a trade off.  But that process is going to continue as there's oil in that beach.  And so there'll be a diminished return.  There's no, there's not an infinite amount of oil. 


      There's so much oil that's there and until all that oil's removed that type of process will occur.  And the goal is to continue to work it hard through the winter months taking advantage of when these storm events happen and do cause erosion to quickly remove that oil and be very diligent in trying to you know be actively picking up that oil as fast as possible so then it doesn't get reincorporated into that beach.


      But we've been working those beaches hard.  We'll continue to work it.  I think the Admiral outlined that the goal is to reach our treatment goals before, you know, some of them is the end of November, some of them into December as far as some of the timelines that we have. 


      And we're aggressively working it.  If you look over in Louisiana, a lot of the areas in Louisiana are actually very different and I would take exception to say that this new oil coming in, we really don't see any new oil coming in.


      On some of the beaches we have the same phenomena, the same interaction, that we see like Orange Beach and Mississippi and Alabama and the Florida Pan Handle, but we're dealing more so with oil that’s stranded into marshes and accessing that oil and working very gingerly in those marshes.


      And a lot of that oil is not mobile at all anymore.  But I don't think it's the re-oiling type of the same type of re-oiling situation. 


      I think it much as anything sometimes we just find that when we have lower tide situations especially with northern winds that you can see oil that may not have been visible before and people may think that's new oil but it's really been documented and we've been aggressively working those issues also. 


Debbie Elliott:   OK, I'm so sorry to ask one follow up.  I'm a little confused because the Admiral just talked about the mats being broken up out in that inner tidal area. 


Charlie Henry:    Right.


Debbie Elliott:   And that new coming into the beach.  And you're saying what they're cleaning up on the beach is the stuff that has already been on the beach. 


Charlie Henry:    No, we were actually all saying the same thing.  There is – and when we're talking about the beach and the oil that's in the beach when that oil gets eroded off that's where it forms those mats that are in that margin right in the lower part of the inner tidal zone of the beach and that what we call the near shore shoals or the bar that's there, it's the same oil.


      I just talked more about the – emphasized more the part of the oil that's inside the beach being reworked because the Admiral had already touched on where that oil gets migrated off when it comes back to shore. 


      So I apologize for trying to confuse you.  When I was talking about oil that's already there you had made the comment that new oil coming ashore in Louisiana and one of the observations that one of the field teams had made the other day, I thought that was in reference to that.


      They had seen some oil in an area and it was because the tide was really low but it was oil that we already knew about.  It wasn't new oil.  So, that's the additional, you know, clarity on that. 


Debbie Elliott:   Thank you very much. 


Operator:   Once again if you would like to ask a question, please press star one.  And at this time there are no questions. 


Paul Zukunft:     Barring any questions then we'll conclude today's update.  And we'll have transcripts posted on or .gov as soon as possible.  Thank you everyone for their participation today. 


Operator:   This concludes today's conference call today.  You may now disconnect.