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Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft on Current Weather, its Effect on Oil Spill Response

NEW ORLEANS -- Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft briefed the media today on the current weather and its effect on the oil spill response.

A downloadable audio recording of the briefing is available here; a transcript follows.

Moderator: Jim McPherson
July 2, 2010
12:00 p.m. CT

Operator: Good afternoon.  My name is (Wendy), and I will be your conference operator today.  At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the update on weather effects and current response activities conference call. 

All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise.  After the speakers 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. Captain Jim McPherson, you may begin your conference.

Jim McPherson:  Good afternoon.  Im Captain Jim McPherson with the unified command.  In the interest of providing you the latest information on the oil spill assessment, were calling this is a spot report, and we have Admiral Zukunft here today from New Orleans.  The purpose is to give you an assessment of what we believe is going on with the trajectories, our current plans and our future plans.

Admiral Zukunft will be leaving in approximately 20 minutes for an oversight to verify the written reports that he has, so well do a – hell do a brief statement, then well do some Qs and As.  If you have any other questions after that, the JIC, 985-902-5231, wed like you to call on that if you have any others.

We have invited the governor, Governor Jindal, and his staff to join the admiral on a helicopter flight this afternoon, and were waiting back to hear on their availability.  He will be leaving on an overflight immediately after this.


Paul Zukunft: OK, good afternoon, everybody.  For those of you that have been following this for some time, youve probably also been following the weather.  And as Alex has now moved inland, were still seeing some of the residual effects of that tropical storm, which has prevented us for the past 48 hours from doing any skimming or in-situ burning both near shore and offshore due to weather conditions.

As a result of the waves that have washed ashore, it has displaced some of the boom, and weve also had weather conditions that have made it unsafe to fly.  In fact, over 50 percent of our overflights had to be canceled due to safety reasons.

And of note is weve had two lightning strikes, one that hit 10 people, another lightning strike that hit the rig, so we clearly take these weather threats to heart when we push the safety envelope in conducting operations.

Ive been watching the activity as this weather starts to subside.  And in the Gulf of Mexico, if youve seen the footprint of this oil sheen that runs as far east as Panama City and as far west as Fourchon, Louisiana.

The more concentrated oil is closer to the well site itself, but we now have a northeast wind direction, and its going to gradually shift to the east over the weekend.  And so that amoeba, if you will, that footprint is going to slowly march to the east – Im sorry, to the west.  And what that means is that some of that oil is going to wash along Mississippi Sound.  And where it first meets a permanent barrier, if you will, a wall, thats the delta, the Mississippi River Delta and then Chandeleur Sound.

Im concerned, because as I look at the environmental sensitive areas across the region, besides Barataria Bay, that Chandeleur Sound area is an equally sensitive one, as well, and there will be oil impacting that area, in the past probably 24 hours and perhaps in the next 24 hours to come.

So I have worked with our incident commander in Houma to make sure that we are launching every resource available, because this is going to be a very long and arduous clean-up operation in the days to come.

Im especially concerned with some of the wildlife habitats there, especially an island called Brush Island, which is a wild bird fowl rookery, and there could be oil impacting that area, as well.  So its going to be a long weekend from an oil spill response perspective.

And we expect that theres going to continue to be intermittent periods of rain and thunderstorms due to a trough system across the Gulf of Mexico, not related to Tropical Storm Alex, but, again, when Admiral Allen first – when we first started this, he quoted a phrase that Mother Nature has a vote in this, as well.  And, unfortunately, Mother Nature has voted against us as were staging up this response that has kept people in boats. 

And the people doing this work, these are the people that make their livelihoods in this area.  And, you know, were – our hearts are with them, as well, and trying to get everything possible to move on this effort.

I will say that offshore the seas are now down to seven feet, and thats out at the well site, so those heavy oil skimmers, they had to move off the site, as well.  Theyre moving out there as I speak today to resume the skimming operations out there.  And some of you may have followed the supertanker, the A Whale, and that will be moving out, and then it has to take on ballast, so that ship could sink to a point where those intake ports are at the same level of the water and oil.

And theyve been assigned a five-by-five-mile square area just to the north of the well site, and theyll be working that tomorrow.  We have Coast Guard research and development and strike team personnel on there to assess the effectiveness of the A Whale and the skimming, as well.

So were using every and all available assets, but just, you know, to clarify, the A Whale is right now an assessment that were doing, but certainly it brings a piece of technology that has never been used in U.S. oil spill response.

Ill leave that as a – you know, where we stand right now.  But, again, the reason I wanted to make this call is to see firsthand what the potential impacts are, especially to Lake Borgne.  And as some of you from the local area know, as you – as water enters Lake Borgne, it then goes through an estuary system, through the Rigolets, and then into Lake Pontchartrain.  And for me, that is where Im losing the most sleep right now, is if oil were to enter into that system and ultimately into Lake Pontchartrain.

Im not here to say that its there, but Im going to look, and if I see even sheen, Im going to push to make sure that were moving every and all available resources to respond to this particular area.

Now, as you know, weve got oil thats covering coastlines.  Weve got 450 miles of oil-impacted shoreline and ongoing activity in those locations, as well.  But doing this in triage fashion right now, this is my most critical patient right now, is the Chandeleur Sound area.

So Ive made the invite to the governor or his staff to join me on this flight so he can see firsthand and share with me what his concerns are, what our response strategy is, so we can clearly be united, and it must be a united response to handle whats going to be a very long-term response.

With that, Ill open it up to questions.

Operator: At this time, if you would like to ask a question, press star, one on your telephone keypad.  Your first question comes from the line of (Jessica Reznikalt).  (Jessica), your line is open.

Your next question comes from the line of (Allison Bennett).

(Allison Bennett):      Hi.  Thank you for taking my call.  What rig was hit by lightning?  And was any damaged caused?  And where was the one strike of lightning that hit 10 people?

Paul Zukunft: OK.  The Discoverer Enterprise – and thats the collection vessel that has the top hat – that was struck by lightning.  It did cause a small fire that was extinguished.  It did cause the operation to shut down for approximately 8 to 10 hours.  And they do have precautions in place, so any time they see thunderstorms within five miles of the rig, they do have to shut down that top hat collection, which means during those shutdown periods, you know, oil continues to release.

The other strike occurred down in Venice, and it was eight guardsmen that were struck my lightning.  This was over a month ago.  None of them were seriously injured, but, again, this time of year, with the convection currents – and thats what caused a lot of our aircraft to be grounded yesterday, as well, due to the activity out in the water.

(Allison Bennett): OK.  Thank you, guys.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Kate Spinner).

(Kate Spinner): Hi.  Thanks for taking my question.  Im curious about how much oil you were not able to collect because of the bad weather.  How much were you able to collect before the bad weather set in and – I dont know if Im asking the question right, but...

Paul Zukunft: No, no.  Thats a very good question.  And on – on most days, the seas have to be about three feet or less in order for us to be able to effectively skim.  And on an average day, were skimming about 12,000 barrels of oil per day.

And you need those same weather conditions to – to herd oil and then corral it, if you can imagine corralling oil, and then setting fire to it.  This is all done, you know, far offshore, and we have eight, and well soon have 12 operations configured to do whats called in-situ burning.  And weve had days where weve been able to remove another 8,000 barrels of oil through in-situ burns.

So the – the 12,000 or so barrels of oil that are – that are skimmed, thats oil and water, so its not pure oil thats being removed, whereas the oil thats burned, that is pure oil thats being removed.  So thats – that 20,000 roughly total is what were not being able to take out of the Gulf of Mexico due to the prevailing weather.

(Kate Spinner): Thanks.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Susan Dager).

(Susan Dager): Hi, Admiral, this is (Susan Dager).  I have three clarifications.  When you were talking about the Discoverer Enterprise being hit by lightning, was that a previous event or was that something that had just happened during Alex?

Paul Zukunft: No, (Susan), that happened probably about three weeks ago.

(Susan Dager): OK, I remember that.  OK, the other thing is, when youre seeing – talking about 20,000 barrels of oil not being skimmed or burned off, is that a day?

Paul Zukunft: That is a day.  And these are...

(Susan Dager): A day.  And so how many days would we be talking about?

Paul Zukunft: Oh, for the – for the last two days...

(Susan Dager): Last two days.

Paul Zukunft: And, actually, today were just starting to get those – you know, the seas are still at about seven feet, so were looking at, you know, between a 72- to 96-hour period where were not able to do skimming.

(Susan Dager): OK.

Paul Zukunft: And when you have sea states like that, as those waves come ashore, you know, that boom is anchored, but it does cause the boom to become displaced, as well.  So the weather hits us on several fronts, one, in our ability – inability to recover and, two, it does break down that boom and make it more permeable.

(Susan Dager): And then I guess the thing is, Im not from New Orleans, but I am familiar with Lake Pontchartrain. Why would it be so bad if oil reached Lake Pontchartrain?

Paul Zukunft: Well, thats just part of an inland ecosystem.

(Susan Dager): OK.

Paul Zukunft: And so were really trying to mitigate anything getting into these – you know, these ecosystems that have not experienced any – any oil impact, nor do we want them to.

(Susan Dager): And you think that the storm – theres a chance that the storm could have pushed it there, and youre going to go check on that right now to see if that happened?

Paul Zukunft: Well, well certainly check.  Right now, theres no indication.  And were – you know, we do have a lot of technology at our – at our disposal.  And even though we cant fly airplanes, we have rather sophisticated satellite technology, as well.

(Susan Dager): OK.

Paul Zukunft: But theres – you know, when you have really light sheen, the satellite cant get a – cant detect that.

(Susan Dager): OK.

Paul Zukunft:  And the only way to really ascertain whether theres oil or not is to fly over it.

Jim McPherson:  All right.  We have time for one last question, please.

Operator:  Your next question comes from the line of (Aaron Cooper).

(Aaron Cooper):  Hi, thank you for taking the call.  Theres been some reporting about FEMA trailers being used to house workers in certain areas about the trailers that had some toxic concerns in the past.  Can you tell me if you are aware of any trailers that have – were used in the Katrina response as FEMA trailers that are being used anywhere in this response for anything?  And if not, can you give me any kind of guidance on how you determine what is a safe trailer to use?

Paul Zukunft: I will say that there was no intentional – and we dont know of any FEMA trailers that have been hired by BP to shelter people.  And we were re-running those numbers to make absolutely certain.  But right now, theres no indication that what had been FEMA trailers that may have been purchased by an outside contractor were then inadvertently made available to house people. 

And we do know that, at this point, we dont have people residing in FEMA trailers, but certainly it was a concern, as that rumor surfaced, that we ran that to ground immediately.

(Aaron Cooper): Are the – you say theyre not being used to house people.  Are they being used for anything else?

Paul Zukunft: Right now, I dont know of any FEMA trailers that are being used for storage or anything else.  You know, thats not a resource, and its probably one that perhaps maybe FEMA can answer to that, as well.  But right now, no intentional effort to make those resources available.

(Aaron Cooper): Thank you.

Jim McPherson: OK.  Thank you for everyones questions.  I would just like to make a couple of comments here.  First of all, wed like to ask the public to report any oil sightings to the phone number 866-448-5816, and for questions from the media, to please call the Joint Information Center at 713-323-1670.

Male: Thats in New Orleans.

Jim McPherson: And thats in New Orleans.  Thank you very much for your time.

Operator: This concludes todays conference call.  You may now disconnect.