- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 15, 2010

KENNER, La. (AP) — The U.S. government’s point man on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill said Wednesday that BP’s blown-out well is expected to be sealed permanently and declared dead by Sunday, nearly five months after a rig explosion set off the disaster.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, told reporters gathered at a seafood distributor in Kenner that a relief well is expected to intersect the blown-out well within 24 hours. He said workers then will pump in mud and cement, which is expected to seal the well within four days.

“We are within a 96-hour window of killing the well,” Adm. Allen said.

The April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from the deepwater well.

No fresh oil has spewed into the Gulf since a temporary cap was successfully fitted to the top of the well in mid-July. Mud and cement later were pushed down through the top of the well, allowing the cap to be removed. The relief well is being drilled so the well that blew out also can be sealed from the bottom, ensuring that it never causes a problem again.

Appearing with Adm. Allen, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said that monitoring continues of oil that remains in the Gulf. Ms. Lubchenco stood by earlier government estimates that 50 percent of the oil that spilled is gone from the water system.

Scientists said earlier this week that they had found thick patches of oil coating the sea floor, raising questions about government conclusions that much of the oil from the spill was gone. Testing is under way this week for chemical fingerprints that would conclusively link that oil to the BP spill.

Still, Adm. Allen and Ms. Lubchenco sought to reassure hesitant diners from outside the region that Gulf seafood is safe to eat during their appearance outside the Louisiana Fish House. Adm. Allen noted that he has eaten Gulf seafood every day for the past several days.

“In short, folks want to know if it is safe to eat, swim and fish, and that is the kind of information we are committed to identifying answers to those questions,” Ms. Lubchenco said.

Gulf shrimpers currently are producing only 20 percent of their normal production for this time of year — because demand is down sharply and because supply is not where it should be in part because of the fact that some shrimpers are wary of taking on the expense of fishing if they can’t sell their catch, according to Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.

Adm. Allen also said he plans to step down as incident commander on Oct. 1 — the same day BP PLC installs American Bob Dudley as its new chief executive to replace Tony Hayward. Adm. Allen will be replaced by Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft. The move is not a surprise: Adm. Allen said previously that he would transition out of his current rule by late September or early October.

Adm. Allen said in an interview after the news conference that the timing of the transition is not connected to BP’s leadership change.

“I worked well with Tony Hayward, and I work well with Bob Dudley,” Adm. Allen said. “I like to think I work well with anybody.”

BP is the majority owner of the well that blew out, and it was leasing the rig that exploded from owner Transocean Ltd.