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Gulf oil disaster cleanup to take years, Allen says

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Obama wants to know 'whose ass to kick'
  • Restoring wetlands and wildlife habitats a long-term job, officials say
  • Spill won't be fully contained until relief well is completed in several months
  • Obama says meetings with experts help him learn "whose ass to kick"
  • Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida Panhandle seeing oil, tar balls

On "AC360" tonight, five survivors of the BP oil rig explosion tell Anderson Cooper how they got out alive. Watch "AC360" tonight, live from the Gulf at 10 ET.

(CNN) -- Workers scraped oil off beaches and skimmed it out of waterways from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle on Monday, but the impact of the Gulf oil disaster will be felt for years, authorities said.

"My concern is after everything is cleaned up, if they can clean it all up, and they leave, what is our business going to be like?" said Dudley Gaspard, owner of the Sand Dollar Marina and Hotel on hard-hit Grand Isle, Louisiana. "Oil's coming in pretty heavy, into the marsh area now, and we're not sure -- we're kind of in the dark."

Restoring wetlands and wildlife habitats along the Gulf Coast will take far beyond the time needed to cap the ruptured undersea well at the heart of the disaster, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the head of the federal government's response effort, told reporters at the White House.

"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months. After that it'll be taken care of," Allen said. "Long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years."

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Workers involved in the cleanup face possible long-term health hazards without proper protective gear, and the region's environment may retain hazardous chemicals left behind by the spill, witnesses told members of Congress during a hearing in Louisiana.

On Day 49 of the spill, heavy oil was spotted off Louisiana's Barataria Bay, near the mouth of Wilkinson Bay and in nearby Four Bayou Pass, the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness reported. Mississippi state agencies reported tar balls hitting the Mississippi coast at several points, while more tar balls ranging in size from less than an inch to about four inches across hit the Florida Panhandle, the Escambia County Commission said.

Dead wildlife has now been reported in the region, and Allen said Monday that patches of shoreline totaling roughly 120 miles long have been affected by the spill. The spill has broken up into a series of pools, ranging from 20 to 100 yards to several miles long.

Oil company BP has managed to place a loose-fitting cap over the ruptured well, 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf and about 40 miles off Louisiana. The amount of crude collected Sunday through that cap increased to roughly 466,000 gallons (11,100 barrels), according to estimates from BP and Allen.

The gusher won't be completely stopped until BP completes drilling a relief well, a process that is expected to last at least until August.

Under federal law, BP -- which owns the damaged well at the heart of the catastrophe -- is responsible for paying for the cleanup. President Obama warned the company against "nickel-and-diming" communities affected by the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Obama has endorsed lifting the $75 million cap on damages for oil spills resulting from offshore drilling, a White House spokesman said Monday.

Obama also delivered a blunt defense of his administration's response to the spill, telling NBC's "Today" show that he has held meetings with experts to learn "whose ass to kick."

Full coverage of oil spill

"I don't sit around talking to experts because this is a college seminar," the president said in an interview scheduled to air Tuesday. "We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

But with losses mounting among hoteliers, fishermen and others whose livelihoods have been curtailed by the spill, frustration is "rapidly escalating" along the Gulf Coast, said Kelby Linn, a real estate agent and Chamber of Commerce official on Alabama's Dauphin Island.

Linn told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Monday that the amount of money BP has paid local residents for their losses has typically been about $5,000, a sum he dismissed as "a marketing ploy." Businesses like his vacation rental company are borrowing money to pay their overhead costs, which he called "the only way we're going to keep our business alive."

"We do not feel that BP is going to be stepping up to the plate," he said.

The investigative subcommittee met Monday in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette, Louisiana, where local experts painted a stark picture of what lay ahead for the region. Moby Solangi, executive director of the Mississippi-based Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, said the oil and the chemical dispersants used to break it up could have devastating long-term effects on fish and wildlife.

"There are serious consequences from the area, especially the wetlands and the bays and the bayous that are the area [of] critical habitat for young fish and shrimp and others to develop," Solangi said. He said the chemicals and dispersants are likely to be consumed up the food chain into larger and larger fish and mammals such as dolphins, thousands of which live in the affected area.

"Eventually, the dolphins become the the canary in the mine," he said. "And by monitoring them, we can monitor the environment. What ultimately happens to the dolphins will happen to us."

BP needs to do more to make sure that workers assisting in the cleanup have proper respirators to protect them from the fumes given off by the crude, said Wilma Subra, a chemist who advises several environmental groups in Louisiana. Several people taking part in the response have already reported falling ill, and Subra said BP has told workers not to wear respirators because they might increase their risk of heatstroke.

"Shrimpers that have been employed to do the booms were actually pulling in the booms with the oil on it from their shrimp boats with bare hands and no protective gear," she said.

Clarence Duplessis, an oysterman in Plaquemines Parish, said he believed BP didn't want respirators worn as "a public relations thing."

iReport: Track the oil disaster

"If the cameras see these people with respirators, they're going to say, 'Hey, this is dangerous.' even though they know it's dangerous," he said. Plus, he said, "the good respirators are expensive."

In addition to fishing and tourism, the region's oil industry is now hurting as well -- and some members of Congress are blaming the White House for contributing to the economic woes by ordering a six-month halt to deepwater drilling while it investigates the disaster.

Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday reiterating his belief that the administration's decision to impose a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling is "a major mistake ... [that] will cost us more jobs and economic devastation than the oil spill itself." Vitter asked for an accelerated timetable for the release of new drilling safety recommendations with the goal of lifting the moratorium more quickly.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a letter to Obama last week that prohibiting deepwater drilling could cost his state up to 6,000 jobs this month, and 10,000 jobs over the next few months. If the ban continues for an "extended period," Jindal said, Louisiana could lose up to 20,000 existing and new jobs by next year.

The moratorium was extended recently from 30 days to six months pending the outcome of an investigation into what caused the blast that sank the Deepwater Horizon. Deepwater drilling accounts for the vast majority of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and the oil industry has invested billions of dollars to ramp up development of deepwater sources.

The widows of two of the 11 men killed aboard the offshore drill rig that sank in April, ripping open the undersea gusher, told members of Congress that more needs to be done to keep oil companies from putting profits ahead of safety.

"Let's not place the importance of oil over the importance of a life," said Natalie Roshto, whose husband, Shane, was aboard the rig. But both she and Courtney Kemp, whose husband also died aboard the Deepwater Horizon, said they still supported offshore drilling in the Gulf.

A BP spokesman told CNN, "BP's priority is always safety."

CNN's Ben Rooney and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

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