A mud-and-cement plug cured Friday in a blown-out oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, a key effort in snuffing the massive leak for good, while a BP personnel shuffle indicated shifting priorities as the petroleum giant gains the upper hand.
Engineers this week had poured in cement to complete a plug at the top of the wellbore as part of a process dubbed a "static kill," but they needed to wait at least a day for it to harden. Once it does, crews can finish the last stretch of a relief well and inject more mud and cement into the bottom of well from deep underground to form a final plug.
The static kill started Tuesday with engineers pumping enough mud down the top of the well to push the crude back to its underground source for the first time since an oil rig exploded off Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the massive spill.
A federal report this week indicated that only about a quarter of the spilled crude remains in the Gulf and is degrading quickly, but some scientists disputed its veracity, and much of the remaining crude has permeated deep into marshes and wetlands, complicating cleanup.
Some residents worry that now that the blown well has apparently flatlined, the nation's attention will shift from the coast.
"I'm losing trust in the whole system," said Willie Davis, a 41-year-old harbormaster in Pass Christian, Miss. "If they don't get up off their behinds and do something now, it's gonna be years before we're back whole again."
BP announced Friday that the high-level executive who has spent more than three months managing its oil spill response, Doug Suttles, was returning immediately to Houston and his old job as chief operating officer.
He's being replaced by Mike Utsler, who has been running BP's command post in Houma, La., since April. Utsler has been a vice president at BP and been with the oil giant for 33 years.
After the cement in the oil well hardens, the last step in the plugging effort begins: Finishing the drilling of the last 100 feet of the relief well, which government officials said will be used to seal the underground reservoir from the bottom with mud and cement.
"This is not the end, but it will virtually assure us that there will be no chance of oil leaking into the environment," retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who oversees the spill response for the government, said Thursday in Washington.
Allen has insisted that crews will shove mud and cement through the 18,000-foot relief well, which should be completed within weeks.
Crews can't be sure the area between the inner piping and outer casing has been plugged until the relief well is complete, he said.
But for reasons unclear, BP officials have recently refused to commit to pumping cement down the relief well, saying only that it will be used in some fashion.
The vast oil reservoir beneath the well could still be worth billions of dollars, but BP isn't saying whether it plans to cash in on this potential windfall.
BP officials did insist Thursday they had no plans to use the blown well, the relief well or backup relief well to produce oil.
But the company won't comment on the possibility of drilling in the same area someday or selling rights to another oil company.
In Pass-A-Loutre, La., where oil still clings stubbornly to marsh cane, each day's high tide picks up the goo and leaks it back into the ocean. But Jeremy Ingram, the Coast Guard official who oversees cleanup crews here, said it's cleaner than it was when he arrived 60 days ago. Back then, he said, he couldn't even see water through the thick ooze.
"I'd say it's a lot less than what was here, but if you see on the canes it's still heavily saturated with oil. So the job's not done yet, there's still a lot more work to get done," he said. "As the tide comes up and washes oil off that cane, somebody and some thing has to be here to catch it."
The sometimes frustrating search for oil underscores the difficulties facing the small army of federal officials and cleanup crews tasked with purging what remains. Rear Adm.
Paul Zukunft, the government's on-scene coordinator, said he's had to spend a growing amount of his time taking flights over the Gulf to search for the remaining crude.
"There is very little observable oil out there," he said, saying that Coast Guard responders are not seeing much on the surface. But he added: "We can't turn a blind eye... If we don't see oil, I'm not assuming it doesn't exist."