WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government vowed on Sunday that operations to completely clean up BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill and compensate those affected would not slacken off despite the success in halting the leak.
Some Gulf Coast beaches and fisheries were reopening after the world's worst offshore oil accident, as optimism grew for a final kill of the blown-out BP well this month, the top U.S. spill response official said on Sunday news shows.
But in comments aimed at reassuring anxious Gulf Coast residents worried about their future livelihoods, response chief retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, and White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner, acknowledged that much still remained to be done to restore the oil-hit coastal region.
"We see this as a phase and not the end by any means," Browner told NBC's "Meet the Press."
"This has been the largest environmental response in the history of this nation and it will continue until it's done," Allen told CBS' "Face the Nation."
Confirming recent advances in the efforts to definitively shut down the Macondo deepwater well, which was provisionally capped on July 15, BP said a relief well to permanently plug the shaft from the bottom "continues to progress."
Allen said the "bottom kill" process should start "later on this week."
A cement seal completed on the wellhead on Thursday was holding, BP said. "The pressure testing following the cementing operations indicates we have an effective cement plug in the casing," the company said in a statement on its website.
Gulf Coast residents and business owners from Louisiana to Florida have reacted with alarm to a report by government scientists asserting that around 75 percent of the spilled oil had either evaporated, dispersed or otherwise been contained.
They say they fear government and media attention will fade and they will be abandoned as they struggle to cope with incomes and livelihoods devastated by the pollution disaster.
'LARGE FINANCIAL PENALTY'
Allen sought to allay these fears. "There's a lot of oil that's still out there, there's a lot of shoreline that needs to be cleaned," he told CNN's "State of the Union."
"If you're sitting in Barataria Bay, it's still an environmental disaster, and if the folks haven't come back to the Panhandle of Florida, it's still a disaster," Allen said, referring to the impact of the spill on Louisiana marshes and fishing grounds and on visitors to Florida beaches.
But he added: "Some beaches are reopening, fisheries are reopening."
Browner, President Barack Obama's Assistant for Energy and Climate Change, said BP would face a "large financial penalty" and the administration wanted Congress to ensure as much as 80 percent of funds raised by fines was sent to Gulf states.
"We are going to have to work with them (Congress) to make sure that the Gulf Coast communities see the benefits of this money," she added.
BP, whose image and shares have taken a beating from the spill disaster, has already agreed to a $20 billion escrow fund to guarantee coverage of economic damage claims.
It has also said it would sell about $30 billion in assets to address costs related to the spill.
The Sunday Times in London reported, citing an internal BP audit, that the drilling rig at the center of the Gulf spill had a history of overdue maintenance tasks and a poor safety culture.
BP has lost over a third of its market value since the April 20 blast that killed 11 workers, sank the Deepwater Horizon rig and triggered the spill. But its shares have been recovering in recent weeks.
Allen said that while he would give "fairly good marks" to BP for its technological response in finally capping the blown-out well in challenging deep water conditions, he faulted their ability to respond to the individual needs and grievances of affected Gulf Coast residents.
"That's the lens by which the American people view them and that's where they need to improve the most," he said.
The so-called "bottom kill" of the Macondo well, expected after August 14-15 when the relief well is scheduled to intersect the well shaft, will complement last week's "static kill" operation on the wellhead a mile below the surface.
Browner said the definitive shutdown using the relief well "was probably another 10-14 days away".
The relief well is regarded as the final solution to plug the reservoir 13,000 feet beneath the seabed.
In town hall meetings on Saturday in Mississippi, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus assured Gulf Coast residents the administration saw the restoration of the Gulf Coast after the oil spill as a national priority.
(Additional reporting by Tom Bergin in London, Paul Eckert in Washington, Maria Aspan in New York, Pascal Fletcher in Miami and Leigh Coleman in Mississippi; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Sandra Maler)